|Nine Days - Cedar Mesa Comb Ridge (Part 1), UT|| |
Nine Days - Cedar Mesa Comb Ridge (Part 1), UT
|2,159 ft AEG|
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|Southeastern Utah is a passion of mine with its beauty, geology, remoteness, and ancient sites. Blake and Steph were thinking of a Spring trip centered on Cedar Mesa and Comb Ridge and asked if I wanted to participate in a part of it. The answer was obvious, though MJ had a previous engagement involving her sister, a massive canyon, large river, and a raft. I’d be on my own. |
My first day found us approaching Cedar Mesa from opposite directions. Blake and Steph had snuck off to the Hanksville area a few days earlier to rope down some skinny slot canyons. I don’t do skinny. We’d chosen some potential Cedar Mesa campsites ahead of time. The plan was for them to choose an unoccupied good one and then pass the location to me via our InReach devices since cell phone reception is spotty at best in this area.
I hit Mexican Hat for a fuel top off a little ahead of schedule and sent them a message on the device, expecting a quick reply. Roared up Moki Dugway admiring the views of Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley. No reply. The sites we’d spotted were mostly near Bullet and Sheiks Canyons. I took the road to Bullet but every site was already taken. Hmmm. Checked messages again. Nope. Cut through to Sheiks. Even marginal camps on the cut through trail were occupied. I pushed the accelerator harder hoping to at least find some camp unoccupied. Turned down Sheiks road moving quick with my best site just ahead. Dang, there was a flag flying on a pole at the turn in to the campsite. My heart sank. Had everyone come to Comb Ridge at the same stinking time? Wait, that flag looks a little familiar. Hit the brakes hard and slid into the campsite entrance only to see a sand colored FJ and matching trailer with Steph waving at me. We later figured out our InReach devices work fine. You just have to make sure you send the message to the other device, not to the non-working cell phone.
Day 2 began with a cold morning ( a thin crust of ice in the water bottles), hot coffee and a quick but substantial breakfast. We were in a hurry to get going. The plan was Sheiks Canyon to see Yellow House in the upper canyon and then push to the confluence with Grand Gulch to see the haunting Green Mask. But first we needed permits and a visit to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station for Steph to “get a few questions answered”. That visit became a morning ritual for the rest of our days on Cedar Mesa. Steph had heard that one of the guys volunteering at Kane Gulch had long ago spent some time on Kaiparowits Plateau, a future trip we are working on. He beamed when she asked about Kaiparowits, so remote that it was the last mapped area in the Lower 48. “No one has ever asked me about Kaiparowits, much less said they wanted to go there.” It was a while before we left.
The Sheiks trailhead has been moved about a mile east due to a small washout on the road (but it is actually easily drivable). We road walked to the old trailhead. The upper canyon begins shallow and broad but a pour off soon forces decisions. We’d been advised to hug the north wall and then drop down past Yellow House and double back. Finding a way down took a few minutes and roping down our packs.
Yellow House is relatively small. We didn’t find any glyphs and almost no pottery. But we were in the neighborhood of the Ancients finally. Cameras clicked. Each offered observations and commentary on the construction, possible modern stabilizations or ancient remodeling done to the rooms, the elaborate mortaring of one door. We didn’t dawdle. The mask was calling.
A small granary on the north wall warranted a quick visit. Well built and situated on a very accessible shelf not too far up the canyon side, the granary was peculiar in that it had soot covered interior walls. Granaries are for storage, often high up and somewhat hidden from the canyon floors, usually not easily accessible. This one seemed odd to me, but a possible answer could be it was actually a pottery kiln. The amount of pottery sherds around most sites bespeak a huge pottery production process. But we never find the kilns necessary to fire the clay into a pot. Are we looking in the right places? I know nothing about firing pots, but it was a thought.
Soon we hit a decent pour off, but one easily bypassed. A spring feeds the canyon from here and there were impressive hanging gardens on the walls of the pour off. From this point on there were plenty of pools of water on the canyon bottom. Sheiks gets deep very quickly beyond this point.
At the next large pour off Blake and Steph opted to bypass it high and left, but I friction walked the coarse sandstone along the left edge of the pour off, zig zagging back and forth on tiny ridges between thin layers of stone. At the bottom while sitting in the shade against a boulder waiting on my compatriots, voices echoed up from below. Two men were working up the canyon. I watched to see the route they’d take since there was another large pour off with a massive boulder field between us. Turns out they were part of a 6-person group backpacking Grand Gulch. Camping at the confluence with Sheiks, they’d taken a down day to do some more localized exploring. We all talked routes and sites and then went our ways.
The boulder field associated with the pour off we named the Rabbit Hole since you have to scoot under a rectangular leaning slab of sandstone about 8 feet thick, 20 feet wide and 30 feet long near the left side. The passage is easy and unnerving. From this point on we stayed high on the right (north) canyon wall following, losing, and finding a trail. A few scrambles on talus fields of loose rock and sand were frustrating, but mostly it was just getting on the right bench layer or some boulder hopping. I was glad to have some experienced rock hoppers with me and we made use of Blake’s rope several times.
