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Comb Ridge, Utah - Utah's Cliff Dwellers

Posted in Events on October 1, 2009
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The cliff dwelling at San Juan Hill is well protected from weather by the massive overhang above. Maybe that's why it has weathered so well.

Comb Ridge is one of the many undeveloped areas in Utah where little has changed in the past 1,000 years. It is a place where this generation can venture to ponder the mysteries of the Cliff Dwellers who once inhabited the area. It is a place where gentle breezes blow, where temperatures soar into triple digits, and where the only sounds are those of nature. Getting there requires a combination of using a four-wheel drive vehicle and taking long hikes.

The dwellings built by these ancient people between the years of 1000 and 1400 are among the greatest mysteries of the Southwest. Some of them are many stories high and built in such a way as to seem like a part of the rock formation around them. The irrigation systems are engineering wonders that should not have been possible in such a low-tech society. The painted pottery and tools they made from soil, rocks, and vegetation, still exist after many centuries.

Experts look for answers in graves. In a few locations bodies have been preserved in a mummified state. In some cases, digging below one layer of graves has produced another much older layer. Recent discoveries of hair colors normally associated with fair skinned humans have thrown more questions at those who believe the cliff dwellers are ancestors of the Pueblo Indians. In addition to hair color, skulls found in older grave layers had a different shape. The more recent skulls had a flattened shape in the back and the older ones were more rounded. Some experts believe they may have been a lost colony from an Egyptian heritage.

During the late 1990s, discoveries of bones that showed signs of mutilation led to a theory that cannibalism was practiced within the tribes. The bones had been shattered, scored, and were blackened as if cooked. The Society for American Archaeology took the subject on at an annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Some argued the finding only suggested bodies may have been mutilated during war or during religious ceremonies. Others were not convinced and left the meeting believing cannibalism was the only explanation.

According to folklore found in some Pueblo tribes, the only humans to eat other humans were witches. Eating human flesh was a part of the initiation. Once a witch was identified by the tribe, she was cut into pieces in search of her evil heart. Apparently, the evil heart is not the same as a human heart because it might be found in any part of the body. Finding that evil heart prevented the witch from returning to inflict revenge on the tribe.

The subject of cannibalism continues to fire heated debates among interested parties. One writer felt the evidence was just too rare and not conclusive. He said it would be the same as labeling all North American pioneers as cannibals because of the Donner Party.

PhotosView Slideshow

With all the mysteries surrounding the cliff dwellers, the one most baffling is, "Where did they go and why?" After building all those marvelous homes such as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, they just packed up and disappeared. Some experts believe they left because of drought. Others believe they were killed off. Most believe they became mixed with tribes that are now the modern Pueblo Indians, but why would they leave their huge cities to live in tents and huts? Unless someone invents time travel, the mysteries of the cliff dwellers will never be solved.

Lone Writer was traveling with family and friends for this journey to the cliff dwellings. The group left Blanding, Utah, and followed Highway 95 to mile post 112. Just past that point was the left turn onto Butler Wash road. This road is graded dirt but washed out in many places depending on recent rains.

There are probably numerous cliff dwellings along this road but Lone Writer and company only visited one huge ruin about 13.8 miles south of Highway 95. Parts of it are visible from the parking area using binoculars but to get a good view requires a long hike. The trail crosses Butler Wash then climbs an upward slope to the ruins.

The ruins include a huge Kiva, numerous rock art panels, and several walls from the rooms once used by cliff dwellers. Another special moment is the first time looking across Butler Wash from a doorway or window. The vast landscape is colorful and beautiful. Residents living in the dwelling would have been looking across the fields they maintained to feed the families within.

Hiking in the desert can be dangerous for those who are unprepared. Always take water with you, even on short hikes. Those who sunburn easily will find the burns come much quicker in the desert. Watch for various forms of cactus that can easily penetrate the leather of a shoe. Always wear leather shoes and not canvas. Watch for wildlife, especially those that slither and rattle.

