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Nine Days - Cedar Mesa Comb Ridge (Part 2), UT
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Nine Days - Cedar Mesa Comb Ridge (Part 2), UT 
Nine Days - Cedar Mesa Comb Ridge (Part 2), UT
Hiking avatar Apr 13 2018
Hiking17.30 Miles 1,510 AEG
Hiking17.30 Miles
1,510 ft AEG
 no routes
For Part 1 of this trip see [ triplog ]

The wind beat the side of the Super 8 in Blanding all night. Most everyone in the hotel had bailed out of a camp somewhere in southeastern Utah to escape the Spring storm that blew in from the west, unsettled souls huddled in escape. Sleep was intermittent, the wind bringing crazy dreams with it. Morning brought escape from all that and a passable hotel buffet breakfast with Blake and Steph.

The weather would not abate until tomorrow. We’d spend another day and night, the 5th of my 9 day trip, waiting out the weather. Determined not to waste the day, I headed over to Edge of the Cedars museum. Steph had heartily praised it, a first rate institution in a backwater town. Hosting a well displayed collection of Basketmaker and Puebloan artifacts, Edge of the Cedars contains a ridge top pueblo with numerous rooms and 3 kivas, one excavated and open for visitors to enter.

The wind hurled the cold air like a weapon of war, hatred in how hard it hit you, so cold it burned. Endured a few seconds of it to check out a really nice looking teardrop trailer in the parking lot before sprinting into the Museum. Ten dollars gets you a few thousand years of history and a warm hiding place.

I took my time working through the various exhibits, after all I had all day. The pottery collection is extensive and after a while you can recognize styles and time periods without a cheat sheet. These folks got pretty artsy with their clay. Wonderful geometric designs on large jars, small pitchers done in fanciful bird effigies, utilitarian cooking pieces, so much variety. Given the coldness of the day, a display on making feather blankets and robes caught my eye. Domesticated turkeys provided feathers which were attached to the cross hatched base of yucca cordage by the pared down quills of the feathers. I’d assumed the yucca cordage was tied to the feathers, not the other way around. So they had down blankets before we knew the word. So much for modern innovation. Arrowheads and atlatl points under glass made a large and colorful display. An atlatl well employed could bring down an elk at moderate ranges. Arrowheads were smaller than expected, but that just meant a deeper penetration and quicker kill.

One amazing artifact was a sash made of Scarlet MaCaw feathers dated to 1150 AD. Found in the Canyonlands area, it is perfectly preserved and has yielded valuable information to modern archaeologists. Scarlet MaCaws only live in the jungles of Central and South America, so this the sash is evidence of trade. However, the fur on the sash is from an Abert’s Squirrel who only ranges in the higher dry elevations of the southwest. The cordage forming the frame of the sash is local yucca. The feathers were imported, but the construction was local.

Wanting to make at least a quick run through the ruins, I zipped up my coat and opened the door to brave the wind. I am sure the above ground rooms were nice, but I bolted quickly to the kiva. Once down the wood ladder and out of the wind I realized this was a really great place on a bad day. Being subterranean, it would be cool in the summer and with a tiny fire reasonably warm on the winter. For now it was out of the bitter wind.

Eventually climbing out of the kiva, I spent a few cold minutes admiring a piece of artwork that functions as a calendar and clock all in one. Using typical symbols found in local petroglyphs and pictographs as cutouts, the sun marches these symbols through the clock of the day, with changing declination providing a reliable calendar. We have seen this done throughout the Anasazi world, brought to its heyday when Chaco culture reigned supreme in the 4 Corners.

Later that evening Blake and Steph produced two pizzas cooked at a local gas station. They were surprisingly good. Anyone looking to open a restaurant, I’d suggest opportunity and need can be found in Blanding.

Day 6 of my trip started with me playing catch up. I’d set a clock for early. Blake and Steph got going earlier. They are ever patient, but I evacuated the hotel as opposed to moving out of it. The FJ led the way to Comb Ridge and our planned camp for remainder of the trip. Again, we had plotted likely sites along Butler Wash on the east side of Comb Ridge. Steph had decided on her preferred site. There was a car parked there of course, but no sign if they were just away hiking or planning to camp or whatever. I ranged ahead and found a decent enough place not too far away and we set up camp before heading over to the trailhead for Procession Panel about a mile away.

Somewhere there is a guide book that says the Procession trailhead is some number of miles up from Highway 163. They are off about a mile. We had numerous vehicles drive into camp asking if this was the trailhead. I needed to get the name of the not-so-guide book but never did.

