Anasazi Trek 2008

What follows is a report on three days of exploring in the backcountry of southeastern Utah and northern Arizona. A slideshow of images illustrating the whole can be found halfway through the account.

DAY ONE

Today we hunted Anasazi ruins.

There’s a story behind this, as you would imagine, and it has to do with my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, as you probably would not imagine.

You see, my family has always been a bit on the, well, adventuring side of things. Growing up, my vacations were only rarely to amusement parks and tourist traps. No, we were more apt to pack full our big four wheel drive rig, hitch up the trailer, and drive up to the mountains where we’d pass the time rattling up old mining roads, hiking over pristine mountainsides, and generally enjoying the outdoors. My parents thus instilled in me a love of adventure.

They’re retired now, but that hasn’t slowed them down a bit — which brings us to today. Mom and Dad are celebrating their 40th this year, and when asked what they wanted to do to celebrate they said they’d like to go on a little adventure for a week, with my brother and me — the four of us, just like old times. And the destination? A hidden, uncharted Anasazi ruin they’d seen on a hike out in the boonies a year or so ago.

Yes, my parents are that cool.

The ruin is in a somewhat well known canyon, and they’d been hiking there to see some other, known ruins, when Dad stopped in one spot to, ah, water a bush. While doing so, he caught sight — barely — of a ruin high up on the cliffside. He tried to climb up to it, but he couldn’t reach it. There was a cliff in the way. He got enough of a look, though, to know it was something pretty special. It appeared to be untouched, still in good shape, and — most fascinating — there were three very large pictographs painted on the cliff wall above it: three moons, one of them in half-phase. Very interesting.

So we hiked in to it today.

We’d spent some time poring over Dad’s photos in addition to satellite imagery in the days leading up to this, and we’d determined that an assault from the canyon rim would be better than one from the canyon floor. We parked on an old red-dust road on the mesa top, popped open some GPS units to get a bearing to our destination, and headed off.

The hike to the canyon edge turned out to be easy enough, and once there it wasn’t a rough jaunt at all down to a position immediately below the ruin, which is perched on a hanging point with some rather significant drops all around. A bit like a miniature version of Minas Tirith: a prow sticking out of the rock.

What followed were several hours of hemming and hawing about how in heck to get up there without killing someone.

During the course of this debate I wandered down below our position, where I found a ledge wrapped partway around the little hanging point atop which sits what we began calling Moon Phase Ruin. The ledge was stable, and wide enough to walk easily along it without fear of falling — unless you’ve got vertigo or something. I started walking.

And, holy smoke, right there on that ledge I found a beautiful petroglyph of a man with big feet aimed further down the ledge, his arms outstretched in that same direction, fingers splayed. And behind him appeared to be a little moon.

Finding something like that is amazing enough, of course, but it was all the more exciting that the etched fellow seemed to be directing me forward: go this way to get to Moon Phase Ruin.

Look! I thought, I found the secret way up!

Alas, no. At least not anymore. It may be that the ancient figure was indicating the way up, but that was some 900 years ago. They must have had a hell of a ladder or rope back then: my path led to an amazing viewpoint, a secondary cliff-hung shelf, but there wasn’t an easy access to the upper one with the ruin — my one attempt at it had me trying to climb my way up a crack and then sliding back down as the rocks crumbled out beneath me. On the plus side, eagles were reeling in the sky above us, and one of their feathers — a beautiful specimen — floated down to land on the rock slope close to me as I was scrambling. I nabbed it.

So back to our first access point and, after more consideration, the assault. We only had one climbing harness, and one helmet, so only one person was going to make the attempt. Since he’s far more experienced in such things, my brother volunteered. He had to free climb up a rather treacherous face — with a long drop below it — so we tied him off against me. I outweigh him, so if he would have slipped he would have (in theory) come down off the rock to swing like a pendulum weight back against the rock. Either that or, if I had lost my own position, we both would have gone down. One never really knows these things.

