Getting the hell outta the Mojave, and onto Cedar Mesa. (Part 1 of 3)

Rushing water has carved a well defined path through sandstone.

It has been a couple of weeks since I returned to the Mojave, from a week-long excursion to Cedar Mesa in Utah. Since returning I’ve done nothing but procrastinate writing much more than a few sentences about it. I’m not sure why that is. (Pause to clip finger nails.) Like all of my previous excursions to this part of the desert southwest, my expectations were highly exceeded.

It was 10pm on a Monday night, I had spent the previous couple of weeks cooped up around the house for various reasons. I was overwhelmingly feeling antsy, and the normal cure of getting out into my routine places just wasn’t going to cut it. I had already begun to plan what would be my 2016 Utah excursion, but it wasn’t to take place until fall. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go, and go NOW.

I slipped into my wife’s office and said to her, “I’m thinking about a trip. Maybe Utah. I think that I want to leave on Wednesday morning. I’ll be gone for a week, are you cool with that?”

She turned and looked at me with a relieved look on her face, “Yes, go.  We’ve gotten on each others nerves with you sitting around the house. Besides I think you could use a getaway.”

There you have it guys, the wife that every guy wants! The one that doesn’t want you around the house!

(Extended break: Pet cat, randomly brush teeth, refill glass of water)

I spent Tuesday morning running around town like an asshole trying to pick up random items that I would need for the trip. During the afternoon I sat down with what little research I had done on the area, and devised a game plan. I’d only have four full days of hiking, the drive from Joshua Tree to the small little Utah city of Blanding was nine hours if driven non-stop, taking up an additional entire two days.

For those unaware, Cedar Mesa is essentially one giant outdoor archaeological museum. Hundreds of cliff dwelling and ruins still cling to the sides of canyons, and thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs can be found tucked away in just about every nook and cranny. The Anasazi, or Ancestral Pueblon inhabited the region from the late BC years until around the late AD 1200s.

For the most part Cedar Mesa is open without restriction to backpacking, hiking, and self exploration. Something that is becoming less and less common in the western United States. The only exception being a limited number of permits available per day to Moon House, a popular, and well-preserved cliff dwelling, and overnight backpacking permits for Grand Gulch.

Wednesday morning came quickly. I loaded up the Jeep, and managed to be on the road by around 8am. To be completely honest, the first half of the drive is probably one of my least favorite stretches of Mojave Desert highway. Highway 40 from Amboy, through Needles, and Kingman are just mind numbing highway miles. It isn’t until you leave Kingman, and start climbing toward Williams that the landscape really grabs a hold of you. The Kalibab National Forest being breathtaking with its mixture of ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, aspen, blue spruce, oak, pinyon pine, and juniper.

 

Kalibab National Forest

Kalibab National Forest

 

Williams, AZ is always a mandatory stop for a few breaths of fresh mountain air, a quick stretch of the legs, a restroom, gasoline, coffee, and some less than stellar fast food.

From Williams, it is on to Flagstaff, the last stretch of Highway 40! No more tractor trailers cutting me off in the fast lane because they can go 3 miles per hour faster than the truck that was in front of them! I jumped on Highway 89 North toward Marble Canyon, and Page, passing Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments. I’ve been this way several times, having fond memories of my trips to Vermilion Cliffs and the Grand Staircase Escalante. Coming down off of the mountain pass and into the desert, I could see the red rock cliffs of the Vermilion Cliffs in the far distance. Images of October’s hike down Buckskin Canyon and the Paria flashed in my mind, bringing a smile to face. Part of me felt sad that I’d be turning before reaching them.

Roughly half way between Flagstaff and Page, I turned east on 160 toward Tuba City. This is the western boarder of the 27,413 square mile, Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation sprawls out across portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest Native sovereign nation in the United States, and contains Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Monument Valley, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the Shiprock monadnock, along with the eastern portion of the Grand Canyon.

The drive on Highway 160 is long, but beautiful. I commonly looked out across the desert to see wild horses grazing and frolicking about. The highway traveling through sparsely populated communities with interesting names, like, Rare Metals, Dennehotso, Mexican Water, and Baby Rocks.

Reaching the Monument Valley gateway community of Kayenta, I noticed a dramatic change in the landscape. This was the true beginnings of the land of red rock, plateaus, canyons, and stunning rock formations. In the distance I could see some of the famous formations of the Valley, I ogled briefly, but pressed on.

The final stretch was Highway 191, allowing me to escape Arizona, and enter southeastern Utah.  I traveled through the small town of Bluff, UT. Bluff was founded in 1880 as a Mormon farming community. Today it appears to serve more as a tourist stop with shops, restaurants and boutique hotels lining the highway through town.

