The Anasazi In Beef Basin - Canyonlands 4X4

Ancient Ones Or Ancient Enemies?

Larry E. HeckPhotographer, Writer

One of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the American Southwest involves the tribes known as the Anasazi. The fact is simply that archaeologists and historians agree to disagree on just about everything involving them. Even the translation of their name is highly debated. The most commonly used English version is "Ancient Ones," however many others insist it should be "Ancient Enemy."

The biggest mystery is, "Where did they go and why did they vanish?"

Archaeologists mostly agree the Anasazi occupied the Southwest between the years of 200 AD and 1300 AD. They gave up their nomadic lifestyle for one with roots. Corn, beans, and squash were among favorite foods grown on small farms. They were very good at making baskets and pottery. As they progressed, the idea of painting the pottery became popular. To get through the long winter months, they stored grain and other foods. The Anasazi had many talents.

With the passing of time came more elaborate homes with rooms for more members. Eventually, they developed huge cities which are now protected as national parks such as Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. The construction was so well-designed that many of the structures they built are still standing after more than 1,000 years in a hostile environment.

Aerial photographs first taken in the 1970s revealed a network of roads branching out from the major cities in all directions. Archaeologists have uncovered the remains of canals and dams used to manage water. The engineering accomplishments of the Anasazi during the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries were far above anything that followed in the centuries after they vanished.

With all of their talents, there may have been a dark side to the Anasazi. Recent discoveries have revealed evidence that the Anasazi may have practiced cannibalism. Bones and skeletons have been uncovered with telltale signs of having been cooked and scraped clean of flesh. Some archaeologists believe that proves cannibalism was practiced. Others claim the damage to the bones was done during burial practices. Some believe they may have performed rituals to dismember and desecrate the bodies of enemies they had captured or killed in battle. Once again, everyone simply agrees to disagree.

So why were the Anasazi cities abandoned in the 12th and 13th centuries? What happened to the engineers who designed the cities? It's just not human nature for creative people to stop creating, yet there was no natural progression of new cities with better designs to follow those that were abandoned. When settlers from the East began moving into the area a few hundred years later, they found the Anasazi cities unoccupied and decaying. Local tribes considered the ruins to be haunted and avoided going anywhere near them. Nothing existed to indicate any of the crafts and talents exhibited by those who built the Anasazi cities had been passed down to other tribes.

Lone Writer (Larry E. Heck) does not claim to be any kind of expert on the Anasazi or on Indian tribes, but he wonders if the answer may be in the definition, "Ancient Enemy." Although most historians believe the Anasazi left the cities and blended in with other tribes, does it make sense that those tribes would welcome people into their midst who were considered enemies? Maybe it's more logical to assume an all-out war broke out, and the Anasazi were killed off. They simply took their engineering talents with them to the grave.

When thinking about the Anasazi, Lone Writer rarely visits the national parks where everything is so structured and crowded. He prefers remote locations such as Beef Basin far away from modern civilization. The roads into the area are not frequently maintained, but the county occasionally runs a grader over them. Primitive campsites are plentiful, and the environment is paradise for anyone in search of isolation and star-filled clear skies.

During a recent visit to Blanding, Utah, Lone Writer ran into some friends who belong to an Internet group. They spend the long winter months sharing a lot of e-mails discussing places they would like to visit in the spring. The last several days had been spent exploring trails near Lake Powell. When Lone Writer informed them he was headed for Beef Basin, they decided to tag along. The drivers of the vehicles were Happy Jack, Sundance, Boss, and Dragline. Of course those are nicknames used on the Internet and as CB radio handles.

There are two ways to go in or come out of Beef Basin in a 4x4. Actually, one of those ways could be done in a high-clearance 4x2 if Mother Nature was in a good mood. On the other hand, if she was having a bad day and started throwing rain or snow at everyone in sight, the roads could become impassable for anything on rubber tires. Any form of moisture turns the clay surface into gumbo mud. For those who are not familiar with gumbo, it's like driving in freezing rain. Gravity becomes the controlling factor taking everything in whatever direction is downhill.

The 4x4 road in or out of Beef Basin enters through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It follows a path of low elevations and is open most of the year. Lone Writer prefers to use that route to exit Beef Basin. The other route climbs through the Manti-La Sal Mountains along narrow-ledge roads that are covered in snow during the winter months. When the snow melts, moisture accumulates, and gumbo takes over. In most years, the hot Utah sun has dried everything out by the time Memorial Day weekend arrives.

There are numerous routes from several different directions that connect to the mountain entrance. The one Lone Writer prefers begins west of Blanding near Comb Ridge. It makes a gradual climb through beautiful forest that serves as home to an abundance of wildlife. Eagles, hawks, deer, elk, and many others can be spotted by those with a sharp eye and patience.

Other springtime surprises often involve physical labor. The most common is the removal of trees that have fallen across the road. Winter snows and high winds test the strength of everything in the mountains. That applies to the wildlife as well as the vegetation where they live. A towstrap tied to Sundance's Blazer was all it took to remove the tree blocking their path.

Campsites are plentiful in the forest. One of them even has a pit toilet, but most are primitive. It's not uncommon to have visitors during the night. Most of them have four legs such as elk and deer, but some have wings as in owls and bats. The group spent the first night camped near a creek. They enjoyed a star-filled night, but the wind was too strong for a campfire.

