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The Lost World of Range Creek

A Utah rancher reveals the remnants of an ancient village he kept secret for 50 years
By Peter Potterfield - July 16th, 2004

BLM archeologist Shelley Smith cranks hard on the steering wheel as she guides the loaded Suburban up and over the 8,400-foot pass in a red-rock ridge and down the switchbacks into the Range Creek drainage. Her carefulness is well advised, as just 12 hours ago the track was a downpour-slickened suicide run with thousand-foot drop-offs on either side. But today the thunderstorms remain at bay, so Smith and other federal and Utah officials have arranged to show a group of journalists the rarest of sights: a remote and beautiful valley that a thousand years ago held a dense cluster of ancient villages and, incredibly, has remained mostly unseen and largely unchanged until this very day.

Hidden in the wild Book Cliffs of eastern Utah between the Tavaputs Plateau and the Green River's Desolation Canyon, Range Creek valley had no road access at all as late as the mid 20th century. A primitive road was built in 1947 to open up the canyon to cattle grazing. A few years later, a ranching family named Wilcox, long time residents of a nearby ranch, bought the valley to expand their cattle operation. It didn't take long for the new owners to notice the remote valley held an incredible concentration of ruins, artifacts, intact structures and other evidence that an ancient culture had long called the place home.

"There was Indian stuff just everywhere," said Waldo Wilcox, the 74 year old rancher and former owner who spent nearly six decades exploring Range Creek. "To be honest, it didn't mean much to me at the time, but I knew this was a special place and I needed to protect it. I wanted to make sure my kids and grand kids could see what I had seen."

So Wilcox gated the road in 1951 and let it be known that visitors were not welcome at the ranch. He spent the next fifty years roaming the 4,000 acre spread, finding everything from mysterious rock art to the ruins of dwellings to food-storage structures so well preserved they still contained corn. He told me last week that a decade ago, while "chasing a lion" that was predating on his stock into an obscure part of the ranch, he stumbled onto a cluster of more than a dozen dwellings surrounded by arrowheads, pottery, beads and other artifacts. Wilcox knows more about this valley than anyone, the result of years working from one end of the valley to the other.

Today, more than a half century after Wilcox instituted his simple but effective brand of land conservation, dropping into Range Creek in Smith's BLM vehicle is like descending into a lost world. The valley is surprisingly lush and green, the creek gurgling down the middle of it. Every where you look are remnants of what archeologists call the Fremont Culture, which flourished from 400 AD to about 1300 AD. Granaries cling to ledges on steep cliffs. On the benches above the year-round creek lie a half dozen separate "villages" of what archeologists call "pit houses." These simple dwellings, dug three or four feet into the ground and then finished with low rock walls and a roof, provided the Fremont people a snug abode, one that remained cool in summer and warm in winter. Artifact "scatters" are virtually everywhere: just looking at the ground as you walk around reveals pieces of pottery (archeologists call them potsherds), projectile points (arrowheads and dart points) and other remnants of an ancient way of living.

"The real importance of Range Creek," said BLM archeologist Smith, "is that here we have an entire system virtually untouched since the departure of its early residents. This place is so remote, and Waldo protected it so well, there is none of the usual looting and vandalism we often see in more accessible sites. Such a concentrated network of sites and artifacts over a 12-mile length of canyon can tell us so much more about how the Fremont people lived than any single site ever could. We will learn much about this culture from Range Creek."

The ruins and other remains of these ancient people in Range Creek are not spectacular. There are no grand cliff dwellings such as Colorado's Mesa Verde or Arizona's Canyon de Chelly here. The Fremont people were not cliff dwellers, as were the Anasazi, a different but contemporary desert culture that thrived farther south. But what you see here is impressive nonetheless, especially the intact granaries, or food storage structures, with roofs still in place, so stout and weatherproof still that actual corncobs remain inside. State and federal archeologists say these are a thousand years old, perhaps older. Elaborate rock art can be seen high on the cliff walls, but they require binoculars to see from the valley floor. Ornately decorated pieces of pottery and arrowheads lie on the ground. The low walls of abandoned dwellings cluster near the creek, while other, solitary structures are found high on the ridges and mesa tops. The allure here is not visual as much as it is scientific.

"This place reflects an extraordinary state of preservation," said Utah state archeologist Kevin Jones, "largely because nobody has been allowed in here. So far, we've identified more than 250 sites in Range Creek, everything from pictographs to dwellings to artifact scatters. But in this long canyon, and its many side canyons, I do believe we will find thousands more. Thousands. A site this pristine is very rare. And we haven't even begun to dig yet. We're still trying to inventory what's lying around in plain sight. To find something of this scale, this well preserved, in this century, is almost unbelievable."

"The beautiful thing," said Jones, "is that the artifacts in Range Creek are undisturbed. Lots of good stuff has been found over the past 150 years, then carted off to museums or private collections. These artifacts remain where they were found, and that's crucial. We can learn a lot more by taking a careful look a what's here, and it's relationship to everything else that's here, than we can by looking at an artifact that's been removed."

The Fremont people and the better known Anasazi thrived in the Southwest between 400 and 1300 AD. Sometime between 1250 and 1300, both of these desert dwelling cultures suddenly deserted their homes. "The reason for their departure remains a mystery," said Jones. "I'm hopeful that this trove of artifacts might give us some clues as to what happened around 700 years ago to bring an end to this culture."

