Located in the heart of the Island In The Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, the Aztec Butte trail offers fantastic views and the unique opportunity to visit ancient ruins. There are two buttes to choose from on this hike, both of which have ruin sites. Aztec Butte, the larger of the two, requires some steep climbing with exposure, making it unsuitable for children or anyone uncomfortable with high ledges and steep drops. The smaller butte is closer to the trailhead and is a great hike for children and adults of all skill levels.
The Aztec Butte Trailhead (38.393450, -109.882033) is located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. To reach the Island in the Sky from Moab, head north on Highway 191 to the signed junction on the left for Canyonlands National Park. Drive approximately 20 miles, following signs to the Island in the Sky entrance station. There is a $10 per vehicle fee to enter Canyonlands National Park.
Continue approximately 7.4 miles past the entrance station and turn right onto Upheaval Dome Road. Drive 0.8 miles to the signed trailhead and parking area on the right.
The hike begins heading east on a mostly flat, sandy trail that winds through sagebrush and juniper trees on its way to Aztec Butte. The trail traverses the south side of the smaller butte before arriving at a signed junction. The trail to the left leads to a beautiful pair of ruins on the northwest side of the smaller butte, the trail to the right leads to Aztec Butte.
To reach the ruins at the lower butte, follow the trail to where cairns mark the short route to the top of the butte. Continue on the well-worn path along the north edge of the butte until cairns indicate an easy place to climb down to the ruins, which are located just below the rim of the butte on its northwest side.
These ruins were originally built by an ancient civilization that lived in the Canyonlands region more than 800 years ago. The smaller ruins like those found on the lower butte, are called granaries and were used to store food through the winter. Some of the ruins in the area have been partially rebuilt to fix damage done by time and careless visitors. Appreciate the ruins from a safe distance. Never touch them or attempt to enter them.
After visiting the lower butte, return to the trail junction and continue north. Soon the trail arrives at the foot of Aztec Butte near its west end. From here the route is quite steep as it climbs to a break in the rim on the southwest side, allowing access to the top.
Once on top of Aztec Butte, follow the trail heading east. After about 100 yards, the trail passes by a large ruin near the east side of the butte. This ruin, constructed of loosely stacked rocks, has likely been rebuilt but is still quite interesting. It would have provided an excellent strategic viewpoint for its ancient inhabitants.
Continue on the trail past the ruin to the north edge of the butte where a cairn indicates a break in the cliff line that provides access to the ledge below. Anyone who may have struggled with the initial climb up the butte should turn back here. The ledge below is very narrow with significant exposure. A trip or fall could be fatal.
Once on the ledge below, the trail leads to some excellent ruins on the northwest side of the butte. One of the best ruins is tucked into a cave complete with small arches and a window-like opening in the rock that leads into the adjacent ruin.
The route continues past the arch ruin and immediately climbs back to the top of Aztec Butte. There is an extremely narrow spot that requires a quick step that may be intimidating to some. If you do not feel comfortable, do not attempt it. Instead return the way you came by following the ledge back northeast side to regain the top. There are no other ruins to be seen beyond the arch ruin.
Once back on top of Aztec Butte the trail loops back to where it first accessed the butte on the southeast side. Return to the trailhead the way you came. Total round trip mileage including a stop at the lower butte is approximately 2 miles. Round trip distance to only the lower butte is approximately 1 mile.
Permits & Regulations
There is a $10 per vehicle fee to enter Canyonlands National Park. Annual and regional passes are also available.
Never touch or attempt to enter ruins.
Relevant Books & Maps
- Canyonlands National Park Favorite Jeep Roads & Hiking Trails by David Day
- Canyonlands National Park - Island in the Sky Trails Illustrated Map