Eventually we hit a ledge where Grand Gulch was visible to our right and Sheiks was below our left. The Thumb rock formation looked pretty cool down in the Gulch. We took photos and rested only a bit knowing the Mask was near.
The final approach was easy along a sandy wet canyon bottom with towering cottonwoods providing a bit of shade. Steph checked out a large empty alcove guarded by an huge cottonwood just before we all spotted the first panel of ancient rock art high above. Cameras clicked as lenses zoomed and random “oh, look at that” comments flew. Blake, cameraless, pressed ahead and worked up to the small remaining ruin, calling down for us to join him. “You are going to like this.” We didn’t tary.
The lower, and more recent, panels were a delight. Headless anthropomorphs in dark red paint, hand prints of all sizes, images of birds (perhaps domesticated turkeys), a back wall of a now fallen room painted black with plastered circles where a finger had created the swirling design often associated with the history of a clan's travels, faint white painted ghost figures. There was much to take in, glyphs and pictographs large and small on nearly every flat surface. Steph spotted some pottery sherds in designs none of us had seen before. Blake found a collection of corn cobs partially hidden by a large rock. And finally Steph spotted the Green Mask high and right.
We searched, photographed, and speculated until retreating to the unused alcove for lunch. After eating, I worked up onto a tilted fallen slab of rock directly under the mask. Laying on my back, zooming my little point and shoot camera I took a few half decent shots of the Green Mask. Archeologists digging this site had found a human head, expertly deboned, the face painted with green and yellow lateral stripes, the hair dyed red and a white yucca rope protruding from one side over the top and into the other side. It was identical to the pictograph. There are other mask pictographs like this one, colored differently but with the rope and other real masks have been unearthed in burial sites. Were these a trophy of war, a strong enemy defeated in battle, his head now a symbol of strength and bravery meant to strike fear into the hearts of potential aggressors as its owner yelled and held the mask high above him in warning? Was this a way of honoring a revered relative or clan leader, preserving his image and thus his/her legacy? The mask offered no answers and simply stared into the canyon as it had for over a thousand years.
Two backpackers came up from Grand Gulch asking if there was water. We pointed them to a pool 30 feet away and they set about filtering. Later as we were leaving, and likely hearing some of our conversations, they asked for a brief history lesson on the area saying these were the first rock art they had seen. Sometimes you have to look up I thought. But their presence explained why the panels of rock art were here. This was a crossroads, the marriage of two large dainages, water reliably available. Travelers, migrants, traders for centuries passed by, stopped, camped. The panels were there to communicate, to record passings, the billboards, newspapers, books of their time. And now they had drawn three more travelers to stare up at them. If only we had not lost the ability to read them. I made sure to leave nothing that marked my passing and taking away only their imprint on me.
We began working up canyon and back towards camp. The exit was easier since the riddle of the route was now ours. We only had to backtrack a few times. I was shocked to see the Rabbit Hole so quickly. It had been a long and tiring but great day. A shower made me feel like a new old man. A steak cooked on my little Weber Q tasted great. Steph wanted instruction on making fire with my fire steel, bark from a juniper and an assemblage of small twigs. She did well and we all enjoyed the fire and conversation until the good day caught up with us.
Day two found us all moving a bit slow. Coffee and breakfast preceded the daily visit to the ranger station and yet another round of questions, with one of Steph’s rather informed questions evoking a response of “where did you hear about that? You shouldn’t know about that!” from a female ranger. Blake and I studied the small selection of books and trinkets for sale.
We opted for a visit to the Citadel, a less strenuous hike than the previous day. Blake and Steph had been there before, but not me. The drive out Cigarette Springs road was bumpy but easy. We walked along the south rim of Road Canyon, staring across the abyss to its north wall searching for the numerous dwellings and graineries that dot the canyon. We spotted perhaps a dozen using binoculars and zoom lenses. Road Canyon had been a very busy place in its day.
Only three small scrambles are required to get to the Citadel. Blake led us expertly through them. The “bridge” out to the peninsula of the Citadel had the remains of two defensive walls and lots of water filled potholes. While the ruin is impressive and largely well preserved, the views and the pure uniquely defensive position of the site are the main draws. There is but one way to approach the Citadel and it is easily defended from a sieging force.
Around the fire that night the conversation turned to the weather. A front was coming through with lots of wind and some serious cold according to the InReach weather forecast. This wasn’t unexpected and, at Steph’s insistence, we’d made reservations in Blanding just in case. The wind really picked up during the night making it a rough one for Blake and Steph in their tall tent. We were definitely headed to Blanding. Blake and Steph opted to do a long scenic drive to get there. I wanted another hike and ruin on Cedar so we split up with plans to rendezvous in Blanding.