From Bluff, it was onto Blanding. My final destination of the day, and where I would lay my head at night for the next five days.

Blanding was founded in the late 1800s by Walter C. & Joseph Lyman, and named Grayon, after the wife of Joseph Lyman. In 1914, Thomas F. Bicknell, a wealthy easterner offered a thousand-volume library to any Utah town that would change its name in his honor. The town of Grayson obliged, changing the town’s name to Blanding, after Bicknell’s wife’s maiden name.

 

Joseph & Nellie Lyman, along with their daughter Nellie.

Joseph & Nellie Lyman, along with their daughter Nellie.

 

Blanding is an odd little place with a personality disorder. On one hand they want to be, and advertise themselves as the “Basecamp to Adventure,” yet they don’t cater well to the needs of travelers and the outdoors adventure type. Restaurants are far and few between, and offer the most unimpressive array of menu options; i.e. pizza, burgers, hot wings, and  other fast food type dishes. There are no gear shops, worthwhile chachkie shops, and nowhere in town to find a damn beer. Yes, Blanding is a 100% dry town that has clung to their Mormon morals. Back in 2013 the town tried to introduce alcohol sales, but the city council voted it down. So why are they trying to be something that you obviously don’t want to be?

I arrived in Blanding around 5pm local time, and immediately checked into my hotel, before grabbing a bite to eat. The hotel was dead, only around five cars in the entire parking lot. My room was nice sized, and clean. Not much more that I could have asked for.

I drove around town looking for a place to eat, and settled on the Patio Drive-In, essentially a fast food restaurant that gets pissed off when you call them fast food. Their menu was simple, and filled only with American favorites; ie. burgers, cheese steaks, chicken fingers. I decided on their house specialty burger, “The BigB Burger“. Essentially a 1/2 pound patty, american cheese, lettuce, onion, pickle, tomato, and a “special sauce” (no, it’s not 1,000 Island Dressing). It was served with a basket of fresh-cut fries, and their own special ketchup sauce. Everything was delicious!

After dinner, I returned to my room, planned the following day, then shut off the lights. I had an ambitious day planned, which included all the sites that I had most been most looking forward to, including Moon House, The Citadel, and Seven Kivas. Because Moon House required a permit, and only 20 are issued per day, that meant that I needed to be at the Ranger Station bright and early, hopefully beating out the crowd.

 

BLM map of the Cedar Mesa area.

BLM map of the Cedar Mesa area.

 

I woke up refreshed, and ready for the days adventure. I managed to be out the door before 7am, and arrived at the Ranger Station at 7:30am.  They weren’t open yet, and the parking lot was empty. It looked good that I’d be able to get the Moon House permit. A few minutes after arriving a volunteer opened the door, and invited me inside. They didn’t technically open until 8am, but this guy was eager to help. I told him that I’d like to obtain a Moon House permit, to which he crushed me with the news that road to it had deep standing water on it, and they wouldn’t issue permits until it dried. Bummed, I asked him about the condition of Cigarette Spring Road, another unimproved dirt road, which leads out to The Citadel, Seven Kivas, and a couple of other sites. He further destroyed me with the news that it too was impassable.

Everything that I had planned for the day had just been taken away from me in a matter of minutes. I then asked about all the other locations that I had planned to visit over the coming days, they all checked out fine. I wasn’t sure how to rearrange my day to make the best use of time, so I asked about any nearby “rock art” sites. Shockingly I received a very helpful response, and he ran off several options, even pointing them out on a map. Nowhere that I ever been has a BLM volunteer spoken so openly about the subject, and the locations of “rock art.”

With some new information at my finger tips, I got my day going. My first hike was to be to Perfect Kiva in Slickhorn Canyon.  I had planned this hike as a seven mile round trip excursion, visiting not only the Perfect Kiva, but some grainery ruins, and pictographs that are close to the confluence of Slickhorn and Grand Gulch. After my devastating news, I was excited to get my feet on the ground, and actually see something.

The hike began at the end of Slick Horn Road. The landscape was simply stunning with red sand, from eroded sandstone rock formations, pine trees, rabbit brush, cacti, and even succulents. There really is no reason to wonder why the Mormons choose Utah as their promised land, it is simply a heaven on earth.

 

The wash leading to Slickhorn Canyon was considerably wet from snow melt off.

The wash leading to Slickhorn Canyon was considerably wet from snow melt off.

 

Rushing water has carved a well defined path through sandstone.

Rushing water has carved a well defined path through sandstone.

 

 

The first mile and a half of the hike followed along a wash carved out of the desert by centuries of flash flooding. There was snow along the banks in places that the sun likely doesn’t penetrate often, or maybe ever. I had been informed that it had snowed there just a few weeks prior, but now the temperatures were in the 70s, and the melt off was apparent by the large puddles of water that sat stagnant in pools on the polished sandstone. Few people had been here since the melt-off began, I followed only a couple of sets of footprints down the meandering wash.

