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Exploring the Country of the Ancient Ones

February, 2004

Author:  Bill Priedhorsky

The canyon country of southeastern Utah has about the most spectacular scenery to be had in this country, or on this planet. It is also chock full of ruins from the 12th and 13th century Anasazi people. A comfortable base for exploring the wild country is Bluff (settled 1880), Utah, an agricultural village on the San Juan River. Bluff is less than 6 hours from Los Alamos, making it a good destination for a long weekend's outing. The Los Alamos Mountaineers recently took advantage of this proximity. Forty-two club members spent the President's Day weekend in Bluff, hiking to their hearts' content in the surrounding canyons and mesas. This is the story of their adventures.

As one travels through Utah from the Four Corners to the canyon country around Lake Powell, Bluff is one of the last outposts of civilization. As one approaches from the east, along the San Juan River, the last farm plots end at Bluff, and the country opens into wild canyons and mesas. We knew we had arrived in Bluff when we saw the 300-foot sandstone bluffs that tower to the north of town. The bluffs, of course, give town its name.

Bluff's 300 people live on the north bank of the San Juan River. Everything on the south bank is part of the Navajo reservation, whose 25,000 square miles reach from Bluff nearly to the Grand Canyon.

Primitive camping is possible almost anywhere on the Bureau of Land Management territory north and west of Bluff. But for a winter trip, when nights near freezing even if the days are often in the 50's, civilized evenings and nights are tempting. For our Feburary trip, we stayed in the Recapture Lodge and the guest house rented by Far Out Expeditions, and headed into the wilderness for day hikes.  This gave us the best of both worlds.

Although the Los Alamos Mountaineers have been active since 1952, a 42-person trip was the largest that any of us could remember. Organizing a trip of this size was a challenge, because the interests and capabilities of the participants varied widely. Ages ranged from 3 years to sixty-something, and technical skills ranged from rock climbers to casual hikers. The solution lay in delegation. A hike of 42 persons is impossible to run safely, and hardly a wilderness experience. But by splitting the party four ways, with an experienced leader on each team, we accommodated everyone. At 9 o'clock each morning, the hiking leaders took their place in the parking lot of the Recapture Lodge, with a sign on their car announcing their hike for the day. Participants signed up for the day, and the hikes rolled out in their various directions in squads of 2-3 cars.


The Los Alamos Mountaineers, at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah, about to set out on a day's hiking through the nearby canyons and mesas. Most of the participants are shown here; they made for the largest trip ever organized by the Mountaineers. Photo courtesy David Scudder.

Although Bluff is just 213 miles in a straight line from Los Alamos, no road takes you directly there. This is part of the wonderful remoteness of the Utah canyon country. The way to Bluff wraps around the north side of the Jemez mountains, past the red rock bluffs of Abiquiu and Coyote, beelines to Farmington on US 550, then jigs and jogs past Shiprock and Four Corners to the San Juan valley and Bluff. A nice meal stop on the way is the Three Rivers Eatery and Brewhouse in Farmington, with several site-brewed microbrews (take a growler jug with you!) and diner-type meals. The restaurant on the corner is more family-friendly than the bar in mid-block.

The most exciting hiking destination in the vicinity of Bluff is Comb Ridge, a monocline 700-800 feet high which runs north-south for over 30 miles. US highway 163 crosses the ridge just 6 miles west of Bluff. Butler Wash parallels Comb Ridge on its east side, and an all-weather dirt road follows the wash from highway 163 north to highway 95. The Butler Wash road gives access to ruin-riddled side canyons that incise the east side of the ridge. Comb Ridge is a classical monocline, rising gently on its east side, through inclines and domes of sandstone, then dropping suddenly in an unbroken line of cliffs on its west.

