Little Gem Canyon-Middle Fork

Little Gem Canyon-Middle Fork


Little Gem Canyon is located is the San Rafael Swell in east central Utah. This page describes the Middle Fork. Click HERE to view the page on the West Fork. Each fork in this complex is highly worthy of a trip. These canyons are in the least touched and most isolated part of the San Rafael and is in one of the least explored regions of the United States. It is certainly the essence of the wild and unexplored. The first recorded descent of this canyon did not occur until March 2004. Only a handful of people have seen this spectacular and magnificent canyon. Just to demonstrate how rugged this country is consider that the car shuttle between 63 miles consisting of mostly rough 4wd roads. When looking at the map, notice that the straight line distance between the two trailheads was only two miles! It will take at least ten hours of hiking and four hours of driving to cover those two straight-line miles!

This is an incredibly rugged technical adventure. The trip is not for beginners. Just finding the trailhead is a serious test of navigation. Climbers and canyoneers should go well prepared before considering this trip.

Steve Allen (author) coined the name "Little Gem Canyon" for this drainage because the canyon is a nice little hike of twenty minutes up from Muddy Creek, but there is much to be seen above the fartherest point that you can hike up from the bottom. The canyon is huge above the drop and is laced with huge falls and geologic features, thus the name "Little" could be dropped. The canyon is un-named on all the topo maps.

The Getting There and Route Description sections are meant to be brief as everyone heading out into this wild area must be self-sufficient.

Erosional features and...Erosional features and streaked walls in Middle Fork Gem Canyon.

Getting There

There are several possibilities for starting the trip. For simplicity, I will use the same description as the one for the West Fork of Gem Canyon. I must admit that last time I was there we missed the junction with the hill and cairn mentioned below and we were lost for a little while. A GPS is highly recommended if not absolutely necessary. The maps do not show the roads, but at least you will know where you are!

A journey to out in the middle of no-where............

Upper Trailhead

As mentioned, just finding the trailhead is a navigational challenge. You must do the vehicle shuttle the day before the trip as it will be a long day just getting through the canyon. You absolutely must have the 7.5 minute quads (maps) Big Bend Draw and Ireland Mesa for the drive to the trailhead. Even then, the maps are inaccurate especially near the trailhead. A 4wd is also required. The 63 mile shuttle took us 3.5 hours, but we already knew how to get there, having been to the head of the canyon before. Expect to take longer.

To get to the trailhead at the head of the canyon, drive west from Green River, or east of the Emery area along I-70 to exit 108. You must carefully follow the topo maps for the remainder of the drive. Take the southbound gravel road and veer right after a short distance. Stay on the main road until you reach Kimball Draw at an intersection with a sign. This is at about co-ordinates N38*47'16.47" W111*5'52.69". Turn left onto the dirt road signposted for Copper Globe. After following the bottom of the wash for a while, you will reach an intersection (no sign and it can be hard to spot) at about co-ordinates N38*47'4.42" W111*4'34.19". Turn right onto a seldom used track. Follow the track in and out of several drainages until you reach an intersection at a top of a hill at about co-ordinates N38*46'24.02" W111*3'57.04". Turn right here.

The road weaves in and out of drainages and scenic and colorful badlands and is one of the most interesting pieces of road construction I've ever seen. There are some sections of the road that pass through sparkling gypsum beds. Not too far after the road climbs out of Dizzy Trail Canyon (see the topo map), you will reach a junction next to a small hill with a cairn (pile of rocks) on top. From here on, the topo map is inaccurate as far as showing the many tracks go, so pay attention closely to the topographic features on the map. There are many routes to the trailhead, but here's the route we took. Turn right at the junction with the hill and cairn. You will cross a few very rough spots in the road while crossing two washes. After the second wash, make a very sharp left turn onto a track that heads east [update: this track was just about invisible when we were here in 2007, so see the alternate route below]. The trailhead and where you're aiming for is very near the 6350 elevation marked on the Ireland Mesa quad NW of the word "DIKE" on the map. Park here.