The hike to Procession Panel was under glorious skies with just bit of breeze left over from the storm. I was enjoying the gently upsloping slick rock and the sandstone swells of Comb Ridge. Cairns were spaced just right and Steph had the route on her phone anyway so why should I be bothered with paying attention to anything but my own enjoyment. So of course we overshot the beginning of the short climb up to Procession, but the alternate route was a lot of fun ledging up.

Procession Panel is an important petroglyph. It shows three lines of small figures all marching towards a central circle. The figures are small but detailed. One has a duck, or is it a domesticated turkey, on his head. A small section of figures in one of the parades is waving at us. Larger figures above show people carrying crooked staffs, a symbol of the revered aged or perhaps leaders of this procession? There are deer or sheep with atlatl symbols scattered around with other small figures, two who seem to be holding hands. There is a lot going on at Procession, but why is it here on this rather nondescript peak of the Comb?

We mosied over to the very tip of the tooth of this particular Comb in the Ridge to take in the dramatic views, Cedar Mesa west and Monument Valley south. The Comb is such a pronounced geological feature, a monocline fold in the earth’s crust running north south. I can always orient myself when flying over the area by its unique look. A group of teens, probably some group or school outing, soon invaded the hill in their own rambunctious procession. We departed spotting a few small glyphs and tool sharpening grooves we had missed on the way up.

Not having had our fill for the day, we took in Monarch Cave and its ruin a bit farther north. An easy hike with an exposed final entry into the ruin, Monarch was surprisingly interesting. First off, at the entrance is an inscription carved into the rock by the Illustrated America Expedition of 1892, an anthropological foray into the area funded by the American Illustrated Magazine which generated a lot of interest in southwestern prehistory.

This once was a much larger collection of structures. Numerous holes in the cliff side are evidence of support for roof timbers along the north wall of the canyon. Hand prints are abundant as are grinding holes and bedrock metates, a magnificent double one in the cave structure behind the main ruins. At the head of the canyon is a large deep pool of water under an impressive pour off. With easy access to the larger valley below and Butler Creek, this was a good place to live.

It was good to be back in a camp. The exodus to Blanding had left me with an extra steak and I convinced Blake, after much arm twisting, to consume it for me while sitting around the fire he builds almost every night and morning. A nature call at 4am yielded a crystal clear sky, horizon-to-horizon Milky Way, two meteors, and most amazingly absolutely no airplanes in the sky and zero noise. That’s living good right there.

Day 7 began with Steph offering poached eggs on English muffins with bacon, if I’d only toast the muffins and heat the bacon on my Weber grill. No sane man turns down bacon.

We headed back up onto the edge of Cedar Mesa and Mule Canyon to hit House on Fire. In her research, Steph had read that 1000 to 1100 is the optimum time to photograph the phenomenon that gives this ruin its name, literally the stone overhanging the ruin appears to be tongues of flame emanating from the ruin. We were a bit behind schedule. Steph took off down the trail like a photographer on fire. Blake and I had no chance of matching that pace. I arrived on scene to a very disappointed Steph. The house was not on fire. We putzed around for a bit examining the ruin and watching the sun move across the sky thinking the lighting would change and there would be fireworks. It didn’t happen. Thinking of the time frame, the light, etc. I concluded the timing is based on not the foreground being in the same shade as the dwelling and using camera white balance to create the flames. While I was never balanced enough to get flames, there was some smoldering.

Our next stop was another section of the Mule Canyon complex. A small gated side road leads to a parking lot where mere mortals can hike to some ruins. We of course took the rest of the road signed as dangerous and for high clearance 4WD only. It was pretty tame. The draw is a few tower ruins, a la, Hovenweep. We expected those and they would have made the stop worthwhile, sitting at the head of the side canyon above a generous spring fed pool. We didn’t expect seeing so many well preserved cliff dwellings as we sat on the canyon rim eating our lunch and scanning with binoculars and long lenses. One was an impressive structure on a small shelf with a single very exposed access point. A large pictograph hung above above and behind it, a circle with a crescent moon shape with the corners pointing up and triangles above pointing down into the circle. I looked like an early smiley face. Was this the long lost Emoji Clan??

While strolling around the area scouting a route for future exploration, Steph announced we had a rattlesnake nearby. We finally located the small critter peeking out at us from a rock topped depression. No amount of coaxing could convince him to abandon his personal shelter.

Last stop of the day was a brief hike of Upper Butler Canyon to Target and Cave Ruins. The hike is along a sometimes flowing stream in a pretty sandy bottomed little canyon. Target was a fairly easy trip up a side canyon but the entrance to the dwellings on the north side at the head of the side canyon looked like more exposure than we were comfortable with sans rope. Viewing from canyon bottom was enough. The construction was of varying styles and thus probably varying centuries. A square tower with protruding roof beams and a plastered and painted exterior wall looked most interesting. We never found the target pictograph that provides the ruin namesake. (Hint: climb to the small granary on the opposing canyon wall.)