Our day hikes visited several of the side canyons and their ruins, including the Processional Petroglyph panel, on which more than 170 small figures are lined up as if on parade. A particular highlight was the ruin in Monument Cave, shown in the photograph. Most of the ruins on Comb Ridge date from the 3rd phase of the Anasazi, also known as the Ancestral Pueblos, whose descendents still live in the Rio Grande pueblos. The heydays of the Anasazi were the 12th and 13th centuries. Sometime after 1300 A.D, the Cedar Mesa/Comb Ridge area was abandoned, leaving the ruins that we see today. 

Monarch Cave ruin, tucked into a side canyon on the east side of Comb Ridge,
 is a beautiful example of late Anasazi architecture.

Like most hikes to the Comb Ridge canyons, we reached our trailhead by driving a few miles up Butler Wash Road, then crossing the brushy, overgrazed and over-cowpooped, muddy wash. Beyond the wash, Comb Ridge rose in a gentle ramp, dissected by small canyons like the one that hides Monument Cave. Our trip came just after a snowstorm, and it was obvious by the lay of the snow why the Anasazi picked their sites. The north-facing slopes were covered with snow, and the little stream at the bottom was a series of frozen ponds. But Monument Cave, facing to the south, was warm in the sunlight. The rockwork of the walls was as intricate as the better-known ruins in Chaco Canyon. The mud mortar between the major stone courses was chinked with smaller stones, and the windows and doors were still supported by log lintels. Small artifacts were scattered around the site  -  bits of pottery, stone blades, corncobs, and even a small knot tied in yucca fiber. The surrounding walls were decorated with painted handprints. The handprints that I have seen elsewhere in the canyons, and elsewhere along Comb Ridge, are usually reddish in color. But these were an intense emerald green.


Micheline Devaurs and Petey Priedhorsky look over the edge of Comb Ridge. The hike up Comb Ridge from the east is a steady climb up gently-tilted sandstone, but from the top, the ridge falls away in hundreds of feet of sheer cliff. A large piece of southeast Utah is visible from the ridge top, including the Bear's Ears (left) and the Abajo Mountains (right) on the far skyline. The vegetation marks the course of Comb Wash, with Cedar Mesa beyond it to the west.

Leaving the ruin behind, we continued up the gentle slope to the Navajo Sandstone cap of Comb Ridge.  We slogged up the long slope  -  a comfortable angle to hike, even for the greenest hikers  -  and suddenly the ridge gave way before us. Several hundred feet below lay the next drainage to the west, Comb Wash. About half the drop to the bottom was a sheer cliff, underlain by steep talus slopes covered by boulders, some as big as a house, that had fallen from the ridge. Beyond the wash was a broken rise to the flat high country of Cedar Mesa, dissected on our east side by numerous canyons, with names like Lime, Road, Fish, and Owl. Several of these are worth multi-day trips, but that is another story,

While two or three hiking groups were exploring Comb Ridge, another party visited Citadel Ruin on Cedar Mesa. In contrast to the bare desert below, Comb Ridge is covered by a pinon/juniper forest (still fairly healthy, in contrast with our local forests). Cedar Mesa is reached from the south by a blacktop highway from Mexican Hat. Most of the highway is a high-speed road, but it is interrupted by 3 miles of winding gravel switchbacks that climb 1000 feet in a section called the Moki (old) Dugway. From the highway beyond the Dugway, a dirt road wends through the pinon/juniper to a gentle drainage, where the hike to the Citadel begins. After a couple of miles along the gently falling dry streambed, the ground dropped away. We were at the edge of the main canyon, and could see a narrow stone causeway crossing the void to a promontory. The route to the Citadel ran along this causeway, which was perhaps 20 feet wide, and blocked in two places by the remains of rock walls. These defenses hinted that the Citadel was not built in peaceful times. The Citadel itself is a south-facing, multi-roomed structure, completely intact in all its rockwork. The walls are complete from the bedrock floor below to a rock ceiling above. Around the corner is a small dam that once held a reservoir, perhaps to hold water in times of siege. Atop the rock cap of the promontory was a small wall. Behind that wall, a lookout could watch the causeway without being seen in turn.