Anyway, Lance made it. Stud. He used the rope to haul up camera equipment, then began to photograph the site while we waited below.

From what Lance found up top, and what we found below, we’re prepared to make a few speculations about the ruin. It was, we think, a place of worship, dedicated to the moon. There was an altar of sorts in the ruin: a niche currently filled with broken pottery of rather elaborate make. Above this, against the bottom of the high, smooth cliff face above the ruin, was a shelf, where a low fire would have been tended. At night this line of flame would have illuminated the moon phase pictographs on the rock above it. There wasn’t room for many people at the ruin itself, but there was a nicely wide place for congregation at the secondary, lower ledge my petroglyph fellow was pointing toward. From that wider area the moons were very clearly visible, as they are not from much of the canyon below.

Quite a find. Based on the pottery, it was probably abandoned around 1100.

And, amazingly, our day wasn’t done!

After getting my brother, Lance, down from Moon Phase Ruin, it was already getting late. We started out of the canyon, scrambling up toward the rim. Part way up we decided to walk laterally around the little basin we were in, along a wide ledge that would afford good views of Moon Phase from above — and maybe, just maybe, lead to a new discovery.

First thing we found was a grinding stone, sitting on a wide rock overlooking the basin. A beautiful place to grind corn, I daresay. We took a number of pictures, leaving the artifacts untouched, of course, and then forged on a bit. Not much further, my brother and I paused, realizing that our group was getting spread out along the ledge, and all the radios were in Dad’s pack. My brother decided to go back to split them up while I maintained my advanced position and foraged for a spot of shade on the hot shelfline.

Lance was gone for perhaps five minutes — Mom and Dad had decided to take one radio back across the mesa top toward the car while we boys finished our explorations — and in the meantime I found a wall littered with petroglyphs. A heron, a mountain goat, an antelope, and … this was jaw-dropping … what appears to be an Anasazi map either of the very location in which I stood or of a very famous ruin further down the same canyon. Regardless, petroglyph maps are extremely rare; I’ll need to do some research to see if any specialists are aware of this one. Who knows; it might get to be the Livingston Anasazi Map.

Moving on, my brother and I found a remarkable “ladder” leading from our ledge to the mesa top above. The Anasazi had chipped out a hand and toe trail straight up the cliff edge from a “ramp” made of stone. Very cool.

Next we found what we called a “kiln,” though from the lack of soot it appears unlikely that this is what it was. I find myself wondering now if it was a burial chamber of some sort. There were a couple potsherds here and there around it, along with dehydrated corn husks of the type common to Anasazi ruins.

Last but not least, we found another ruin — a substantial one of some seven rooms at least — tucked under an overhang at the point between two canyon basins. Lance took to calling it Farpoint Ruin, which I think is a fine name. Several walls were in excellent condition, and corn husks abounded. It did not appear that the ruin had been dug, and there was little evidence — other than a lack of artifacts — to indicate anyone had ever been there.

My brother and I got on the radio at that point and called my parents back from the mesa top to our GPS coordinates. I found a route up to the mesa top while they approached and was able to lead them down by the same way. Much astonishment followed.

With photocards full, and cocktail time long since past, we hiked out at last and returned to the car weary but unwounded, and full of wonder.

DAY TWO

Slot canyons are strange formations, and we hit one of the less-visited ones today: Canyon X.

This beautiful gash in the desert stone, carved by the rushing of flash floodwaters, lies on private property inside the Navajo Reservation and so requires a guide. Ours was Jackson Bridges, a 70-year-old fellow with a terrific sense of humor and a love of life. He bounced us across the desert in a “pre-rattled” truck with individual air conditioning units (i.e., windows) that was literally as old as I am. We then hiked down out of the heat into the shadows and picturesque sights of the slot canyon itself.

What followed was several hours of picture taking. I’ll not bore you with the details, but you can see the pictures! Gorgeous!

