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Utah's 600-year mystery.

Utah's 600-year mystery

About the time the Black Death was sweeping through Europe, a severe drought gripped what is now Utah, ending the crop-dependent culture of the Fremont Indians. Although evidence suggests they had inhabited the region for at least 800 years, what became of these ancient people after the 14th century is still a matter of conjecture.

It wasn't until 1931 that archeologist Noel Morss identified the Fremont as a people distinct from the Anasazi or other early Native Americans. Then, in late 1983, archeologists exploring sites along the planned route of Interstate 70 in southwestern Utah's Clear Creek Canyon were guided by a local resident to Five Finger Ridge. There they unearthed an extensive village of 110 pit houses and other structures, the largest Fremont settlement discovered to date.

Most of the ridge was subsequently leveled to provide roadbed fill for a new segment of the freeway, but not before 7 tons of material was removed for study. Artifacts discovered on the ridge and at other sites in Clear Creek Canyon are now on display at the new Fremont Indian State Park, just across the freeway from what's left of Five Finger Ridge.

Convenient to major highways, Fremont Indian State Park is a worthwhile detour for travelers taking advantage of the smaller crowds and comfortable fall weather at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.

Interactive exhibits, self-guiding tours

A circular brick visitor center, tucked into a rocky arroyo, features exhibits and artifacts that shed light on the Fremont way of life--without glossing over questions that remain unanswered. The center is open from 9 to 5 daily. Cliff faces in the surrounding stretch of the canyon resemble an outdoor gallery, bearing one of the densest concentrations of Fremont rock art known anywhere in the West.

Begin your visit by viewing a 15-minute video describing the digs that spurred the park's development. A huge time line on a glass screen fronting the exhibit hall puts the Fremont's tenure in Utah in perspective with other Native American cultures and world events.

Another video projected on a large horizontal screen surveys the entire scope of Fremont life, from the interior of a pit house on Five Finger Ridge to the extent of Fremont habitation throughout Utah. Nearby, a scale model of the ridge village identifies pit houses, granaries, and other structures.

Artifacts on view in the visitor center include well-preserved examples of the Fremont's distinctive gray pottery. A deer's dewclaw affixed to a worn moccasin marks it as footwear unique to these people. Probably the most intriguing display is a collection of clay figurines; some experts speculate that these served a ceremonial function.

Outside, a paved path leads from the visitor center on a short loop walk past rock walls inscribed with ancient Fremont graffiti. A brochure helps you spot petroglyphs of animals, god-like figures, and abstract designs, and suggests possible interpretations. Another brochure describing natural features of the high-desert landscape leads you deeper into the narrow canyon.

If you'd like to venture farther afield, an auto-tour guide will steer you to pictographs and petroglyphs in other parts of Clear Creek Canyon. Also, ask at the visitor center about ranger-led tours to some of the outlying rock art sites.

A Fremont pit house will soon be recreated outside the visitor center, and visitors will be invited to help excavate actual pit houses still buried around the park. During the summer, a horseback riding concession will offer rides through the park and the surrounding national forest.

Getting to the park, and a detour for fall color and gold mines

You can approach the park from either Interstate 15 at the west end of Clear Creek Canyon, or from U.S. Highway 89 at the east end. From I-15, 76 miles north of Cedar City, exit onto I-70 heading east. The freeway ends after 15 miles (it should be completed by next year), putting you on a temporary highway for about a mile. Look for the park's sign to the left. From U.S. 89, turn west on temporary I-70 just south of Sevier. The visitor center is 4 miles up the canyon.

To experience the region's fall foliage, adventurous back-roads enthusiasts might take an 8-mile drive on an unpaved road from the canyon up to the site of Old Kimberly, a turn-of-the-century gold-mining camp in the Tushar Mountains.

As you climb to nearly 10,000 feet, keep an eye out for abandoned log cabins hiding in the shimmering yellow aspen groves that line the narrow and often precipitous road. From a memorial plaque near the summit, you'll have a dizzying view of the canyon below. You can either turn around here or continue 13 miles to Marysvale on U.S. 89.

To get to the road from the park, head west on I-70; take the first exit. At the T-junction, turn left onto the dirt road.

Photo: Brick visitor center fits into sagebrush landscape; path leads to petroglyph-covered cliffs

Photo: Inside the center, intriguing displays include this one-eyed figurine

Photo: Park archeologist Ken Kohler points out scorpion and sheep carvings over entrance to cave, used as shelter since 5200 B.C.
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Clear Creek Canyon
Date:Oct 1, 1987
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