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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