I woke up on the morning of day three with the news of a winter storm possibly arriving in the region the following day. I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out, I had the day to watch the weather patterns and hopefully make a decision by that evening. I knew that I wanted to avoid the storm if possible, the thought of fighting snow in Flagstaff on my home didn’t exactly excite me.
When I left the hotel in the morning I didn’t have much of a plan. I had thought about going back to the Ranger station for an update on visiting Moon House, The Citadel, and other ruins that has previously not been accessible. I went off in that direction, but made a detour to try to find the Target Ruins, and Ballroom Cave in Butler Wash on the west side of Comb Ridge.
The trailhead is located along Utah 95, but completely unmarked. There is a small parking area big enough for a few vehicles, it was empty at this early time of day. These locations not being sites that I had researched prior to my trip, I wasn’t positive of their exact locations, but I had a pretty good hunch that I’d be able to locate them with some work.
A decently traversed trail routed its way through the stunning red rock cliff canyon, a perennial spring running down the middle, the trail wandered back and forth across it. The canyon was jammed with towering trees, and lush vegetation, reminding me of canyons that I’ve hiked in Zion National Park.
Several social trails led up steep, high embankments that overlook the canyon. One caught my eye, while climbing up to it, I thought that I had found the Ballroom Cave. Upon seeing it, I knew that couldn’t be right. Ballroom Cave was supposed to be much larger and cavernous, at least from the descriptions that I had read. This cave had a thick soot covering the ceiling, a stone sat at the entrance with a singular swirling petroglyph adorning it, and a small collapsing stone wall stood in the corner. While obviously having been inhabited, it was not the cave that I was looking for.
Back down in the wash, I continued further up the canyon for another quarter of a mile. Another social trail leading back up the embankment grabbed my attention. I followed it up to yet another shallow cave dwelling. Near the back of the cave were two metates and a handful of corn husks. Once again, not the ruins that I was looking for, but still a great little site.
On the other side of the cave I found a trail extending out along the embankment. It was kind of sketchy, appearing to not receive much in the way of foot traffic. I took my chances, and followed it as oppose to dropping back down into the wash. The trail rounded a bend, at which point I could clearly see the large wall of a cliff dwelling in an alcove a hundred feet above me. With a great deal of excitement I made my way up to the ruins.
The ruins were extensive, by far the largest that I had come across during my three days on Cedar Mesa. From hundreds of years of neglect and abandonment, like many of the cliff dwellings in the region, the Ballroom Cave Ruins are in a serious state of despair. Many of the walls have crumbled, exposing the interior, and the lumber utilized as support beams. The structure reminded me of a fortress, as oppose to a home. It is very likely that it may have served as both.
Behind the cliff dwelling was the monstrous mouth of the Ballroom Cave. I dug through my daypack in search of my headlamp, I had a pretty good idea that I was going to need it. The entrance dropped down several feet to the bottom of the cave. Along the way down were more than a dozen metates along the top of twenty-foot boulder slab, moki steps leading up to them.
It was dark, and dank inside. I turned on my headlamp, which still didn’t allow me to see the full cave. I felt like an intruder, like I was in someones home. In physical form the Anasazi are no longer there, but spiritually they still exist. Images of the people flashed before my eyes, and the sound of their tools filled my ears. I could hear stones abrasively rubbing against one another, grinding corn into cornmeal. In the corner sat an old wrinkled couple having a conversation in a dialect that I could not understand, while young men squared the edges of blocks built of stone, and placed them neatly on a wall. It was happening all around me, but abruptly came to an end when I tripped over a rock, landing face first into a powdery dust.
While dusting myself off, I noticed a stone wall with a doorway separating a portion of the cave. The room was empty, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the room was used for. I assume food storage, but anything is possible.
I could have spent the entire day at Ballroom Cave, but it was time to go. I still had Target Ruin to try to track down, and I had a suspicion that I had somehow managed to pass it on my through the canyon. I went with that gut instinct and started back in the direction that I had come.
It wasn’t long after that I ran into a couple, hiking in the canyon. They were the first people I had met on a trail in three days. I stopped to chat with them for a bit, asking if they were looking for the Ballroom Cave, and Target Ruin, which they indeed were. They had already found the Target Ruin, they provided me with some details on where I would find the trail. I returned the favor, giving them directions to Ballroom. I was taken aback when they suddenly asked if I was Death Valley Jim. It turned out that they were big fans. Never in a million years did I expect to run into anyone 600 miles from my stomping ground in the middle of a canyon in Utah, that knew who I am. We chatted for some time about various places in California, Arizona, and Utah, making suggestions to each other about places worth seeing.