Note #1: In 2004, I found an alternate route to the trailhead. The road is not as rough from this alternate route, but the trailhead can be harder to recognize from this direction, as this route has no landmarks near the trailhead. At the hill with the cairn, continue straight instead of right. Look for a faint track to the right not far beyond the hill with the cairn. This road leads to the trailhead, but it’s hard to recognize. Hopefully the cairn I left will still be there!

Note #2: The main track that continues left/straight from the junction mentioned in the paragraph above dead ends at Horizon Arch. This is a scenic place and if you hike over the hill and slickrock, you will have an incredible view of the San Rafael Swell.

The trailhead is very hard to...The trailhead is very hard to find. If the scene looks like this, you're close!

Exit Trailhead

Unless looping out via Dizzy Trail Canyon or Poncho Wash, you must also leave a vehicle at the exit trailhead. You must also have a map to drive to this trailhead. Perhaps the best map is the Trails Illustrated-National Geographic Map San Rafael Swell. Another good map is the one in DeLormes Utah Atlas. Briefly put, you will exit I-70 at exit 131 and head south on gravel roads while following signs to Tomsich Butte and Muddy Creek. Most intersections are marked with signs.

From exit 131 on I-70, follow the southbound gravel road. The road first heads west and then south. Stay on the main road at all junctions for the first 9.9 miles. At 9.9 miles turn right on the road marked Reds Canyon. Continue on the most used track to another junction at mile 13.5. This is a loop road and either fork will get you to the trailhead and both forks are about the same distance. Follow the road and map to Tomsich Butte. On the north side of Tomsich Butte, you will notice a faint track heading west. This is the best route to the trailhead. The track is a very rough 4wd track and you may prefer to walk. Follow the track west to its end. There is an old mining cabin near the end of the track. Park here. Notice your surroundings so you will recognize the place when you reach it on foot at the end of your trip. Hint: Notice the "layer cake rocks".

Make sure to leave Green River or Castle Dale with a full tank of gas! This area certainly is out in the middle of no-where!

Another nameless tower in the...Nameless tower near the lower trailhead.

Routes Overview

This is meant to be an overview only. For more details, and important co-ordinates and map references, see the ROUTE PAGE.

From near pt. 6350, there is no one route, nor an easy way to describe a route. Prepare to get lost, at least for part of the time! There are several routes and you must follow the map carefully through the maze of drainages. Notice the small drainage just northeast of point 6675. This is your route to the bench below. After reaching the bench, contour around the cliffs until you can follow the bench west and slightly north for over a mile to two little buttes which you will pass just north of at N38*43’7.005” W111*1’30.130”. After passing to the north of the buttes, contour south along a precarious route until you can descend into the canyon bottom. We found a place with only a 30’ rappel. Continue down canyon. The slot has several 5th class drops, but we managed to down-climb all but the final 30 foot overhanging drop. After a fairly easy and pleasant section, you will find yourself at the big drop of the canyon. The drop to the first drop of the two-tiered Bighorn Falls is 50m(165'), mostly overhanging and followed by an overhanging 9m (30') drop. After bighorn Falls are a few short falls that can be bypassed, and then hiking the canyon is fairly easy until the confluence with the West Fork. The next section of the canyon is also spectacular and contains a nice surprise. The final obstacle is a 15 foot rappel over a flowing waterfall (which may dry up at times). Follow Gem Canyon down to Muddy Creek. There are fantastic erosional features. When you reach Muddy Creek, head down stream. It is then a pretty easy walk down along Muddy Creek down to Tomsich Butte. See the route page for a lot more detail.

After completing the canyon there are four options.

Option #1

The easiest option is to hike down Muddy Creek to Tomsich Butte, but as mentioned this requires a very long car shuttle.

There are two alternatives for those who don't want to do the long car shuttle, but it will take much planning and has special considerations.

Option #2

See this route page for details. You could do the canyon as an over-night trip and hike up Muddy Creek and exit via Dizzy Trail Canyon and then hike back to the vehicle. See the route description posted for this alternate route. This will take two long days minimum (3 days may be better if you can pack very light). The problem with doing an overnight trip is that the slot section of the canyon is so narrow that it will be very difficult to take an overnight pack through. If you did attempt it, take as small as pack as possible (leave a tent and stove behind!) and expect some possible pack damage. The only water available for camping is in Gem Canyon near Muddy Creek and possibly the grungy pool near Scorpion Falls. Muddy Creek doesn't taste good, but could be used if you ran out of water (but treat the water!).

