Distance: 1.6 miles (2.6 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 715 feet (218 m)
Date Visited: Friday, March 30, 2018
Our last hike in Canyonlands National Park would be one to remember. We only had the morning, since we planned to drive to Grand Junction, CO that afternoon. Our trail was a 1.6 mile out and back to False Kiva, an archaeological site tucked away in an alcove. It turned out to be our favorite hike (so far) in the Island in the Sky District.
A kiva is a large, circular, underground room. They were used by the Puebloans, the native people of that region, for religious purposes. The round structure found at the end of this hike is not a true kiva, since there is no underground area. There is some uncertainty surrounding its exact origins and intended purpose. True kivas can be seen at Mesa Verde National Park or Bandelier National Monument.
We hesitated to write a post about False Kiva because it is a Class II archaeological site. The trail does not appear on park maps in order to limit access, since the site is more vulnerable to visitor impacts. Interestingly, it used to be on AllTrails, but was removed in 2021. However, if you ask a Park Ranger, they’ll tell you how to find the trail.
We visited in March 2018 (yes, we are slow at blogging – good thing we took copious notes). Back then, the site was fully explorable. But in August of 2018, the alcove site was vandalized and closed indefinitely. You can still hike the trail, but a chain blocks entry into the alcove itself. The “kiva” is now inaccessible, but you can see it from a distance. The vandalism is very unfortunate, especially given how much we enjoyed the trail and archeological site.
It takes some effort to find the trailhead. Asking a park ranger is the easiest and safest way. When we stopped to ask about the trail at Island in the Sky Visitor Center, the ranger brought out a laminated sheet with information on the location and points of interest along the trail.
From the visitor center, we drove west toward Upheaval Dome. Our parking was a small pull-off with just enough space. From there, we crossed the road and headed south. Some juniper logs were lined up along the edge, near a bend in the road. Behind the logs, a well worn trail begins.
We didn’t see anyone else heading onto the trail, but near the start we did meet a group that was coming back from the kiva. So we knew we were on the right track. While the trail isn’t heavily travelled, it was easy for us to follow. Initially, it goes through an area with various shrubs, like blackbrush, and juniper in the distance. Far out, we could see into a canyon called Upper West Basin, and beyond. A prominent rock formation stood ahead of us – I never figured out its name.
The dirt trail beat its way through the desert. Eventually, we started following cairns that guided us through the rocky sections. Along the way, we spotted a few lizards, which we always enjoy seeing. Before long, we reached the edge of the rim and looked out across the canyon. It was a gorgeous view, with Candlestick Tower on our left. The unknown rock formation we had seen earlier was on our right.
The trail started descending down a rocky slope. Based on the photo the park ranger had shown us, we knew we were getting close to the kiva. Looking around, we kept trying to find the alcove in advance. It’s surprisingly well hidden. Once we reached the bottom of the slope, the trail wound its way across a narrow rocky shelf. Eventually, the trail curved sharply to the right, almost doubling back on itself. This brought us closer to the large rock wall that had been to our right since we had descended. We had views out into the canyons the whole way.
Suddenly, after scrambling up a small sandstone incline, we were there! Thankfully, we had the place to ourselves. We had only passed one other group on the way, and it was so peaceful and quiet. We took photos and enjoyed the gorgeous scenery.
The area is known for a famous view of the Kiva in the foreground, and the canyons in the background. Lighting for photography was just okay in the morning; afternoon lighting would probably be better. But we’re glad we got to see it while we could. With the kiva alcove being indefinitely closed to visitors, this view is no longer possible.
Admiring the carefully stacked stones of the kiva, we speculated on its history. It would have been great to learn more about the people who created it and what the site was used for. A small area, which contained some archeological digging, was roped off. A green ammo box held some information, as well as a visitor log. Flipping through it, we saw the breadth of people who had visited from all over the world. We added our names to the list.
Eventually, other hikers arrived, and we deemed it best to let them enjoy the site in peace. So we headed back the way we came. Overall, the trail is moderate, but the ascent up the rocky slope was the most difficult part for us. At the trailhead, we met a third group that was heading for the kiva.
False Kiva is a beautiful and special place, and we’re saddened that we may not be able to visit again. But, even if you can’t get as close to the kiva, it’s still a worthwhile experience. If you visit, please treat it with respect, follow all signs and restrictions, and enjoy this remarkable place.
False Kiva Trail
Date: Friday, March 30, 2018
Type: Out and back day hike
Total Distance: 1.6 miles (2.6 km)
Cumulative Elevation Gain/Loss: 715 feet (218 m)
Time: 2.5 hours, including spending about 30 minutes at False Kiva
Trail Markings: Wayfinding cairns and an obvious social trail. Even though this is not a maintained trail, it’s easy to follow.
Highlights: Geological Features, Views, History, Ruins, Off the beaten path
Directions to Trailhead: Ask a park ranger
Notes: It can get hot, so bring plenty of water.