Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cedar Mesa Scenic By-Way 95 Highlights

The southeast Utah Cedar Mesa area looks like a large empty area on a large scale map. Natural Bridges National Monument is out there, west along Scenic By-Way 95, on the way to Lake Powell, but even driving through, the area only looks like a large forest with some canyons cutting through.

 Heading west from Blanding, there are no signs that anyone lives here now, but centuries ago there were quite a few residents. The first clue is the roadside Butler Ruins Trail. This is a 0.5 mile interpretive trail to an Ancestral Pueblo ruins site, with the trail guide pointing out a dozen or so of the plants that were available to the people that lived here.

There is a small natural bridge near the overlook, but you have to move away from the fenced overlook to see it. The ruins site is on the east side of the sandstone hogback called Comb Ridge that runs north and south for 80 miles. The Butler Wash site is a representative of the many unpublicized sites and trails along the east side of Comb Ridge. At the same trail head, there is another unnoticed trail to the east leading north toward a site called Ballroom Cave.

Continuing west, the road passes through an engineered notch in the massive sandstone wedge and descends toward Comb Wash. At the lowest point, a dirt road runs north and south. About 2.5 miles north along the dirt road is the entrance to Arch Canyon, one of Utah's most scenic canyons.

There is a 4WD road traveling up the canyon toward two spectacular arches, Cathedral Arch and Angel Arch. It is a long eight mile hike to see these arches, but in the first ten minutes of hiking there is the large Arch Canyon ruins site. At the same trail head, there is also a trail along the north canyon rim to Hotel Rock, another interesting destination.

Further west is the roadside Mule Canyon pueblo site, well developed for visitors. There is a tower with a tunnel connection to the kiva at this site. We see similar tower and kiva connections at Mesa Verde. The Cedar Tree Tower and Kiva on Chapin Mesa and at Badger House on Wetherill Mesa there are similar connections.

This site represents the Ancestral Pueblo culture at its height, spreading across southern Utah. Hardly anyone lives in this area now, yet 750 years ago the area was thriving. Nearby the roadside site are trails up the north and south forks of Mule Canyon. The south fork trail has a site that is very popular with photographers.

The Natural Bridges Monument features three natural stone arches over waterways with a system of trails leading down and between them. There are some ruins sites to find here also, though they are not publicized.

The Cedar Mesa area is so rich in trails and hidden ruins sites that much more of its territory could be part of a National Monument. Just to the south of Natural Bridges is the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, another canyon area with trails leading to spectacular views and interesting cultural sites.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Arch Canyon to Hotel Rock Side Canyon

The Hotel Rock Side Canyon is about 2.5 miles along the Arch Canyon Trail, west of Blanding in southeast Utah. The Arch Canyon trail head is 2.5 miles north along a dirt road from Highway 95 just west of the massive sandstone wedge of Comb Ridge.

The Arch Canyon Trail is a 4WD route that runs for 8 miles to two large arches, Cathedral Arch and Angel Arch. The canyon bottom has year round water and there are Ancestral Pueblo Ruins sites along the way. Near the beginning of the trail is the large Arch Canyon Ruins site, with several standing walls, rubble piles and petroglyphs. At about 1.5 miles, there is a small alcove site that is easy to visit.

The ruins sites tend to be on the south facing side in most locations to catch the winter sun. My hike in early November was on a warm sunny day. I noticed that on the shady north facing side of the canyon, there were still patches of snow from an early season winter storm the previous week. Even though the temperature was very mild, without the sun the microclimate is chilly.
There is another good ruins site at about 2.5 miles, just before the canyon junction with the Hotel Rock side canyon. This site blends into the canyon wall so well that it is easy to miss. The main hint is the side road from the 4WD trail that leads over below it.

Just to the right of the main structure on the same level is a well preserved storage ruin. I noticed the the door of the storage ruin before seeing the main structure. There are additional small wall fragments to the lower right of this upper level pair of ruins.

The Hotel Rock Trail starts at the same trail head as the Arch Canyon Trail and climbs along the north canyon rim to a large rock outcrop with small ruins in a side by side arrangement. Below the Hotel Rock, there is a view of the side canyon that makes a junction with Arch Canyon. I turned up the side canyon, searching for more ruins sites and whatever else might be interesting.