Cave Ruins was an easy approach. Three anthropomorphic pictographs, in red, orange and yellow right to left, were interesting in a Warhol sort of way. Love finding handprints and there were some here. The cave is very deep and Blake did a bit of exploring finding a long row of bedrock metates. There are some walls, purportedly a kiva or 2 buried, but debris from the collapsing cave ceiling has taken its toll over the centuries. A large midden pile at the cave mouth yielded corn cobs and sherds, and to Steph’s delight, her first squash stem.

A generously long hot shower followed by heating a frozen homemade meal of roast beef, carrots, potatoes, rice and gravy led to a very early night and some great sleeping.

The day 8 plan was to explore Arch Canyon after another poached egg, muffin, bacon breakfast (friends with bacon, the best kind). There are some ruins and eventually an arch, as would be expected. It is hikable or drivable if you are a dang good driver with a heck of a good vehicle. Blake was keen to drive it, so we aired down at the trailhead. First stop was Arch Canyon ruins real quick down the trail. This ruin was once a sizable complex. Today there are two structures still in decent shape with very dissimilar construction style. Steph assured me one was very “Chaco like”. I think I am headed to Chaco soon. Holes for roof supports hinted at 2 to 3 story towers now reduced to rock rubble at our feet. Geometric petroglyphs and anthropomorphic pictographs decorated the canyon side walls.

Arch Canyon road is narrow with few spots to pass opposite direction vehicles. Luckily we only encountered one group at a fortuitous spot with a pull out for us. It crosses and recrosses the streambed numerous times, some of the crossings wet, some rocky, some with large obstacles. We worked on our driver/spotter skill set in those. 4 LO was an often used option and my exhaust pipe will be seeing a muffler doctor soon. Skid plates are expensive and very very worth the cost. You will have to ask Steph if there is anything to see in the Canyon. My eyes seldom left the trail, and I suspect Blake was similarly employed.

We did spot one ruin high up on the north wall in a window, sticks from perhaps a jacal wall giving off a jailhouse impression. At 8.13 miles there is a camp spot with a picnic table some worthy soul brought in. That was lunch and the turn around with the bonus of a great view of impressive Cathedral Arch on the north wall. To our northwest was the tip of the easternmost of Bears Ears six or so miles away.

The drive out went smooth, having already scouted and solved the riddle of the trails obstacles. The trailhead was blocked by a pick up attempting to pull a 35 foot camper trailer across the creek bed. I thought were going to be blocked in for sure, but they made it across eventually. While airing up, a teenage boy from the camper crew came over to inquire about us and our rigs. Well spoken, confident, barefoot, and from Spokane, he answered Stephs questions deftly. “How long was the drive from Spokane?” “Thirteen hours ma’am.” After comparing notes on what we had all done and were going to do, Steph was pulling pages out of her trip planning binder for the young guy. It is nice to meet people who have it together in one pile. This kid did.

We’d hardly noticed the wind down in Arch, but once we left its sheltering walls it was really howling. Back at camp my tent cot had blown across the sandy desert. Our camp was on the edge of Butler Wash with a 20 foot vertical drop into the tree and brush studded creek floor. Someone had cut a steep footpath to the bottom. Staying up top was not practical, so we grabbed chairs and snacks and headed down into the lee of the cliff. The wind was not going to allow dinner, so at darkness we all went topside to make the best we could of the night. I put my tent cot downwind of the truck and climbed in, dusty clothes and all. Not knowing if the wind would blow the cot and me away during the night, I tied my shoes to the frame so at least I would have footwear to hike back to camp wherever the wind might take me. Sand had blown up into the cot from below, so it was to be a warm gritty night. The canvas slapped around loudly with every gust. There is a saying in the military, “embrace the suck”. I just let it all go and actually slept far better than I had hoped for.

Sunrise found the wind still raging. I’d hoped for another day on Comb Ridge, but this trip was over. Blake and Steph had come to the same conclusion. We packed as best we could in the gale and headed for breakfast in Bluff. The restroom sink in Duke’s at the Desert Rose Inn served as a sand repository as I tried to become somewhat less of a bedouin and more an acceptable patron of this nice little restaurant. The staff served us a really tasty breakfast with no comment on our well worn look.

Goodbyes were made in the calm air inside, lest we tarry in the wind outside. It was a good trip, a memorable and informative adventure. Steph and Blake make wonderful fellow sojourners. No one could ask for better or more patient company. Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge will see me again.

All you have is your fire...
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