by Tom Garrison
My wife Deb and I love “out in the middle of nowhere” hikes. These are true adventures, where, if something goes wrong, you must rely on your preparedness and wits. Our kind of adventure. Kirk’s Grotto hike in the Gold Butte National Monument fits the bill. This trail is isolated and features a slot canyon, petroglyphs, strange sandstone formations, and amazing views.
(Don’t’ ask about the “Kirk” of Kirk’s Grotto. I did, and along with Internet research found no one or source who knew the origination of the name.)
The Gold Butte National Monument comprises nearly 300,000 mostly wilderness acres administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Some is designated an Area of Critical Environmental Concern for its tortoise habitat; cultural and historical resources; and natural, scenic, and botanical qualities. It is located west of the Arizona border, south and east of the Virgin River, and north of the Colorado River. It is here the Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, and the Colorado Plateau meet, each contributing a colorful piece to the region. The terrain is rugged and high clearance vehicles (and sometimes four-wheel drive) are required for many of the back roads, including this one.
No water is available in the Gold Butte region, although the Whitney Pocket locale has primitive camping areas with pit toilets.
Deb and I left St. George about 9:00 am on a sunny, but cool, mid-March morning. From St. George the first leg of the journey is simple—go south on Interstate 15 and drive approximately nine miles past Mesquite to Exit 112 (Riverside/Bunkerville exit). Take the exit and continue about three miles south crossing the Virgin River. Once across, the first intersection is Gold Butte Road. Turn right (west) at the intersection and set your trip odometer to 0. Gold Butte Road is paved, although not well maintained. The first five miles roughly parallel the Virgin River. Later you’ll see an oasis and at about 14 miles in catch a glimpse of Lake Mead to the west. At approximately 21 miles, and at the end of the paved road, the road forks. Proceed straight ahead, south, on the unpaved Gold Butte Road for approximately 3.8 miles and turn right (west) onto North Mud Wash Road. (There are interesting petroglyphs 3.9 miles along Mud Wash Road. They are about 15 feet high up on red sandstone cliffs on the right, north, side of the road.)
After about 4.3 miles in Mud Wash a trail heads up the south (left) bank. Head up the incline, around a couple of switchbacks, and to the top of the mesa overlooking Mud Wash. Stay on this dirt road for 2 miles to the intersection with Backcountry Byway (aka Gold Butte Wash Road and Red Bluff Spring Road). Just 50 yards or so before the intersection, go left (south) (not on Backcountry Byway) on the dirt trail for 1.1 miles to a post and cable parking area—the trailhead for Kirk’s Grotto.
We parked and admired the view. Due to heavier than normal rainfall the past couple of months, the desert was accented with blooming Joshua Trees and green everywhere under a cloudless deep blue sky. The temperature was in the mid-60s as we headed south on a well-defined user trail toward two large red sandstone outcroppings complete with cliffs. The first 100 yards or so of the trail is steep and rocky. This is the only strenuous part of the hike.
The trail stays closer to the cliffs on the right. Almost .4 mile along the trail, we found the entrance to Kirk’s Grotto. It is on the right (west) and mostly hidden by a large Mesquite tree. We carefully made our way around the tree (watch out for thorns) and entered the first section of the slot—an unusual circular room. About 15 yards into the slot is a keyhole shaped entrance to a more open area. Beyond this, the canyon narrows and the cliffs steepen.
Like most enclosed slot canyons, this one was about 10 degrees cooler than the outside. On a hot day, it would be refreshing. For us, just a bit chilly.
Look around and you will find several well-defined petroglyph panels etched in the desert varnish on the cliff walls. There are some animals, human forms, and abstract designs. Remember, petroglyphs (rock art) are historical treasurers and protected by federal law. Do not touch them and certainly not deface them in any way. The rock art has existed for hundreds of years, be respectful and let future generations also enjoy them.
The canyon forks at the end. Both forks end with massive rock slides. With some effort, we could have scrambled up the rubble, but there did not seem to be a good reason to do so. The main fork, straight ahead, contained some nice petroglyphs on the left.
We investigated the canyon for a bit, then made our way back to the entrance. Directly opposite (east) the Kirk’s Grotto entrance, and a couple of hundred yards across the open space between the two sandstone outcroppings, is a large desert varnish covered rock near a cliff face with more petroglyphs.
We spent some time exploring the area around Kirk’s Grotto. Some of the narrow canyons/fissures in the sandstone formations contain other rock art and interesting formations. Then it was back to the trailhead.
This adventure, combining natural beauty with solitude, was a little more than two miles round trip and took about 1 ½ hours at a leisurely pace. We did not see another person once we left the trailhead. After exploring the wilderness, we stopped in Mesquite for an early dinner. This is a great day trip for desert explorers.
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An avid hiker for more than 25 years, Tom’s latest book, Hiking Southern Nevada, was awarded 2nd place in the non-fiction category of the League of Utah Writers Published Book Contest in 2018. The book is available at Amazon.com. https://www.amazon.com/Hiking-Southern-Nevada-One-Garrisno/dp/1986572153/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8
Tom can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org