After leaving Butler Wash, we crossed Comb Ridge and turned left on the access road with the BLM Information Boards. That sandy road wanders in and out of Comb Wash as it makes its way to the banks of the San Juan River. If water is flowing, there is a real possibility of sinking in the sand. When the wash is dry, blowing sand can create deep dunes that will swallow a vehicle up to the frame.

Floating the San Juan River is a popular pastime. The Comb Wash road is used frequently as access for rafts and canoes. If the float trip is continued downstream, the river empties into the Colorado River where its waters become part of Lake Powell.

Following the road around the point of Comb Ridge leads to the remains of a ferry boat ramp, then continues to another beautiful cliff dwelling. This one is more popular and often visited by groups and tour guides. Some of them hike in from the highway rather than risk the sandy path down Comb Wash.

From San Juan Hill, we backtracked to Highway 163, then crossed the wash and turned right on the Comb Wash road. Along the way, we passed Fish Canyon, which also has some nice ruins in it. They are accessible on foot. A story about Fish Canyon can be found in the Ancient Ones ebook which is available at

PhotosView Slideshow

We spent the night in Comb Wash in one of the many campsites. Bring your own wood for campfires. Some sites have limited shade from the hot desert sun but bringing your own canopy is the best plan. Use the existing fire rings and take all your trash when you leave.

Our last day visiting Comb Ridge was spent following Comb Wash into Arch Canyon. The walls of this canyon are extremely steep and hide an abundance of cliff dwellings. Many of them can only be viewed with binoculars. The canyon gets its name from the two arches at the end of the drive. There is a nice campsite at that location but we went back out the same day.


Trip Meter - Latitude North - Longitude West - Comments

Butler Wash Road
0.0 - N37 32.0609 - W109 37.2178
From Blanding, Utah, on Highway 95, turn left (south) on the dirt road between mile post 111 and 112. This is the Butler Wash Road.
0.2 - N37 32.0351 - W109 36.9364
Turn right past the BLM billboard at the intersection.
8.5 - N37.25.7041 - W109 37.7150
A right turn leads to a hike to a cave. Return to this intersection and continue on Butler Wash Road.
2.6 - N37 23.5370 - W109 37.1251
Right turn. Stay left on the main road at next two intersections, then turn right at Y intersection. You are still following Butler Wash.
2.5 - N37 21.7475 - W109 37.6675
This side road ends at a parking area for a long hike to the ruins in this story. You can see them with binoculars. It is a long hike to ruins. Return to Butler Wash Road.
7.6 - N37 15.8573 - W109 38.5104
This is Highway 163. Left goes to Bluff, Utah. Right crosses Comb Ridge to Comb Wash.

Comb Wash Road
0 - N37 16.4290 - W109 40.6616
From Bluff, Utah, on Highway 163, continue west over Comb Ridge. After crossing the wash, turn right on Comb Wash Road 235 beside the BLM information board.
2.3 - N37 17.8387 - W109 39.7203
Continue to the right on route 235.
9.0 - N37 23.1193 - W109 39.4141
Left is Fish Canyon. Straight is route 235. Continue on 235 all the way to Highway 95.

Arch Canyon
0.0 - N37 30.6973 - W109 39.3914
From Blanding, Utah, on Highway 95, continue west and cross Comb Ridge. Turn north off Hwy 95 near the 107 mile post on the west side of Comb Wash.
2.4 - N37 32.6499 - W109 39.9213
Turn left on the road before crossing Comb Wash.
2.5 - N37 32.7379 - W109 40.0267
Turn left into Comb Wash off faint trail.
10.6 - N37 36.3888 - W109 45.7174
This is the end of the road and the view of Cathedral Arch.
N37 36.8147 - W109 45.8436
Hike to this point for a view of Angel Arch.

The tires on Lone Writer's vehicle are provided by BF Goodrich. GPS mapping is provided by DeLorme. Larry E. Heck has been writing back country adventure stories since 1985. For more information, check out or call (303) 349-9937.

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