DAY THREE

Our third day was an open day. We’d tentatively planned to do some boating on Lake Powell, but no one was quite in the mood when it came to it, and the weather wasn’t looking good. So Lance and I sat down the night before and considered what we’d do.

We didn’t want to do something far out of the way — thus no running over to Panorama Point on the Grand Canyon — and our experience on Day One had us pining for a bit more Anasazi ruins. Using a guidebook to start and then Googling this and that we stumbled across a ruin called The Citadel. This alone piqued our interest.

Then we saw the pictures.

Citadel Ruin sits under a capstone of rock at the point formed by two merging canyons, surrounded by dizzying drops. Connecting it to the mesa top — and thus serving as the only viable approach — is a single curving ridge of sandstone, a natural “road” with 600-foot cliffs to either side. The setting alone was breathtaking. The fact that the ruin out on this remarkable location was a very well preserved one settled the matter completely: This was our destination.

Trouble was, no one was telling where the ruin was. The few people that knew about it wanted to keep it a secret. And for good reason: Most human beings aren’t exactly sensitive to leaving such things exactly as they find them. Never ones to back down from a challenge, Lance and I started combing for as much information as our one book and a hotel WiFi could afford.

After a bit of poking around, we were able to glean one crucial piece of information: the name of the canyon over which the Citadel presides. With that in hand, we opened up Google Earth and started staring at the satellite imagery. Not a minute or two later, we’d found it. The topography was too unique to be denied.

We didn’t tell Mom and Dad where we were going. We just went. And we were all astonished. The path we’d charted out in the hotel room was dead on, and it was even more incredible than words (or a picture) can describe. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. It was a younger ruin than Moon Phase and Farpoint — it was probably abandoned in the mysterious mass exodus of the Anasazi around 1300 — but it was no less interesting. My favorite aspect of it was the fact that the Anasazi had built two walls across that high rock road, further fortifying what already quite a formidable defensive spot. As with everything about the Anasazi, though, this observation leads only to more questions. Most prominently in this case: Who were they afraid of?

I think I shall need to write a book about it one day.

And so our adventure concluded. We drove back to Denver. I got on a plane. I’m back in Charleston now, already pondering the next trip.

10 Comments

  1. C. E. Bollinger

    Too seriously cool for words, Mike. And magnificent photos to document the coolness.

    Color me very, very green.

  2. Dear Mike,
    My sister Catherine (Bollinger) sent me the link to this tale – I could hear the wind and feel the poetry of the setting swirl all around me as your tale unfolded. I think you may have stumbled upon some spirits too, who mercifully took care of all of you, as they knew you would honor their past. Thanks for the inspiring story and the wondrous images of these ancient places.

  3. You have the best vacations.

  4. Cathy: Thanks. My brother is the photographer in the family, though. I can’t wait to see his shots!

    Ruth: Welcome! Glad you enjoyed the write-up … sounds like you tend toward the poetic a bit yourself!

    Mary: Vacation? This was work, my dear!

    Guys: ???? So many ladies, yet not a gentleman in sight.

  5. Michael, what a fun trip. There are some similar ruins in northern Arizona, also Anasazi, I believe.

  6. What do you mean by “similar,” Rick? There are cliff dwellings all over the Four Corners states, for sure. But if you mean something very specific to these sites in particular — especially to the map I found — I’d love to see reference to it.

  7. GREAT article. Very fun. I discovered Comb Ridge last year and have visited now four times! Going back with friends, their parents, and my kids over thanksgiving. Would love to know where to start for Farpoint and moon phase. I’ve got the directions for Citadel and can share lots of others, but these were new to me. Would you mind sharing?
    Thanks for taking time to share this great trip! Hope you make it back some day.

  8. You’ll need to contact me direct via the webform for further information, Scott. I’m not going to post anything more specific online.

  9. Great story and pics. I just moved to Colorado from Alberta and have been wanting to take some trips like this for a while. Do you know any places in Colorado you would recommend for some great nature photography?

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