Our hikes to Comb Ridge and Cedar Mesa occupied us for two days. In the evenings, we crowded into the commercial-scale kitchen at the Far Out Expeditions guesthouse, and shared a potluck dinner to celebrate our day. There is one restaurant in Bluff offering good food, the Twin Rocks Cafe, but we thought a big get-together would be more fun - - and it was!

Corn petroglyphs in lower Butler Wash.

For a New Mexican, Bluff is the closest corner of the canyon country. We could hike all morning, and still be back in Los Alamos in time for dinner. For our final hike, on the last day of the long weekend, we chose a path down an old wagon road (1908-1910) into Lower Butler Wash, along the route to the San Juan River.  The trailhead was just 1 1/2 miles from the main highway, but required a high-clearance vehicle. We parked our cars on a broad, rocky platform and headed down the trail. Twenty-one hikers were still with us on this last day. The wagon path crossed two marks in the rock that were indisputably dinosaur footprints, then dropped to the canyon bottom. Upstream along Comb Ridge, Butler Wash was a brushy stream cut about 15 feet deep in the sandy soil. Here, it had grown to a canyon surrounded by rock walls some 200 feet deep. Our route followed the stream, now freely flowing, down to the willow and tamarisk at the edge of the San Juan River. The walls along the San Juan to the north of the confluence are a regular prehistoric billboard, marked with hundreds of petroglyphs of all kinds  -  people, creatures, headdresses, Kokopellis, and a few scratched Navajo drawings of horses with riders. The latter must have been created post-1492.  One of the most striking petroglyphs were the two corn figures, about two feet high, shown in the picture.

Too soon, our time ran out, and we began the drive home. To a man, woman, and child, all were happy with the trip, and ready to plan out next year's adventure, hoping for another sunny February weekend in the land of the ancients.

If you go: The Recapture Lodge is the traditional meeting point for adventurers in Bluff. New Mexico author Tony Hillerman mentions it in A Thief of Time, one of his Navajo country mysteries: "The Recapture Lodge had been Bluff's center of hospitality for as long as [Joe] Leaphorn could remember". The Lodge is rustic but homey, and offers free interpretive slide shows and an outdoor pool during the season, a hot tub all year, several kitchen units, 100 acres of riparian open space bordering the river, and area information and maps in a tranquil atmosphere. Rooms are inexpensive (in the $40 range) and pets are welcome. The Recapture can be reached at (435) 672-2281 or found online at http://www.bluffutah.org/recapturelodge. More elegant lodging in Bluff can be found at the Calf Canyon B&B, in a historic building in downtown Bluff, at (888) 922-2470 or

http://www.calfcanyon.com/. Far Out Expeditions rents a guest house for $150 per night (435 672-2294 or http://www.faroutexpeditions.com/). The guest house sleeps twelve in two bedrooms filled with bunkbeds. The kitchen is large and well-equipped, easily supporting dinner for 30+. The Recapture Lodge, Far Out Expeditions, and other organizations offer guided tours in the canyon country around Bluff.

On the heels of some closings, the only year-round restaurant in Bluff is the Twin Rocks Cafe (435 672-2294, www.twinrocks.com, open until 8 PM). Our party found the Twin Rocks' offerings to be excellent. Two hours short of Bluff in Farmington, the Three Rivers Eatery and Brewhouse  (505 324-2187, http://www.threeriversbrewery.com/) has offered good food and a range of microbrews since 1997 at 101 East Main Street.

The Los Alamos Mountaineers have been active since 1952 as an all-purpose outdoor organization, with activities that range from technical climbing to casual hiking.  We offer an active, year-round schedule, and welcome new members. Membership information and trip offerings can be found at http://www.losalamos.org/climb/zLAMC.html. The Mountaineers are committed to safe outdoor practices.

Copyright Bill Priedhorsky 2004

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