It didn’t look like many hikers or horseback riders come this way. The canyon bottom is walkable but I didn’t see any foot prints or any signs of a trail. The canyon bottom is narrow, without any room for farming fields and I didn’t see any permanent water. I hiked up the side canyon for about 1:00 hour, making about 1 mile and didn’t notice any ruins sites, and didn’t get far enough to get a view of Hotel Rock from below.

There weren’t any major obstacles and a hiker could go further than I did, but I didn’t find any good hiking destinations except for wild canyon scenery. My total time on this hike was 4:15 hours for about 7 miles. I carried 3 liters of water on a 60 F blue sky early November day.


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mule Canyon Towers Trail

The Mule Canyon Towers Trail is a 0.5 mile walk along a rough 4WD road to a canyon head site that features several circular Ancestral Pueblo structures. The turnoff from the south side of Utah Route 95 is at mile post 102.2 west of Blanding and Comb Ridge in southeast Utah.

There aren’t any road signs or interpretive information for this site. It is similar to some of the Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients sites along the Utah and Colorado Border with most of the structures perched on the rim at the head of a canyon. There is a spring at the canyon head that provides water to the site. I could hear water dripping down the canyon the whole time of my visit.
The structures are arrayed on both sides of the canyon head. At least four of the circular buildings still have wall sections standing, with several other collapsed rubble piles.

The walking along the rim is easy between the towers. The canyon cliffs are very steep along the edge and there is a deep alcove directly under the poor off at the canyon head. I didn’t see any easy routes down into the canyon here. The upper Mule Canyon area has several other ruins sites near and along Highway 95. A developed pueblo with a large kiva has easy visitor access and the North and South Fork Mule Canyon trails are popular.

Walking along the south facing rim, there are five or six small alcove sites visible. The below the rim area is very ledgy and the sites are on different levels.

I walked several hundred yards east along the south facing rim for different angles of the alcove sites. The cliffs are very steep along the rim and I didn’t see any routes into the canyon above the sites. The tower at the head of the canyon stands out as a lookout point for this community. I noticed one set of small storage ruins across on the north facing canyon side.

The terrain near this site is scattered Pinon Pines and Utah Junipers with sagebrush fields. The canyon area is very deep and rugged but the area surrounding the canyon is mostly level and it would have been easy to travel to the nearby sites and the farming fields. I parked near the Highway turnoff and walked the 0.5 miles to and from the site. I spent about 1:30 hours total here on a 50 F degree early November blue sky morning.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Hotel Rock Trail

The Hotel Rock Trail is a 6 mile round trip along the north rim of Arch Canyon in the Cedar Mesa area of southeast Utah. It is a well known difficult 4WD drive route that is also a good hike to a very scenic small Ancestral Pueblo ruins site.

The trail head is the same as the Arch Canyon Trail. The parking area is 2.5 miles north of Utah Highway 95 just west of the sandstone wedge Comb Ridge, west of Blanding. About 100 yards down the Arch Canyon Trail there is a road splitting off to the right that starts to climb out of the canyon bottom area.

There isn’t a sign that identifies this as the route to Hotel Rock. About 2.5 miles along the Arch Canyon Trail there is a large side canyon on the north side that leads toward the Hotel Rock area, but the ruin isn’t visible from below.

The lower part of the route climbs steeply and is fairly easy to follow. In the first mile there is a short side trail leading to the rim with a good view up Arch Canyon. The main route makes a right turn that is easy to miss. I had to search around a little to get back on track.

At about 1.5 miles there is a circular turnaround point that is also at a view spot overlooking a short side canyon. It is not immediately clear where the trail continues without looking around. This view point has a small arch on the rim.

The Arch Canyon Trail down below leads to two large arches after about 8 miles. There is also the large Arch Canyon Ruins site in the early part of the trail and several small ruins sites in the canyon walls. The canyon bottom seems to have year round water and the trail crosses the creek many times.

The last 1.5 miles of the way up are more level and pass through Pinon Pine and Utah Juniper forest. The Hotel Rock formation is visible from about a half mile away and it towers over the surrounding terrain. There are several small structures side by side facing the east and they wind around to the north side and there is another small structure on the west side. There is also a small arch above and to the right of the small structures.

