Canyonlands National Park
Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails
by David Day
Favorite Jeep Roads and Hiking Trails
Distance: 2.8 miles (round trip)
Walking time: 2 hours
Elevations: 1,260 ft. loss/gain
Spanish Bottom Trailhead (start): 5,100 ft.
Colorado River: 3,840 ft.
Trail: Steep and rocky, but well marked and easy to follow
Vicinity: Near Dollhouse Rock
USGS Maps: Spanish Bottom
Links to other sites:
Do you have any recent information to add about this road?
Ordering books & Maps
Free sample copies of Outdoor Magazines
Comments about this site or our book:
Cataract Canyon has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most imposing canyons on the Colorado River. The walls of the canyon rise steeply from the water’s edge to a height of 1200 feet, and the whitewater rapids in the narrow channel below are often formidable. Yet, oddly, in the midst of this rugged canyon there is an unusually flat swath of river bottomland where the shore widens into a broad sandy plain that extends west from the water’s edge to the base of the canyon wall 600 yards away. This geological anomaly is called Spanish Bottom.
How was this strange depression formed? Most of Canyonlands lies above an ancient salt bed called the Paradox Formation. Salt tends to flow like a very dense liquid when it is under pressure, and Spanish Bottom is one of many interesting formations in the area that were formed by movements in the Paradox Formation. At some time in the past 100 million years the salt was squeezed out of the strata beneath Spanish Bottom causing the layers of heavy rock it supported to collapse. Spanish Bottom is essentially what is left of an ancient sinkhole. The river has certainly contributed to its present appearance, but the bottom was actually created long before the birth of the Colorado River.
This area is one of the few places in Canyonlands where the Paradox Formation is actually visible on the surface. Look across from Spanish Bottom at the east side of the river and you will see a jumble of light tan-colored hills that are obviously different from the surrounding rock. These hills are composed of gypsum that has migrated upward from the subterranean Paradox strata. The hills are a sample of the material that undoubtedly underlies Spanish Bottom.
Soon after the second junction the trail gets considerably steeper as it makes its way down off the rim. The trail descends 900 feet through a series of short switchbacks over the last 0.5 mile, and eventually reaches the river on the southern side of the bottom. Though the path is steep and rocky, the views of the Colorado River and Cataract Canyon from the trail are awesome. You can see the river below you for almost the entire distance.
Looking down at Spanish Bottom from the trail you will probably marvel at how flat the bottom of the valley is. It is roughly the shape of a half-moon 0.6 mile long and 0.3 mile wide, yet the elevation never varies more than 30 feet. Other than a few cottonwoods growing near the river the land is also treeless. The soil is probably fertile but unlike many of the other river bottoms upstream on the Green River it was never settled. The land was frequently used as a pasture for sheep and cattle during the early 1900s, but as far as anyone today knows there has never been a cabin or even a corral on Spanish Bottom. The trail down to the bottom has been there at least since the turn of the twentieth century.
In 1890, 21 years after John Wesley Powell discovered it; there was an attempt to build a tourist hotel on Spanish Bottom. The idea was eventually shelved because of the difficulty floating boats up and down the Green River, but eleven years later another entrepreneur from Denver began raising money to build a sanatorium on the bottom. His project lasted about a year before his money ran out and his boat was destroyed in an accident near Moab.
As you walk down the Spanish Bottom Trail you will be walking below the north side a low ridge for about half the distance. This ridge effectively blocks your view of the terrain south of the trail. But after the trail has descended to within about 0.5 mile of the river the ridge ends, enabling you to see the rim south of the trail. When you reach this point you will notice that the skyline south of the trail dips down briefly and then rises up again before descending abruptly into Cataract Canyon.
Watch the right hand side of the trail carefully when the skyline behind the ridge first comes into view. Soon you will see a faint cairned trail that leaves the Spanish Bottom Trail and climbs 250 feet to the low point on the skyline. The length of this short trail is about 300 yards. Although the trail is very rocky it is well marked with cairns, and if you are observant you shouldn’t have any trouble following it. Some minor scrambling is required at the very end but nothing too difficult. When you cross through the notch you will be on the northern end of Surprise Valley.
There is a good trail through the mile-long Surprise Valley, and at the southern end of the valley there is another cairned route down to the river. This trail is seldom used, but if you are looking for something different you might want to walk the loop through Surprise Valley, down to the river, and back up the Spanish Bottom Trail.
If you are interested in a supplemental map of Spanish Bottom, we recommend:
Canyonlands, Maze District (Trails Illustrated, map #312)