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Four Wheeling - The Tracks Of The Ancients

Posted in Events on May 1, 2005 Comment (0)
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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.

We chose December as the time for our exploration. The date necessitated the need for four-wheel drive to counteract melting snows and some soft road beds and stronger constitutions for the cold, frosty nights and sun-delayed mornings. Some of our destinations were easily accessible, almost directly off the comfort of the paved road, while some were reached by traversing steep and rough dirt tracks and others were deep in the backcountry, accessible only by hiking several hours from the trailheads. It was cold and a bit muddy, but the insects and dust were nonexistent, and we saw only two other vehicles off the pavement in three days.

Our first effort was to hike the southern branch of Mule Canyon, just north of the highway. This branch is toward the upper end of the long canyon and is home to several well-preserved ruins. We slowly wandered along the bottom of the canyon, keeping a sharp eye for likely looking alcoves and overhangs that often shelter the ancient abodes. We were rewarded by finding several examples, including one that is in particularly fine shape due to its almost inaccessible location. With the winter-limited sun starting to slip from the sky, we tromped back through the snow of the canyon bottom to the waiting trucks and hurried to set up a base camp as night quickly descended.

The next morning, we decided that with all the melting snow, many of the area roads that wound through the trees would be best left until a warmer,drier trip. The Butler Wash road crosses mostly open country, where the snow would be long gone and offer a much drier surface. We headed south on the mostly dry (but not nearly dusty) road, seeking the trailhead for Monarch Cave. As we neared our turnoff, we encountered dense fog sliding up the valley from the San Juan River a few miles south. We parked the trucks and started the hike up a notch in the deeply incised east face of Comb Ridge.

We kept hoping that the fog would lift, but as we looked up to the impressive ruin tucked in the alcove high above us, the fog was still with us. The gray mist that hung in the alcove added an additional sense of almost menacing presence to the commanding position of the site. The imposing Monarch Cave Ruin is perched in an easily defendable position. A long, single-file approach over severely sloping sandstone would be necessary to breach the first defensive wall, leaving the advantage firmly with the defenders. A seep at the back of the alcove suggested that siege tactics would not be very effective either. The back of the alcove and the walls of the canyon nearby are quite rife with various petroglyphs (incised or pecked rock art) and pictographs (images and symbols created with pigments). After a lunch of pondering life as it would have been in such a lofty perch, we headed back down under foggy skies. Our next hike was to seek out an elusive nearby rock art panel that we'd heard of but not seen. The low-hanging fog made landmark navigation very difficult, and the panel remains undiscovered by this author. As we made our way back down to the trucks, the sun finally broke through, and we know where we need to look next time.

The day's final stop was a definite trip highlight. River House Ruin is accessed from US 163 via a 5-mile-long 4WD road that parallels Comb Ridge south until it makes an end run of the ridge at the San Juan River. A distinctive ruin sits majestically on a ledge overlooking the wide flood plain of the river. It was easy to imagine resting on the complex's "patio" at the end of a long day of hunting or tending of the crops below.

The third morning, we stopped first at the Tower Ruin. This remarkable complex of round towered ruins is easily reached from the highway and offers a close look at some unusual Anasazi architecture. Experts are unsure if the towers were for some ceremonial purpose, used for long-distance communication, or were another variation on the defensive theme. We also stopped at the Butler Wash Ruin, a BLM interpretive site directly on Highway 95. A short stroll across the sandstone brings you to a very picturesque site perched high in an east-facing alcove. The access riddle is solved by the still-visible hand and foot holds the ancients laboriously chiseled into the rock face.

We spent the afternoon on a long hike up Fish Canyon. With a trailhead accessible from the Comb Wash Road, Fish Canyon is home to an extensive collection of former habitations, granaries, and rock art. The only access into the canyon is on foot, but the trail is relatively flat and open enough to present easy hiking. The stroll along the broad, winding canyon under the bright December sun was a pleasant conclusion to our too-short stay.

Once again, southern Utah had delighted our senses, sharpened our sense of discovery, and heightened our appreciation for the unique country and the ancient culture it contains. With literally thousands of prehistoric sites in the area, we will have many more trips in the tracks of the ancients.

GPS Coordinates Latitude Longitude
South Mule Canyon Trailhead 37 32.247' -109 43.896'
Butler Wash Road/Highway 95 37 32.072' -109 37.227'
Monarch Cave Ruin Trailhead 37 21.516' -109 37.826'
River House Ruin Trailhead 37 15.973' -109 40.467'
Tower Ruin Trailhead 37 32.101' -109 43.981'
Butler Wash Ruin Trailhead 37 31.316' -109 37.955'
Comb Wash Road/Highway 95 37 30.685' -109 39.226'
Fish Canyon Trailhead 37 23.339' -109 40.{{{720}}}'

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