It is easy to get close and look inside. The views from the ruins site back to the east are very good. From this elevated spot, the LaPlata Mountains and Sleeping Ute Mountain are visible on the horizon far to the east. The Abajo Mountains slightly north are clearly visible. The elevation rises about 1200 feet from the trail head, enough to see over the jagged Comb Ridge.

The climb up took me 2:15 hours with stops at the rim view points. I spent about 0:50 minutes looking around the ruins site, including a walk on the west side and looking down into the side canyon there.

The return hike took 1:25 hours without any stops for a total hike of 4:30 hours. I carried 2 liters of water on a 65 F degree early October blue sky day. I didn’t see any other hikers or vehicles on the Hotel Rock Trail but there were some groups on the Arch Canyon Trail.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Kachina Bridge Ruins-Natural Bridges

The Kachina Bridge Trail is 0.75 miles with 350 feet elevation change to one of the three large natural bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah. On the opposite canyon wall past the bridge opening is a hidden ruins site with many examples of rock art.

The Kachina Bridge is 210 feet high with a span of 204 feet. The top of the bridge is 44 feet wide and 93 feet thick. Along the main trail wall there are some faint petroglyphs. Through the bridge on the upstream side there appeared to be two flute player images. The Kachina Bridge is the middle of three bridges and can be visited directly from the rim or as part of a loop hike from one of the other two large bridges.

The short side trail to the ruins site isn’t pointed out and there is a sandy hill to climb. The site is small and the structures are unusual. There are two circular structures and a small conical storage bin. There is a trail box at the beginning of the site that offers some interpretive comments. The two circular structures don’t show any sign of ever having had roofs, so the site is thought to have had some special use.

This area is rich with pictographs and petroglyphs. There are quite a few red handprints. The sandstone slabs that are in front of the site also have petroglyphs carved into them. The somewhat famous petroglyph that resembles a dinosaur is on the main trail side of Kachina Bridge on the down canyon side. The petroglyphs around the dinosaur are very faint. I didn’t notice it until I looked at my pictures later.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Horse Collar Ruins Trail-Natural Bridges

The Horse Collar Ruins Trail refers to the White Canyon section of loop trail from Sipapu Bridge to Kachina Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah.

The total loop hike between the two large bridges along the canyon and over the mesa top is 5.4 miles. The Horse Collar site is closer to Sipapu Bridge and I started my hike there.

There is a 0.3 mile Horse Collar Ruins Overlook Trail along the Bridge View Loop Road. From above the two units of Horse Collar are visible far below. This ruins site is about 0.8 miles down the canyon from Sipapu Bridge just past the canyon junction with Deer Canyon.

The Horse Collar refers to the shape of the doors in the south unit. The south unit is considered to be unusual in that there is a square kiva and a round kiva at the same site. Round kivas are typical of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah while square is typical of northern Arizona.

This ruins site is easy to miss along the canyon bottom trail. It sits on top of a shelf with some steep cliffs below and is most easily noticeable when traveling from Sipapu from Kachina. The north unit can be spotted from the slightly elevated area above the canyon bottom.

There is a vague side trail that approaches through a thick patch of oak but I didn’t see an easy way to get up onto the ruins shelf. Even though I was immediately below the famous south unit I couldn’t see it.

Directly across the canyon from the Horse Collar Ruins is the large Indian Foot Arch. This arch appears to be below the overlook point but isn’t very visible from up there.

About 1 mile past the Horse Collar Ruins and Indian Foot Arch a small granary ruin is visible. Soon the Kachina Bridge comes into view. Look for petroglyphs on both sides of Kachina Bridge and also look along the canyon wall on the opposite side from the trail back toward the rim.

I saw another small arch high on the east rim further down canyon. There is also a small arch along the trail climbing back to the rim above Kachina Bridge.

The distance between Sipapu and Kachina Bridges is about 2.4 miles. My total time for the 5.4 mile loop including side trips was 4:20 hours on an 80 F day in late August.

An Archaeological Survey of Natural Bridges National Monument Southeastern Utah

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Sipapu Bridge Ruins Trail-Natural Bridges

The Sipapu Natural Bridge is one of the three very large bridge formations in Natural Bridges National Monument in the Cedar Mesa area of southeast Utah. The trail from the rim to the bridge is 0.6 miles and descends about 500 feet.