Option #3:

You could also do the canyon and hike up Muddy Creek to Poncho Wash and exit via a steep exit chute. This is the quickest way to do any of the entire Gem Canyon Forks without doing the very long car shuttle.

Doing the entire Gem Canyon and looping via this exit route is a very long and tiring day. It took us over 12 hours, but we were really moving with few breaks. See the Route Page. The round trip distance is 17 miles and with the technical difficulties this makes for a very long day.

Option #4:

A final option is to backpack down Gem Canyon, hike up Muddy Creek to Lone Tree Crossing and exit. Such a trip will take a minium of three days, but the car shuttle is much shorter than the one used by going down Muddy Creek to Tomsich Butte.

Down-climbing a short 5th...Down-climbing a short 5th class pitch in the slot section.

Clean Canyoneering Ethics

The canyons in this area are very pristine. Bolts are not needed to descend this canyon, and would detract from the incredibly pristine setting of this wild canyon. We saw no signs of previous descent in March of this year. There are plenty of chockstones to wrap slings around for anchors. Try to leave as little behind as possible. This trip is certainly not for beginners; canyoneering techniques must be practiced before going on this trip.

Setting up a natural anchor...Setting up a natural anchor around a boulder. By using such natural anchors, you can avoid bolting the route. Natural anchors are plentiful in the canyon.

Equipment Required

Several slings (bring 60 feet minimum), 8-10 rapid links or rappel rings, two 60 meter (200 feet) ropes (warning, standard 50 meter ropes will be two short!!!), a 30m meter (100 foot) rope, and a climbing harness. A GPS is also required.

Last rap in Gem Canyon.Last rap in Gem Canyon.

Skills Required

The following skills are recommended for those planning a descent of the canyon. All members of the group should be proficient in navigation and map reading. All members should be able to up or down climb short pitches of 5.6 with little protection. All members should know how to ascend a rope and know how to rappel. The most important skill is the knowledge of natural anchoring. Make sure to learn all these skills before attempting a descent of the canyon!

Canyon wallsCanyon walls and huge Ponderosa Pines in Gem Canyon.

Red Tape

No permits are required.

The final rap.No red tape here. No private land either. Just good times.

When To Climb

The trailhead is not accessible between early December through late February in most years. Summer is extremely hot with temperatures exceeding 100F degrees (38C). Winter temperatures drop well below 0F (-18C). The best times of the year for this adventure are mid-March through May and then again in mid-September through mid-November. Muddy Creek can be very cold before April. There is some flash flood potential in the narrow sections, so have a good weather forecast before heading down the canyon.

This is a land of weather extremes. Temperatures in the nearest towns have ranged from -42F (-41C) to 112F (44.5C) at Green River and -35F( -37C) to 114F (46C) at Hanksville. On the day we went through the morning low was 29F (-2C) and the afternoon high was 86F (30C) in the shade. Sunny weather predominates and it only rains a few times a year, but when it does rain, it can really pour! Don't underestimate flash flood danger.

Climbing the Swiss Cheese...Swiss cheese type rock in Gem Canyon.


There are good campsites near both trailheads as well as many scattered throughout this region. the nearest official campground is many, many miles from this canyon.

Camping in the canyon requires special preparation. See the route description.

Rock texture in Middle Fork...Much of the canyon doesn't have campsites.

Mountain Conditions

This is the first time this canyon has never been published on a website or guidebook, so there are no links available. Even the topo maps are inaccurate in several sections of this canyon, so you must be self-sufficient.

In addition, you may email me with the address in my profile if you wish for more information or help with more details about the trip.


Weather and climate data for the Hanksville is below. *National Weather Service Data 1912-2004.




Children refers to the set of objects that logically fall under a given object. For example, the Aconcagua mountain page is a child of the 'Aconcagua Group' and the 'Seven Summits.' The Aconcagua mountain itself has many routes, photos, and trip reports as children.