Clear Creek Canyon, Utah

The Fremont Culture - Stories in Stone

Text and Photos by Damian Fagan

Clear Creek Canyon in western Utah tells many tales to those who stop and listen. Along its walls ancient myths and legends are carved in stone or painted upon the rock. Sometimes the wind seems to carry the voices of villagers, long since departed, as they tell tales around a winter's fire. One can feel the despair of the people as a late summer frost destroys their unripened corn once again. But there is also a happy story, a story of treasures found and saved, and of people bonding together. This is the story of how an ancient culture was brought to life at Fremont Indian State Park in central Utah.

In the 1980s the Utah Department of Transportation decided to continue Interstate 70 west from near Sevier, Utah, to the north-south Interstate 15. This new section of road would cut through Clear Creek Canyon, cross the Tushar Mountains and Pavant Range, and join I-15 east of the Mineral Mountains. Before construction began, however, an archaeological clearance team found one major site, Icicle Bench, at the east end of the canyon.

During excavation, conducted by Brigham Young University's Office of Public Archaeology, school students made field trips to the site. One local student told archaeologists that his father knew about a site nearby. The next day the boy's father took the archaeologists to the top of a 160-foot knoll located farther west, up Clear Creek Canyon. Atop this hill, later named Five Fingers Ridge, lay the site of an ancient village of the Fremont. The hill was scheduled to be removed for highway fill.

Construction of Interstate 70 temporarily halted while archaeologists from Brigham Young University rapidly excavated and recorded this important site. The salvage excavation uncovered over 100 dwellings and granaries, the greatest known concentration of Fremont dwellings in the world. Local tribal personnel and citizens began a grassroots effort to retain the artifacts in the area. Their efforts resulted in the creation of Fremont Indian State park. In 1987 the visitor center and museum, which houses artifacts found during excavation, opened to the public.

Clear Creek Canyon - Migration Panel

There is an older story, the story of the Fremont themselves. These semi-nomadic people were contemporaries of the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans as they are now called, who inhabited the Four Corners Region and built elaborate cliff and mesa-top dwellings. The Fremont, named after the Fremont River in central Utah where some of their sites were first located, inhabited lands to the north and west of the Ancestral Puebloans. Some lived as nomads; others built villages and lived as farmers. The people harvested the natural bounty of wild plants and farmed the fertile benches along the creek bottoms. They grew beans, corn and squash, and stored these crops in granaries -- ancient pantries -- to help sustain them through the winter.

Game animals such as mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep provided the Fremont, not only with meat, but also with hides for clothing and bones for tools. Their sandals were created from the hide of a single deer leg, not woven from yucca fibers like the Ancestral Puebloan's sandals. Smaller game, fish from Clear Creek and ducks from the valley marshes rounded out their diet. However, despite seemingly plentiful game and fertile soil, these people walked away from their homes, their hunting grounds and their ancestors, leaving behind possessions that would be discovered over 700 years later.

Clear Creek Canyon Pictographs

They also left stories carved or painted on the canyon walls -- tales of the hunt, shaman's visions and initiation rites. These petroglyphs and pictographs represent written language, and they still speak eloquently.

In March I visited the park with my wife and two-year-old daughter. We arrived late in the afternoon and took advantage of the warm winter light to photograph some of the panels. After a short stop at the visitor center, where we obtained a park map and trail handouts, we set out for the Arch of Art trail and its panels.

We could not find all 61 panels along the cliff, but the ones we did locate were stunning. They included hunting scenes, clan symbols, wildlife images, geometric designs and indecipherable figures. Though the handouts provided an interpretation of the panels by modern-day tribal members, their actual meanings are only known by the ancient artists and the Fremont people.

Mixed in with the petroglyphs are painted figures or pictographs. One panel high on the canyon wall depicts people holding round objects and clubs or sticks. Are these shields and weapons, or drums and mallets? Several "blanket designs," reminiscent of multi-colored Navajo blankets, are also painted on the cliff. Since no blankets or pottery with these designs have been found in association with the Fremont, archaeologists wonder about the source of the patterns.

Clear Creek Canyon Blanket Designs

After a short rest at the picnic area, we stopped at the Columnar Jointing area. About 16 million years ago a volcano in the Tushar Mountains, now called Mount Belknap, erupted Clear Creek Canyon Columnar Jointing Areaand spread molten dust across a 23-square-mile area. The cooled dust fused to form tuft, and in some places hardened into columnar pillars. The Joe Lott Tuft, which varies in texture and hardness, forms the lower canyon walls.

We drove to Richfield for lodging after our visit because the temperature that night was forecast to plunge into the single digits, a bit cold for camping at the nearby Forest Service Castle Rock Campground on Joe Lott Creek. Administered by the Fremont Indian State Park, the campground offers bathrooms and water, but no heaters. On our drive out of the park, we encountered about 60 mule deer and one great horned owl. Although the main theme of the park is the Fremont culture, visitors enjoy plenty of wildlife viewing along the cottonwood-lined creek and in the higher pinyon-juniper forests.

The next day we returned to the park to hike some of the other trails and visit the museum and visitor center. Here, a 15-minute introductory film orients visitors to the construction of I-70, the discovery of the Five Fingers Ridge and the Fremont culture. Museum displays depicting Fremont culture include a semi-subterranean pithouse, unfired clay figurines, gray pottery, obsidian points, bone tools, deerhide moccasins and other artifacts. There is even a life-sized reconstruction of a Fremont woman. With a push of a button, Chi'kee (Navajo for "young woman") talks about herself and her life in Clear Creek Canyon.

Today, Interstate 70 follows the route used by the Fremonts and other prehistoric peoples from the Sevier Valley to the obsidian fields in the Mineral Mountains. Sheep Shelter, excavated in 1983, contains fire pits that date as far back as 5200 BC. For over 7,000 years, travelers have followed Clear Creek canyon from the Richfield Valley to the obsidian-rich Mineral Mountains to the west. Travelers still follow these ancient paths, and enrich their journeys with a stop in the Canyon of Stories- Fremont Indian State Park.

Getting There

To reach Fremont Indian State Park, take Interstate 70 and Exit 17 (from the west) or the exit for Utah 89 (from the east) and follow signs to the park. The park is about 20 miles southwest of Richfield, Utah. The visitor center and museum are open daily, currently from 9 am until 6 pm. There is an entrance fee.

Lodging

There are both public and private campgrounds in the area. Castle Rock Campground is located 1/2 mile from the park's visitor center. Primitive sites are first-come, first-served or call 801-322-3770 (toll free 800-322-3770) for reservations. There is a KOA in Richfield, 435-896-6674, and the Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah, also has a campground, 435-527-3286. Call in advance. Richfield and Salina have plenty of motels.

Other Area Attractions

Fish Lake offers trophy-sized mackinaw and other fishing, campgrounds, resorts, boat rentals and other conveniences. Phone 435-638-1000 for resort accommodations. Mystic Hot Springs in Monroe, Utah has natural geothermal waters. Call 435-527-3286 for scheduled times and rates. Cove Fort along I-70 was built in 1867 for protection during the Blackhawk War in Sevier County. The day-use park is open daily from 8 am to sunset.

For More Information Contact Fremont Indian State Park
11550 West Clear Creek Canyon Road
Sevier, UT 84766-9999, 435-527-4631;
or the Sevier County Travel Council,
220 North 600 West, Richfield,
UT 84701
800-662-8898.

Related Pages
Fremont Indian State Park

 

 

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