Sipapu Bridge is very massive at 220 feet high, with a 268 foot span. The bridge is 31 feet wide and 53 feet thick. The main park trail system features hiking between Sipapu and Kachina Bridge along the bottom of White Canyon and also on the mesa top for a 5.6 mile loop. There is also a trail that goes up the canyon about 0.7 miles to a small ruins site. There aren’t any signs that point out this trail.

The small structures sit in a south facing curve of the twisty canyon high enough above the creek to avoid flooding. The canyon bottom is lush with willows and cottonwood trees and there are patches of Gambel Oaks. There also grassy areas and the soil seems to be sandy.

It looks like there is a squarish possible kiva and a small room block and some small storage bins. There is also a small granary high and to the right of the main structures with a couple of old timbers lying across the top of the kiva. The canyon walls are very steep here and it’s not clear where any travel to the rim would occur. The canyon rims here are dry so maybe there was no need to go there.

To the left of the structures there is a panel of white pictographs featuring some large figures. It took me about 20 minutes to arrive at this site from the Sipapu Bridge. The total side trip took about 50 minutes on an 80 F degree late August day.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Monarch Cave Trail at Comb Ridge

The Monarch Cave Trail is one of the better known trails of the otherwise obscure group of trails on the east side on Comb Ridge in southeast Utah.

Comb Ridge is an 80 mile long wedge of Navajo Sandstone that was an historic barrier to travel during the pioneer era. In the Ancestral Pueblo era the eroded east side offered south facing alcoves that were used as foundations for building sites.

The trail head area is 7.2 miles north of the south gate along Butler Wash Road, then left on a short side road. There are no signs to aid visitors in this area. The Butler Wash Road is a few miles west of the town of Bluff. There seem to be two turnoffs within 0.1 miles of each other. I turned at the first one I came to, when I reached 7.2 miles, but the second one is in better position.
The canyon to look for has a south facing high level alcove that is visible once you get through the thick vegetation at the bottom of Butler Wash. The trail follows along the bottom of the canyon. Since I started a little south of where I should have I had to hike north along the sandstone to the edge of the canyon and look for the trail.

I was lucky to see other hikers below and made my way down to the right track. The trail in late August was somewhat overgrown with vegetation but was otherwise easy to follow. The Monarch ruins site is at the head of the canyon a little past the overhead large gash of an alcove.

The ruins site can be approached from the right or the left. Along the right side canyon wall there are quite a few minor petroglyphs. Closer to the ruins there are even some glyphs on the floor. The disadvantage to the right approach is short section where a slip might lead to fall down a steep slope.

There is also most of a large grinding stone on display along with some pottery shards and corn cobs. The large trash midden has a chain marking it off. There is a pool of water in front of the site, but it is hard to view.

To add to the impressive features here are numerous hand print pictographs, I didn’t enter the site from the treacherous right side. I looked at the easier looking left approach but that way appeared to be guarded by large patches of Poison Ivy.

The view from the ruins back down the canyon is lush with some large trees. I spent about 2:00 hours on this hike. The return without stopping took about 30 minutes. It was about 85 F degrees at mid day in late August and I carried 2 liters of water. It was a hot day but the distance is only about 1.5 miles round trip. There is shade from trees along the trail and comfortable places to sit in the alcove next to the ruins site.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fish Mouth Trail at Comb Ridge

The Fish Mouth Trail is located on the east side of the massive sandstone of Comb Ridge in southeast Utah a few miles west of the town of Bluff. The Fish Mouth alcove is probably the largest in the immediate area and one of the largest in the region.
  It is about a 1.0 mile hike from Butler Wash Road up the curving small canyon that descends from below the gaping mouth. The trail head is about 12.6 miles north of the south Butler Wash gate and the Fish Mouth is easily visible from the road. There are four Ancestral Pueblo ruins sites to find along the Fish Mouth Trail. The first site is small and along the right in the first 10 minutes of the hike.
The trail is somewhat braided with cow paths and in late August the lush growth obscures some of the sections. There are two large alcove ruins sites almost side by side, both facing toward the south.
The first of the two sites has parts of several structures still standing. There seemed to be a large amount of soot on the ceiling of this site. The structures on the left side of the site seemed a little unusual.
After viewing the first of these two I couldn’t see where the trail continued up the small canyon, but saw a side trail that climbed up on the bare sandstone and climbed up toward the Fish Mouth. Looking back at the alcove, I saw a wall section on top of the canyon rim, a little to the left. The upper wall section seemed to be by itself, no other rubble near it.