I reached the end of the wash, and looked down a several hundred foot vertical drop-off into Slickhorn Canyon. Scary, I thought. Or maybe it was terrifying. What I do know is that I was thankful that there was a known work around. I climbed up a series of boulders onto a shelf in the canyon, following it for less than a quarter of a mile to the recommended drop in location, it was directly above the location of the Perfect Kiva that I was seeking out. But, I didn’t like what I saw. There wasn’t even so much as a goat trail that I could make out, just a very sketchy path that was nearly vertical. My first thought was that I had come this far, and I was going to go for it. I scooted myself over the ledge, and grabbed a hold of the roots of a nearby bush. Then I froze, sat down to the best of my ability, and looked around.

 

The pour-off into Slickhorn Canyon. A several hundred foot plummet into the canyon from the rim.

The pour-off into Slickhorn Canyon. A several hundred foot plummet into the canyon from the rim.

 

Looking south down Slickhorn Canyon from the rim, toward the location of Perfect Kiva.

Looking south down Slickhorn Canyon from the rim, toward the location of Perfect Kiva.

 

Perfect Kiva sits directly below this pinnacle.

Perfect Kiva sits directly below this pinnacle.

 

“Fuck this, Fuck this, Fuck this!” ran over and over through my mind. There was no way in hell that I was going down there. I was pissed at myself. I’ve always been scared of heights, but I had overcome that on many of occasions, but that wasn’t happening today. Maybe if I had had somebody with me, but I was alone, and there only having been a couple of sets of footprints in the wash above, who knew when the next person would be by. If I fell, I had a better chance of ravens ripping the flesh from my bones, and gouge out my eyeballs than somebody find me in a reasonable amount of time.

So far my entire day was in disarray. I pulled myself up, and back onto the ledge. I then proceed to hike my ass back to the Jeep as fast as I could.  I had to salvage the day in some way, if my first day was a complete bust, I would have been heart broken. I managed to get out of there in just short of an hour. It was 11:30am already, I had about six hours of daylight left. Where to go?

I pulled out my National Geographic Map of Cedar Mesa, and began hunting for Collins Canyon, a location that the friendly BLM volunteer had recommended earlier that morning. Finding it on the western border of Cedar Mesa, I realized that it was going to be a bit of a haul to get there, at least an hour drive. I put the pedal to the metal, and arrived at the trailhead just as expected, it was 12:30pm.

The BLM dude told me to head down Collins Canyon, and at the confluence with Grand Gulch to hang a right. I’d find a panel of pictographs at roughly three and a half miles from the trailhead. With five hours of daylight left, I felt rushed, not knowing what the terrain ahead posed.

 

Upper Collins Canyon. Collins Canyon provides easy access to Grand Gulch.

Upper Collins Canyon. Collins Canyon provides easy access to Grand Gulch.

 

Getting into Collins Canyon was simple, with no vertical drop, but a rocky and sandy slope down to the bottom. The upper reaches of Collins was wide, and spacious. Pine trees grew frequently along the canyon floor, and high above on the shelves.

At a mile, I came across the ruins of an old cowboy camp among a outcropping of enormous boulders, and a natural shelter in the canyon wall. It was quite picturesque with old cans, bottles, cooking utensils, and tools strung about. Remnants of an old fence, or hitching post lie collapsed on the ground, and a dug out in perfect condition, with logs enclosing it. Inside a collection of old boxes of Rosebud Matches, and Sego Milk. The camp conjured up images of John Wayne, or any other movie cowboy for that matter, sitting around a fire, enjoying a smoke, eating beans, and swapping lies with his compadres.

 

A treasure trove of rusty treasure!

A treasure trove of rusty treasure!

 

A can of Columbine Milk, dating to the mid-1940s.

A can of Columbine Milk, dating to the mid-1940s.

 

Dug out storage facility, probably used as cold storage.

Dug out storage facility, probably used as cold storage.

 

In the storage facility are Sego Milk and Rosebud match boxes.

In the storage facility are Sego Milk and Rosebud match boxes.

 

The amount of historic trash at the camp indicates extensive use.

The amount of historic trash at the camp indicates extensive use.

 

Continuing further along in Collins, the canyon dropped over several spill-overs, each having a well-defined work-around. The trail meandered back and forth between the wash, and the banks above. It was fairly easy walking. I kept my eyes peeled for any sign of ruins or “rock art” in the canyon, but besides the cowboy camp, Collins came up empty in that department.