The 20-mile drive from Comb Ridge to the pass in the Manti-La Sal Mountains where Beef Basin Road connects is a continuous scenic view. Little Notch and Big Notch are points where two mountains are connected by narrow passages that drop off a thousand feet on both sides. The natural tendency is to snap lots of pictures, but it's one of those places that just can't be taken home. Snapshots just don't do it justice.

From the pass, only one narrow-ledge road provides access into Beef Basin. It makes a rapid descent from the pass to the basin below. The surface is rocky and rough with washouts and drop-offs on one side or the other. From high vantage points, the views across Beef Basin take in the Colorado River Canyons and unique formations on both sides of the river.

Once the road reaches the valley floor, side roads begin branching off. Most all of them lead to cliff dwellings and campsites. The first major intersection is diamond-shaped with a registration box in the center. Whether or not anyone official ever checks that box was debated for a while within the group. The book inside was badly tattered and was mostly used for individual attempts at humor.

There are hundreds or maybe even thousands of cliff dwellings in Beef Basin. The ones accessible by car are only a small fraction of the entire inventory. Lone Writer has a favorite that is always the first one he visits. He calls it "Showcase Ruin" located in Beef Basin Wash. He gets there by turning left at the registration box and then turning left again after the water troughs. A narrow two-track path follows the canyon floor and crosses the wash a couple times. At the end of the path is a campsite located at the base of the steep canyon wall. Judging by the condition of the path, it is mostly used by ATVs.

After parking at the edge of the campsite, Lone Writer started up the canyon wall through a thick forest of trees and brush. There were numerous footpaths created from people trying to find the easiest access. No matter which path is taken, the climb is steep and difficult to follow. The ruin is not visible during most of the climb, and some paths drift off in the wrong direction from those who became disoriented in their search.

One by one, Lone Writer's followers gave up and headed back. The climb was just too strenuous. After about a half-hour which included several stops to rest and get the heart rate slowed, Lone Writer reached the dwelling. It consists of many rooms and probably housed an entire family or families. It can be viewed and photographed from across a deep ravine. Getting into the ruin is risky and involves skimming the side of a rocky wall with nothing to prevent a fall into the ravine. Anyone choosing to attempt entering the ruin should consider the distance to the nearest medical center if a fall should occur.

By the time Lone Writer returned to the vehicles, the group had finished lunch and was anxious to move on in search of ruins with easier access. There is an abundance of roads in Beef Basin, and several days could be spent exploring them all.

The group made a few stops at small ruins before reaching Ruin Park. According to a historic marker, it was the site of a large farming community during the 1100s. Corn, squash, and possibly beans were planted in the center of the valley with homes lining both sides.

Ruin Park is the end of the road for most visitors. The road beyond can be serious rockcrawling depending on how the last heavy rain left it. Simply return to the registration box and follow the signs back to Dugout Ranch.

Those who continue on will soon arrive at Bobby's Hill. Signs warn travelers to turn back. The road down Bobby's Hill connects the higher plain to a lower one called Bobby's Hole. It is the most difficult section prior to reaching the Canyonlands Park boundary. Once in the park, the road takes on an attitude of its own. These roads should be left to those who enjoy serious rockcrawling. Silver Stairs and Elephant Hill are two obstacles that demand a permanent place in a traveler's memory. However, the entire route between those two landmarks requires some experience in picking a route if using a stock vehicle.

The group passed the Ranger Station shortly before dark. They stopped at the store long enough to "eat and get gas," then split up. Boss and Dragline had commitments in Moab, so they stayed on pavement. Lone Writer, Sundance, and Happy Jack picked a very pleasant campsite near Indian Creek and settled in to watch the sky fill with stars. "Just ain't right that any man should have it so good," Happy Jack said as he handed Lone Writer a cold Pepsi.

Begin this log in Springfield, Missouri, at Smith's Tavern. This log covers the Missouri route.

From Blanding, Utah, take Highway 95 west. At the 115-mile post, turn right going north.

Trip Meter Latitude Longitude Comments
0.0 37 33.7732 109 35.0175 Turn right at 115-mile post off Highway 95.
7.9 Left on South Elks Road.
19.5 37 40.5694 109 47.8458 Turn right on North Elk Ridge toward Gooseberry.
34.3 37 50.4156 109 46.4464 Left fork on County Road 224.
37.5 37 52.7351 109 47.5098 Right fork. Sign for Beef Basin 14 miles.
39.9 37 54.3545 109 47.4453 Left turn at sign on County Road 104.
49.1 37 58.7898 109 52.4068 Registration box for Beef Basin. Left goes to Showcase Ruin. Reset trip meter.
1.8 37 57.4457 109 53.0744 Left onto County Road 199.
4.9 37 56.8171 109 50.5551 Right fork.
5.1 37 56.7794 109 50.7211 Park for ruin hike. It is west of the parking area at the top of the cliffs. Numerous hiking trails lead to it. Take a bottle of water.
Return to the registration box.
0.0 37 58.7898 109 52.4068 Registration box for Beef Basin. Reset trip meter.
2.9 38 0.3824 109 53.8534 Left goes to the tower-shaped ruin.
3.9 38 0.6916 109 54.5838 Left to Farm House Ruin.
4.5 38 0.5764 109 55.0635 Farm House parking.
Getting through Canyonlands does not require navigation. Just follow the signs.

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