There is a deep chasm between the good view point and the Fish Mouth that I didn’t try to cross. I couldn’t see any ruins structures inside Fish Mouth despite the very large size. Moving over to the edge of the canyon and looking back I saw the second of the two alcoves.

I made my way back down to the canyon bottom and worked further up the canyon to the second alcove site. This site didn’t have as many structures and seemed to have less soot on the ceiling. I didn’t see any rock art at either of these sites. The trail continues up toward the base of the Fish Mouth, but I chose to return. My return hike from the alcoves took about 20 minutes and my total hike for the 2 mile round trip was 1:40 hours. It was about 90 F degrees on a late August afternoon and I had 2 liters of water.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

River House Ruins Trail at Comb Ridge

The River House Ruins Trail follows a sandy 4WD road along the southwest side of Comb Ridge for 4 miles to the San Juan River in southeast Utah about 7 miles west of the town of Bluff.

Besides the River House Ancestral Pueblo Ruins there are several historic sites along the trail associated with early pioneers and settlers. About 1.5 miles east of the Ruins site is the Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel.

The Trail Head is just to the west of Comb Ridge along Utah Route 163. There is an interpretive sign at the turnoff that introduces the difficulties that Mormon pioneers had in getting past the massive sandstone obstacle that Comb Ridge presented. A few minutes further down the trail is the Navajo Springs site.

The sign here describes the situation on December 27, 1879 when the starving Mormon scouts improved an Ancestral Pueblo Trail and made it over the Ridge. On the east side of Comb Ridge there is a marker for Hobbs Wash that describes the area where the scouts including George Hobbs spent that night before finally arriving in the area that is now Bluff.

The trail south is mostly flat, crossing a wash several times. The vegetation is mostly the invasive Tamarisk, though this tree offers a little shade that the native Rabbit Brush does not. About 3 miles south the trail starts to climb San Juan Hill; the area that the pioneers decided was the most feasible place to try to cross the rugged ridge. The interpretive sign describes how hard it was here on the animals and pioneers to labor up the steep rocky slope.

Further on is the area called the Rincone. In 1885 a trading post was established here at a point that was popular for crossing the San Juan River. Observing the terrain on the other side I wondered where anyone came from and where they went when they crossed at this point. It’s hard to see any travel routes on the other side. The bottoms area here is green with a lot of Cottonwood and Russian Olive Trees.

Most of the visitors to the River House Ruin arrive as part of rafting trips on the San Juan River. The trip from Bluff to Mexican Hat is popular. The ruins site is in the set of sandstone cliffs that are just above the river bottoms. There is a higher set of sandstone cliffs with a road below that could cause a hiker some confusion but these higher cliffs are well back from the river.

The River House appears to have about a dozen rooms and a circular kiva. It also has pictographs on the alcove walls including a large two toned snake. The left side of the alcove has several white hand prints and other figures.

There is a ledge trail from the west that leads to the ruins also. I followed the ledge trail by accident. About 100 yards west of the River House Ruin there is a small granary ruin site along the ledge trail. A hiker could arrive at the ruins and find no one here, or find a group of 21 rafters like I did.

The Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel is 1.5 miles further east from the River House. The 4WD road continues until the last 150 yards. There are several small petroglyph panels along the way giving a preview of the large and spectacular panel ahead. This area along the San Juan River is very rich in petroglyphs, the Sand Island site closer to Bluff being an easy site to visit.

The left side of the large panel seems to have the clearest images, featuring several large broad shouldered figures. The panel extends for about 100 yards to the right but the desert varnish appears to be recovering many of the figures making them harder to see.

I found at least one flute player here that appeared to use part of the natural rock for the headdress.

There is a shady area below the elevated panel with good views up and down the river. There is at least one small ruins site visible with binoculars on the south side of the river in this area. The Butler Wash Panel is a popular stop for the rafting groups.

I was 3:30 hours into my hike when I turned back to retrace my steps. It took me 2:30 hours to go the 5.5 miles back to my starting point and a total of 6:00 hours for the 11 mile trip. I carried 4 liters of water and drank it all. This early June day was a little cooler than average with the temperature about 65 F at 9:00 AM and about 85 F at 3:00 PM. There was some breeze in the afternoon that helped with cooling.

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