Already, dozens of archeologists and students are at work in Range Creek, exploring the canyon for new sites, and carefully documenting the ones they already have found. The day I visited, three graduate students scrutinized the area around a cluster of pit houses, showing me bits of pottery and arrowheads just lying on the ground, marked by colored flags.

"Every time these crews go out," said Duncan Metcalfe, a Utah Museum of Natural History archeologist, "they find new sites. We're going to be busy here for a long time."

The archeology field workers have converted the former ranch house into a dormitory and laboratory for their work. From that base camp, they fan into the valley in search of artifacts, wandering through a virtual western paradise. Big cottonwoods and stands of Doug fir rise from the grassy river bottom, in sharp contrast to the surrounding escarpments of red rock. The enclosed valley is habitat for elk, deer, rare spotted owls, eagles, and one of the largest bear populations in Utah. Archeologist Duncan Metcalfe said he saw two buffalo wandering in the valley last week. Much more verdant than the arid valleys of southern Utah, Range Creek remains a beautiful place despite generations of cattle grazing. It's easy to see why the Ancient Ones chose this place to live.

But its future is now in doubt. The fact that Range Creek escaped the looting and vandalism of other nearby Fremont habitats, such as Nine Mile Canyon, owes to the independent thinking of Waldo Wilcox. As soon as Wilcox saw that his valley contained the remains of a large Fremont settlement, he took the decision to keep everyone out, "especially the media." So committed was he to protecting Range Creek, even archeologists, who suspected the valley held important artifacts, could not persuade Wilcox to allow them entry.

"I just wanted to keep it safe," said Wilcox. "and that meant I had to keep everybody out. So I kept the gate locked and my mouth shut. And it worked."

But as Wilcox grew older, the rancher realized he wasn't going to be around to protect Range Creek forever. So he approached the state to invite some experts to take a look. What they saw amazed them, and in a complicated transaction, San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands purchased the hidden valley from Wilcox for $2.5 million, and turned the property over to the BLM. The BLM in turn gave primary responsibility for managing the place to Utah's Department of Natural Resources, and its Division of Wildlife Resources.

Now, these state and federal agencies are faced with a daunting task: how best to protect the priceless "cultural resources" of what is now called the Range Creek Wildlife Management Area while allowing the public to visit.

There are precedents. The BLM limits access into Grand Gulch, another location rich in remains of ancient cultures, by requiring permits and placing strict limits on how many are handed out. Other ideas under consideration for Range Creek are allowing access only in the company of a knowledgeable guide. A comprehensive management plan is scheduled to be announced by 2006.

Until then, hikers and devotees of the Southwest's ancient peoples should put preservation ahead of more personal motives, and refrain from trying to enter the area until a coherent management plan is in place.

"I hope all those agencies can come up with something good," said Waldo Wilcox, a worried look on his weathered face as he gazes out over a gaggle of excited journalists, eager to spill the wonderful secret he kept so well for so long.

"If they can't figure out a way to protect this place, then fifty years of my effort will all be for nothing."


Wilcox made a mistake

The first thing state workers did was collect everything they could find on the surface and stash it away in boxes, never to be seen again, except in their private collections. Shame on them! Wilcox forked his entire life to preserve something that they destroyed in a couple seasons.

Posted on March 28, 2011 - 7:30am
by Gomer

Visiting Range Creek

Range Creek is now managed by the University of Utah, Utah Museum of Natural History and walk in permits are only $1.00. There are a few commercial tour companies that are allowed to drive in. Canyonlands Field Institute is one of these companies that do commercial tours in Range Creek. It is an overnight camping trip with 2 days spent in the canyon viewing the sites. I went last October and it was very beautiful.

Posted on July 13, 2010 - 1:56pm
by Amanda Wilson

Visit to Range Creek Area

My wife and I will be in the Range Creek Area the first of May. We traveled through Nine Mile Canyon last year. Would it be possible with a permit to walk through the Range Creek area. We will be camping in Wllington, Utah.

Posted on April 14, 2010 - 3:34pm
by Terry Ryan

The kind of Americans that make me proud.

So many people today seem almost to want to convince themselves that one person can’t make a difference. I don’t believe that.

Wilcox is proof that one person, be it in a moment or through their steadfast dedication over decades, can make a great impact on history.

I'm proud when I hear of the actions of an American like Mr. Wilcox. He proves my point that we all do not act out of a desire for profit or fame but out of a reflex to do the right thing.

Posted on March 21, 2010 - 3:15pm
by Madeline Gutierrez

Range Creek Ranch

Absolutely wonderful preservation of man made and natural wonders. Hope the time comes soon for an opportunity to visit,
take some pictures, leave a few footprints and learn a great deal about the souls who lived here in recent times and in the distant past. Please let the word out if visits will be made possible. Much appreciation.
"Center for Western History Studies"
a private family institution of western studies.

Posted on June 3, 2009 - 6:51pm
by Fred E. Beck bbamba

Waldo Wilcox

What a special individual it takes to care enough to keep this cultural treasure safe for over 50 years. It's amazing that people like him still exist.

Tremendous thanks to Mr.Wilcox. He is a national treasure!He needs to get some sort of award for what he's done.

I'm a Canadian that has had the good fortune to see some of the commonly visited Ancestral Puebloan sites. Seeing Range Creek thru documentaries/websites will be enough for me despite a natural curiosity.

I hope everyone will value what's there from a distance.

The story of Range Creek is beyond belief. Waldo Wilcox and Range Creek will keep my imagination in overdrive for some time to come.

Posted on September 23, 2008 - 6:31am
by Tony

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