After fifteen minutes we bid each other a farewell, and I returned to looking for Target Ruin. It wasn’t but ten minutes, when I found the little goat trail that they had described to me. It left the canyon floor, and went straight up the embankment. When I reached the top I could make out what appeared to be a stone wall in a small alcove about a quarter of a mile away. As I neared it, I grew frustrated. The ruins were not the Target Ruins, but rather a small crumbling wall. I kept walking toward them anyway, hoping that maybe there was something more.
To reach the alcove, I had to drop into a side canyon, that wasn’t visible from Butler Wash. That was when I realized that the Target Ruins had been obscured the entire time. There they were, perched up in an alcove overlooking the canyon. Both fortunate, and unfortunate was their location, completely inaccessible without a ladder. This likely playing a role in their pristine condition, keeping the idiots that would loot or destroy at bay.
Across the canyon from the Target Ruins was the alcove with the small wall inside. I climbed up hoping to get a better view of the ruins across the way. There were a couple of petroglyphs, and a metate stone inside. The real gem however was across the canyon. From this vantage I was able to see just how well the cliff dwelling has held up. The walls, and the roof remained in intact, and a large “target” pictograph painted in white adorned an inside wall. At one time it appears that the same symbol was painted on an outside wall, but weather has erased it for the most part.
Target Ruin ended up being everything that I had hoped for, plus much more. The condition of the dwelling looking as though someone could still live there today.
By the time I got back to my vehicle half of the day was gone, and clouds had begun blanketing the sky. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the last half of the day. I really wanted to go back to the east side of Comb Ridge, especially if my trip was going to be cut a day short, but time didn’t allow for it. Moon House and The Citadel were also out, my new friends that I had met in the canyon told me that they had stopped at the Ranger Station earlier that morning, and were told they couldn’t access the sites. UGH! So frustrating.
I had one other ruin in my back pocket, but I wasn’t exactly excited about it, the House on Fire Ruin. The hike to House on Fire Ruin has caught on, becoming a popular destination in the last few years. It was popularized by photographers because when the sun hits it, it “sets the ruin on fire.” I really wanted to avoid this location, but with the day half over, I didn’t want to attempt to get into anything crazy.
Five vehicles were at the Mule Canyon South Fork trailhead when I arrived. This would usually result in a big NOPE, but I went through with it anyway. The hike in was short, only about 1.5 miles in each direction over relatively easy terrain. There were a few instances where the trail went back and forth across a spring. On the way in I passed a few people coming back from the House on Fire, giving me some hope that I may have the place to myself when I arrived. The sky was also not ideal for the fire illusion, so I thought that should keep most photographers away.
As I neared the ruins, I could hear the sound of children screaming and adults carrying on a loud conversation. F.M.L., I thought. Soon I could see them in action, children scrambling around boulders, adults sitting around chatting, not discouraging their children from being little assholes near an ancient ruin. I said hello, then did my best to ignore their existence. The chaos ensued for another ten minutes before the adults began screaming for their children, that it was time to go.
This brings me to a subject that has always annoyed me. When you are in the wilderness, shut the hell up! Nobody wants to have their experience ruined by you or your bratty kids. Most of us go to these places to NOT have to interact with other people, and definitely not to hear your fat-ass mouth screaming YOLO. Please, just shut the hell up already!
House on Fire is a pretty pristine ruin, but not a house as the name suggests. It was actually a granary, used by the Anasazi to store corn, probably for the larger set of cliff dwellings further up Mule Canyon (which I didn’t have the opportunity to visit on this trip). All in all, House on Fire didn’t live up to the hype for me, there is far more interesting sites, this is just a ruse to keep tourist entertained, and not too far off the beaten track.
With day three coming to a close and day four hanging in the balance, if my trip ended here, I was without a doubt able to say with confidence that it was a success. That evening I kept a close eye on the forecast. Nothing had changed since the morning, it looked like there was definitely going to be some precipitation the following afternoon.
When I woke in the morning, I was surprised to see that it had already started to rain overnight. I decided that it was in my best interest to checkout, and go home. After breakfast I packed my things, and loaded them into the Jeep. Meanwhile the sky began clearing a bit. There appeared to be a break in the storm! I thought it over, and decided to spend the first half of the day hiking on the east side of Comb Ridge, then make the 600 hundred mile drive home.
The drive down Butler Wash Road was a little muddy, but completely passable. I wanted to get two short hikes. On the agenda was Cold Spring Cave, and Split Level Ruins, both cliff dwellings along the eastern spine of Comb Ridge. I had highly anticipated both Cold Spring and Split Level, having read that the “rock art” at both of these sites were fabulous.
