Hiking and Four-Wheeling Southern Utah's Ruins
We were suddenly transported to another time, an ancient era. There was a complete and immense silence, broken only by the faint sound of water trickling over a ledge in the canyon deep below. Snow smoothed the roughness of the rocks, blanketed the needles beneath the pinon trees, and decorated the tops of cactus needles. One could almost hear the talk and laughter of the women who would sit in the winter sun on the ledges arrayed below, grinding the corn for the daily meal. Children and dogs would have scampered up and down the steep access to the rooms tucked into the nooks and crannies of the sandstone walls, while the men silently stalked deer and elk in the freshly fallen snow.
We had come to southern Utah to seek out the hidden places where the ancient ones, the Anasazi, lived, worked, and played in this immense red puzzle of sandstone. We were standing high on the rim of Mule Canyon on Cedar Mesa, enjoying the Tower Ruin hidden just off Highway 95. The presence of the Ancient Ones is still strong and pervasive in the intricate canyons and mesas of southern Utah.
Highway 95 runs from Blanding to Hanksville, Utah, and has been tagged the "Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway." This highway traverses some of the most archeologically rich areas in the western United States. With a stock sport-utility vehicle and the proper respect for this sometimes forbidding, sometimes delicate country, even more of this amazingly varied area is easily accessible for backcountry exploring.
We concentrated our three days in the immediate area of Comb Ridge, a prominent geological feature located roughly 12 miles west of the intersection of Utah 95 and US 191. Comb Ridge is an 80-mile-long crest that stretches from the base of the Abajo Mountains in the north to deep within Arizona at the south end. This amazing formation was created by a severe fold (a monocline to geological types) in the sedimentary deposits of the area. While the eastern face resides at a slope shallow enough for moderate hiking, the western face of the ridge is an almost-vertical 800-foot wall that dominates the nearby landscape. The long eastern slopes are drained by Butler Wash, which parallels the ridge south to the San Juan River. Likewise, Comb Wash drains the western side of the ridge and many of the deeply cut canyons of Cedar Mesa to the west. Dirt roads run up both Butler and Comb washes between Utah 95 to the north and US 163 to the south, bringing easy access to the entire area.
The presence of perennial springs within the canyons of both the east face of Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa, the almost-verdant mesa top forests, and the rich flood plains in the washes led to an ancient culture that developed and thrived here between the years of 6500 B.C. and 1300 A.D.