I selected Moon House, an interesting ruin in McLoyd Canyon that requires a day pass to limit the number of visitors. Off I went to the ranger station. This time alone. The volunteer ranger was totally disappointed that it was just me. The access to Moon House is off Snow Flat Road, part of the original route taken by the famous Hole in the Rock Mormon pioneers who founded Bluff. The first part of the road seemed pretty good, the spur off to the Moon House trailhead definitely required high clearance.
The trail down to Moonhouse is short but very steep with one ledge that uses a precariously stacked pile of rocks to descend or mount. A howling wind made the drop into McLoyd faintly unnerving blowing sand into my face and eyes. Hitting canyon bottom only means a steep 80 foot scramble up the other side to access the Moon House in its protective alcove.
Others were already there. I explored the outer dwellings until they departed, leaving the main rooms for my own solo entry. By entry I mean only that you enter the outer wall into a unique long vestibule which shelters the entrances to the large inner rooms. Peep holes in the outer wall provided protected viewing of points of entry into the site. The vestibule is decorated with a white band about two feet in height running most of the length of the outer wall of rooms. It is further adorned with a row of filled in white circles running above the banner and paired white triangles at intervals below. The rooms have interior plastering and painting as well. The feeling was one of loudly stated ostentatious opulence.
I only saw one pictograph. No one could miss it. On a rock face above the main rooms and clearly visible to anyone approaching the site was a snake figure, thick, over 6 feet long, white slashes above and below every twist in its red outlined body. To me it screamed clan symbol. The entire Moon House complex runs for over a quarter mile extending both ways from this main dwelling. Well built graneries, various dwellings and one set of rooms with five windows are tucked into crannies along the canyon wall. But none are as dramatic as the main house. None have the snake symbol above. Someone important, powerful, lived here and wanted everyone to know it.
Sand was in my eyes, in my mouth, teeth gritty, my nostrils feeling like twin plots of land ready for planting the sacred corn. I abandoned Moon House just as it’s owners had sometime before the 1300s. A gust of wind hit me broadside as I tried to find a decent hand hold to haul up the wobbly stack of rocks. I cursed and lunged and flopped up on the ledge. Hiking was no longer an option until the gale winds left.
Back in the confines of the truck I nibbled a snack and weighed my options. I could exit as I had come in and drive pavement to Blanding. Safe, easy, boring. Or I could channel the Hole in the Rock folks and complete Snow Flat Road coming out into Comb Wash, drive through Bluff and then on to Blanding. Knowing there is a descending section of Snow Flat called The Twist sort of sealed it for me.
Snow Flat turned out to be an easy crossing of the eastern half of Cedar Mesa, mostly easy riding soft sand with some sections on bumpy bedrock. The road follows a ridge separating McLoyd Canyon on the north and Road Canyon on the south. It descends 1500 feet crossing the flood plane created as Road Canyon plays itself out before linking up with Comb Wash. Driven another day, it would have taken twice the time given the number of scenic viewpoints off either side of the truck. The wind, vicious on the ridgeline, kept me mostly inside and moving.
The Twist is an area of ledges and huge boulders that the Mormons laying out the original road had to traverse in a winding corkscrew of a descent. Today it just makes for fun wheeling and good views east towards the Comb.
The sand crossing the lower stretches of Road Canyon was plenty deep enough to need 4 wheel drive and an attempt at keeping steady forward progress. I hadn't aired down and had no desire to accomplish any sort of recovery in the present conditions. Complicating this was every tumbleweed in Utah bouncing down the road at the truck. Wind gusts created waves of sand 30 feet high that crashed over the truck like a tidal surge on a rocky shore dropping visibility to a few feet. Bushes and small trees had been torn from the loose sand and came flying past the truck’s windows like a witch on a bicycle in a cyclone right after she stole your little dog. I tried to stay sort of on the road and kept catching glimpses of Comb Ridge off to my left.
Pavement felt pretty good when I finally found it. I slowed down to see what was happening in Bluff, but they were buttoned up tight. Rolling into the parking lot at the Super 8 in Blanding I found a sand colored FJ and matching trailer maneuvering into a parking spot. Jeeps and other rigs kept pulling in. Campers of all sorts were abandoning the mesas and ridges as the temperatures plummeted. I felt sorry for all the backpackers and hoped they’d find an alcove out of the wind to ride out the storm. The dust and a few clouds to the west created an eerie metallic gray glow as the sun got lower.
We unpacked what we thought we’d need. My first priority was a shower. The sand poured off and out of me leaving a dune in the bottom of the tub. It felt glorious to be clean again, though I’d find hidden pockets of grit in various personal orifices for the next 48 hours.
In Sandstone Spine, David Roberts refers to Blanding as the most gustorially challenged town in Utah. The three of us perused the extremely short list of restaurants in town and their decidedly limited offerings. We opted to pull out our precooked and vacuumed sealed meals from the coolers and microwave up some dinner as the wind howled outside our modern pueblo.
|All you have is your fire...|
And the place you need to reach