I reached the trailhead for Cold Spring Cave by 8am. The hike was short, less than a mile in each direction. Like most of the Comb Ridge hikes the trail begins along the banks of Butler Wash, and crosses a small stretch of the valley before entering a canyon along the ridge. Everything was damp from the early morning rain, the trail a bit slick with a fresh layer of mud. Despite the conditions, I managed to be standing in front of the ruins in twenty minutes.
Cold Springs Cave was similar to a majority of the ruins that I had visited over the three previous days. It was a structure in distress, much of it toppled over, and looted.
The cave was discovered in 1892 by the American Exploring Expedition. Their account of finding the cave is as follows:
“In the immense sandstone spur outcropping between Butler’s Wash and Comb Wash, about ten miles north of the San Juan River, we noticed a large cave in one of the deep canyons in the ledge, and, examining it with our field glasses we thought we could distinguish ruins near the opening. Four of us started to investigate and found it a cavern of great dimensions, with the whole floor under the overhanging ledge studded with ruins. The canyon in which this picturesque cave town is situated is wild and beautiful, shut in on all sides by high sandstone cliffs, and having only one narrow entrance. The foliage is almost tropical in its luxuriousness. We found cactus plants of gigantic size, and grass and flowering plants over a foot in height, while the bare rocky ledges were studded with cedars, cottonwood and pinions. This luxurious growth of cactus and of other plants which were stunted upon mesas is probably caused by the heat being retained in the bare, rocky ledges, thus producing the forcing effect of a green house. We have named the place Cold Spring Cave, on account of the fine spring of cold, clear water away in the back interior of the cave. it flows out from under the heavy sandstone ledge into a round, clear pool, and, after passing through a short outlet, sinks into the ground and disappears, not half a dozen feet from where it started.”
The spring described by A.E.E. is still there today, but now more of a seep than a full-blown spring. The rear of the cave is damp with a significant amount of moss growing, but there are no clear pools of water. Nearby is a rock that is inscribed, “1892 – Cold Springs Cave – I.A.E.E.”
As for the “rock art,” there was indeed a good amount, all of it being similar to designs found at other locations at Comb Ridge, consisting mostly of hand prints.
Moving along to the Split Level Ruins, I was really hoped to go out with a bang. While the Cold Spring Cave was interesting, it really wasn’t all that I had hoped for.
The hike into Split Level was one the shortest and easiest of all the Comb Ridge hikes, it also qualifies as the most beautiful. After a short hike across the open valley, the trail enters a beautiful canyon that curves through red rock cliffs. Trees and vegetation are abundant, and pools of rainwater were cached along the wash that runs through the canyon.
I began finding archeological ruins almost immediately, spotting a single pair of hand prints painted in white along the first alcove in the canyon. Across from it, a high embankment obscured the view of the canyon walls above. I noticed something unusual, and decided to investigate. Sitting along the upper banks of the wash there was a boulder with several metates ground into it, along with a dozen very old, and weathered looking petroglyphs. The walls behind contained dozens of hand prints in orange, along with anthropomorphic figures, and a host of other images in both black and yellow that have faded to the point that they are nearly invisible.
The Split Level Ruins were dead ahead, from the wash I could see the upper shelf of ruins in the distance. A large amphitheater surrounding the ruins from both sides. I approached along the wall from the east side. There was a significant number of petroglyphs along the wall, and few pictographs from time to time. I thought this was quite peculiar; at all the cliff dwelling sites that I had visited, pictographs had far out numbered petroglyphs. Many of the designs appeared to be very old, sometimes they had weathered so much that they were hard to see without scanning the wall carefully. This may indicate that the Split Level Ruins are older than other ruins in the vicinity.
The upper level ruins were inaccessible, at least not by any easy means. I didn’t bother to attempt anything, instead I ventured to the lower ruins along the north wall. Here the ruins were ground level. Along the north wall pictographs were the dominating type of “rock art,” with some petroglyphs mixed in. One of the most interesting panels that I encountered during the trip I found on the back wall of the ruins. A series of hand prints painted in orange, along with a petroglyph of a pair of hands with fingers three times the length of normal fingers. It was odd, and kind of creepy. Was this simply an artistic expression, or the hands of some sort of monster?
Split Level Ruins did not disappoint, and were exactly what I needed to finished off another grand Utah adventure. I high tailed it out of Utah, through Arizona, and on back to California, only stopping to pee and gas up along the way.
See you again soon, Utah!