I reached the confluence of Collins and Grand Gulch in a little over an hour. It could have been much quicker, but I spent a considerable amount of time gawking at the alluring scenery. Following the directions that the volunteer had given me, I hung a right into Grand Gulch. For whatever reason I was thinking that the pictograph panel that I was looking for was relatively close to the confluence, so I stepped up my game considerably in my search for signs of the ancients.

 

A pour off in Collins Canyon. There are several, but each are easily by-passable.

A pour off in Collins Canyon. There are several, but each are easily by-passable.

 

Temperatures were in the 70s, yet ice was a regular occurrence in Collins Canyon. Canyon walls sometimes block sunlight from ever directly penetrating areas.

Temperatures were in the 70s, yet ice was a regular occurrence in Collins Canyon. Canyon walls sometimes block sunlight from ever directly penetrating areas.

 

Near the confluence of Collins Canyon and Grand Gulch.

Near the confluence of Collins Canyon and Grand Gulch.

 

Finding nothing, I was getting considerably pissed off, the scenery no longer holding my interest. It was going on 3:00pm, and I felt like the entire first day was a waste of time. Every step that I took was now accompanied by negativity, and self loathing.

Reaching an area marked on the map as “The Narrows,” I knew that it was time to turn around. I had not come prepared for night hiking, and didn’t want to have to exit a canyon that I was unfamiliar with in the dark.

“The Narrows,” is essentially a narrow passage way in the sandstone canyon wall, where water managed to break its way through, creating a shortcut through winding Grand Gulch. I found it inviting, and decided to take a closer look before making the hike back.

Lodged several feet up between the passage there was a log and debris dangling down toward a considerable puddle below, with an adult Tiger salamander swimming around inside. Tiger salamanders are pretty common in the region, but adults are rarely found out in the open. They tend to stay in their burrows during the day, emerging to hunt at night. They return to water usually only to breed, and are known to not wander far from their birthplace.  I watched the adorable little alien looking lizard for a few minutes, impressed with his aquatic abilities.

 

"The Narrows," is essentially a narrow passage way in the sandstone canyon wall, where water managed to break its way through, creating a shortcut through winding Grand Gulch.

“The Narrows,” is essentially a narrow passageway in the sandstone canyon wall, where water managed to break its way through, creating a shortcut through winding Grand Gulch.

 

An adult Tiger Salamander enjoying the water at "The Narrows".

An adult Tiger Salamander enjoying the water at “The Narrows”.

 

On the opposite side of “The Narrows,” a shabby little trail caught my attention. Figuring what the hell, I decided to follow it. It went up the embankment, and across a wide open field, toward a shelf on a canyon wall. Maybe, just maybe I had just stumbled upon something, just as I was ready to throw in the towel.

As I approached the red rock cliffs, something caught my eye. It was an image of figures holding hands, painted all in white. A sense of relief rushed over me, this small victory positively altered my mood.

 

Pictograph panel of anthropomorphic figures joining hands.

Pictograph panel of anthropomorphic figures joining hands.

 

Close-up of panel.

Close-up of panel.

 

The cliff, and horseshoe like canyon.

The cliff, and horseshoe like canyon.

 

A combination of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs in orange and white.

A combination of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic designs in orange and white.

 

I dropped my pack, and climbed up onto the ledge. The white anthropomorphic figures were simple stick figure like designs, in two separate groups.  One of the groups was joined by a bird like figure, and the other a dog. Could these depictions be of families that once lived here, or maybe the recording of a spiritual ritual? Either is possible, along with a host of other  explanations.

Walking along the ledge, I found dozens of additional designs, some painted in white, others in orange. Many were faded to the extent that they were visually hard to see. Along with the pictographs, there was evidence of their having been structures built along the ledge. What remained wasn’t much to look at, essentially only a trace of the stone walls that had been used as a dwelling, or even a grainery.  Much of the Grand Gulch had been pillaged and looted by explorers in the late 1800s, so it is very possible that this was one of those sites, destroyed to fill museums with artifacts to be kept under glass.

 

The wall along the ledge was highly decorated. Some far more faded than others.

The wall along the ledge was highly decorated. Some far more faded than others.

 

Severely damaged or deteriorated cliff dwelling or grainery.

Severely damaged or deteriorated cliff dwelling or grainery.

 

Looting of Native American sites in the late 1800s was common, and often referred to as an "expedition".

Looting of Native American sites in the late 1800s was common, and often referred to as an “expedition”.

 

It was going on 4:30pm. I was rushed, but ecstatic about my find. I quickly hiked my way back up Grand Gulch, and Collins Canyon, returning just as the last glimmer of sunlight flashed across the land. Day one was complete, and I was hopeful that my luck would turn around on day two.

 

CONTINUE TO PART II

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

  • pat

    What an ordeal! All is well, that ends well…
    Great post Jim! Loved it…