But this canyon — so close to Blanding, Utah, that locals there consider it their wild backyard — is also the site of a long-standing but escalating anti-federal government, Cliven Bundyesque furor.
On Saturday, protesters plan to drive their ATVs past a "closed to motorized use" sign and into the 11-mile-long canyon to show their disdain for the Bureau of Land Management's decision to keep that area off-limits to vehicles.
The BLM — after a huddle with the FBI, the Utah attorney general's office, the Utah Department of Public Safety and San Juan County Sheriff Rick Eldredge — has decided once again to "stand back" and avoid a confrontation as it did several weeks ago on the Bundy ranch in Nevada, Eldredge said.
"It was decided that, at the end of the day, it is not worth it to spill any blood," Eldredge said of the decision.
But Juan Palma, Utah's director of the BLM, issued a less conciliatory statement.
"The BLM-Utah has not and will not authorize the proposed ride and will seek all appropriate civil and criminal penalties against anyone who uses a motorized vehicle within the closed area," Palma's statement read in part.
It's anybody's guess as to how many ATVs will converge on the town of 3,500 for the Recapture protest and for what may or may not be a showdown.
An Anasazi ruin is built into a cliff close to "Lem's Trail" in Recapture Canyon. (Scott Sommerdorf, Salt Lake Tribune)The protest was planned initially by San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman as a local event. But that was before the world's attention was drawn to the feud over cattle grazing between Nevada's Bundyand the BLM. Bundy's stand against the BLM sparked a new outburst of this-land-is-my-land anger at the federal government and its public-land policies and brought domestic militia groups to a rural patch of Nevada.
San Juan County, with more than 90 percent of its land public or belonging to the Navajo Nation, is a likely setting for another set-to.
Map: click to enlarge (The Denver Post)It has long been a hotbed of far-right anger over federal intrusion into local affairs, especially after what were viewed locally as heavy-handed federal raids that rounded up dozens of longtime residents for artifact looting in the 1980s and in 2011.
San Juan County residents who support Saturday's protest ride identify themselves on their Facebook pages as fans of Bundy and guns-rights rocker Ted Nugent. They express hatred for President Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
BLM employees in San Juan County have had windows shot out of their homes and their yards torn up by ATVs in the middle of the night.
"It is fair to say that the vast majority of people here are frustrated with the federal presence here," said Bill Boyle, a lifelong resident and publisher of the San Juan Record newspaper.
Most recently, some fed-up county officials pushed unsuccessfully to take over the national parks in San Juan County's boundaries when they were shut down over the federal government's failure to reach a budget agreement last fall. The county has also been trying to claim county control over a road in Canyonlands National Park that has been closed by park authorities.
The county has been tussling with the BLM over Recapture Canyon for more than a decade and for the past two years has been attempting, through right-of-way channels, to wrest control of the canyon from the BLM.
The BLM closed the canyon to ATVs and dirt bikes seven years ago after motorized-use proponents illegally constructed a 7-mile-long, 4-foot-wide trail through the canyon. The trail — complete with bridges, berms and stiles — cut through archaeological sites.
Two local men were eventually arrested for causing some of the damage, and local sentiment swung their way.
Nearly 300 people walked through Recapture in 2011 in support of the two men and in an effort to raise money when the pair were fined for damages.
"They are just a couple of fellas trying to improve our recreational experience," one local blogger commented.
The trail damage required a damage assessment, an engineering review and an extended consulting process that is ongoing. It recently yielded a proposal for limited motorized access to the north side of the canyon but not to the southern reaches closest to Blanding.
That potential concession has angered some on the other side of the issue. Even supporters of the BLM's right to keep nonmotorized vehicles out of Recapture Canyon say the agency has at times been ineffective in that region because it is underfunded and understaffed.
"There has been some BLM bungling," said Andrew Gulliford, a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, who has written extensively about the problems in San Juan County.
Lyman did not return calls asking for comment about his protest, but he has used social media to drum up support.
Lyman told the San Juan Record that people from around the country are promising to load up their ATVs and drive with him into the canyon to help support his cause.
"This may blow up to be significantly more than they thought," Boyle said. "I think there are those who would like everyone with an AK-47 to be here."
Beyond San Juan County's borders, there is a lot of nail-biting and guessing over not only what will happen Saturday, but what it will mean in the long-term for the preservation of the canyon that is often referred to as a "mini Mesa Verde."
Environmental groups, including the Durango-based Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, fear any encroachment of motorized users in the canyon. The Navajo Nation isn't happy about ATVs rolling through the artifact-rich area where Navajos currently hunt, hold ceremonies, and gather wild roots, berries and medicinal herbs.
"I call it our grocery store," said Willie Grayeyes, chairman of the Utah chapter of the Navajo Nation. "We don't want it to be disturbed and invaded."
Grayeyes is also upset about the coming protest because it caused the BLM to cancel another event in San Juan County for Wounded Warrior veterans that was slated for the same weekend.
Eldredge said he will be patrolling Recapture Canyon on horseback the day of the protest to help keep the peace — not that he thinks it will be disturbed by more than the rumble of motors.
"We don't expect any violence, " he said. "Bundy was calling for militias to come to his aid. Phil Lyman is not."
But Eldredge admitted that he is going to be working to keep the peace in an angry and fed-up county.
"These people are tired of waiting for that canyon to be open," he said. "They have had a gutful."