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.