Saturday, March 26, 2016

Spring Break: Cedar Mesa Ruins

A structure in Step Canyon, one of the side canyons of Grand Gulch on its northwest side.
(Click images to view larger)

We spent our spring break on Cedar Mesa (Utah) again this year, along with my sister, Kim, her husband T and son Ruess (named after Everett), my other sister’s son, Manny, and our Laramie friends, Dave Fay and Amy Fluet and their kids, Sam and Eliza. It was a big group, so we camped at Natural Bridges, but we left each day to explore a different canyon or site.

We don’t go to Cedar Mesa every year, but it’s one of my favorite places. Not only are the canyons beautiful, but they are full of the remains of thousands of years of human use. The last major occupation, not counting our group, ended suddenly around 1200 A.D. for reasons that remain unclear: drought or conflict are the most common explanations. It’s estimated that at least a half million people must be buried across the mesa, many near cliff dwellings that can still be visited, or associated with pit houses that are harder to find. Unfortunately, many (most?) of the sites have been ravaged by pot hunters, most infamously from Blanding, though certainly not exclusively so. I’ve never found an intact pot, though potsherds are everywhere.

I recently read Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, by the Craig Childs, the long-time desert explorer and writer. Childs does an exceptional job of probing the tension between our urge to find and keep treasures (or more basely to sell them for financial gain) and the value of leaving sites and artifacts intact out of respect for their originators and for the enjoyment of those who will come exploring after us. “At this point,” Childs says in the book, “considering all that has been removed, it is worth leaving the last pieces where they lie.”

I think it is Childs (I’ve read several of his books on the SW) who speaks of living museums, places where he has found and left significant artifacts, mapped only in his memory.

I haven’t spent enough time on Cedar Mesa to join the ranks of those (there are more than a few) who know of secret sites and perhaps have their own living museums of intact artifacts, but I have poked my head into enough hidden alcoves, some obscure, to know that little has been left undisturbed. Cedar Mesa is a beautiful place, and too topographically complex for any one person to ever know completely, and that gives every canyon its own mystique.

An unusually large potsherd: Step Canyon

Bei in Step Canyon

Bei looking at potsherds washed downslope from a midden and ruin. Step Canyon.

Sam Fay levitating his sister, Eliza, at the trailhead for Collins Spring Canyon.

Random stuff in an old cowboy camp under an alcove in Collins Spring Canyon.

Bei, Eliza and T in the "Narrows" of Grand Gulch, just downstream of its junction with Collins Spring Canyon.

Kim and T hiking out to the Citadel Ruin, which is perched on a peninsula of sandstone high above Road Canyon.

The down-scramble to the Citadel approach.

Ellen just before the long rock bridge to the Citadel.

Lunch at the Citadel, with Sam Fay using his orange skin to illustrate the level of recent Presidential Primary debate. And from another time: Nixon's head is in the background.

The Citadel.

The Citadel ruin, from the approach.

Leaving the Citadel site by crossing the sandstone rib that leads to it.

Desert pothole near the Citadel.

Descending into McCloyd Canyon to visit the Moon House ruin.

Inside the front hallway of the Moon House. 

Kim emerging from the Moon House.

The painted hallway of the Moon House.

Cousins: Bei, Manny, and Ruess.  

A smaller ruin near the Moon House.

Ruins along the ledge to the right of the Moon House.

Family photo at the Moon House. Top L to R: T, Manny, Ruess. Bottom L to R: Ellen, Bei, Kim, me.

The Fluet-Fays at the Moon House: L to R: Amy, Sam, Eliza, Dave.

Hiking on the ledge below the Moon House.

Climbing back out of McCloyd Canyon.

Kim and her family put the rest of us to shame at mealtime. Here they cook pre-prepped Kielbasa, while the rest of us prepare our pitiful camping food. They were kind enough to share with those of us who crave meat.

A ruin in the Fishmouth Cave area along Comb Ridge, south of Hwy. 95.


  1. I have to admit, I've become a real desert rat since leaving Wyoming, and the red rock country is by far my favorite. I've been to all these places (some several times). The Citadel is awesome and when I went to Moon House, I walked right past it - never even spotted it until I gave up after walking about a mile up-canyon and turning around. So many places, so little time...

    1. Jim. I'm still in Wyoming, but the desert is where I most enjoy spending time. I just wish I could spend more time down there.