In southeast Utah, huddled high up on the Colorado Plateau, there’s an elevated swath of land known as Cedar Mesa. This high desert is rife with cliffs and canyons, and contains a concentration of ancient Native American sites—the cliff dwellings of the Ancient Puebloans, the Anasazi. Cedar Mesa recently made headlines as one of two potential candidates for future National Monument consideration in the state of Utah. Utah’s political leanings turned this very premature designation into a slight uproar, but once you spend some time in Cedar Mesa, consider for yourself what kind of protection this unique and wondrous land deserves.
The desert landscape is harsh and unforgiving, but the Anasazi made it their home alongside juniper and prickly pear for centuries. The most well-known remnants of their civilization are their awe-inspiring cliff dwellings, spread across the southwest. These sites pepper Cedar Mesa—many of them untouched by visitor or archaeologist—and with some luck and perseverance, you may be able to stand where no human has set foot since the Anasazi culture dissipated in the late 13th century.
Some sites are accessible just off Highway 95, such as the Mule Canyon roadside ruins and the misnamed Butler Wash cliff dwellings, requiring a short half-mile hike to see. Both of these sites are administered and interpreted by the BLM, though plenty of other lesser known trails await the curious and the determined. We once followed a heavily overgrown game trail up Butler Wash, over a mile through cottonwoods and horsetail reeds, to discover an entire crumbling dwelling, complete with defensive wall and a cave that stretched far back under the sandstone overhang. These sites are precious; you will never forget the indescribable feeling of discovery, the strange kinship you sense for lives long lost, long withered to red dust.
Remember not to touch any rock art—the oils on our skin damages the centuries-old masterpieces. When you encounter ruins, look but don’t disturb, refrain from climbing within structures or letting your backpack brush against the fragile stone buildings. You will see many artifacts: potsherds, astonishingly old corncobs and husks, lithic flake piles (pieces of chert, flint, or obsidian left during arrowhead knapping), fire pits, ladders and ladder legs, bits of rope. Please leave these amazing artifacts where they lie, for future generations to discover.
Cedar Mesa has pure adventure for the purely adventurous. Here you can hike, rock climb, explore ancient cultural sites, canyoneer, backpack, discover rock art and arches and natural bridges. The remote nature of the area means that few tourists find their way out here, and you’re likely to have a whole trail to yourself.
In warmer months, especially summer, be prepared with plenty of water. The standard recommendation is one gallon, per person, per day. Keep some food with you, and a topo map if at all possible (I recommend National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Grand Gulch Plateau map, #706). If you’re up for in-depth exploration and want a guided tour, check with Far Out Expeditions down in nearby Bluff, led by the indomitable Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a man who knows this region better than any other.
While you’re in the area, visit Blanding, Bluff, and Mexican Hat. Make sure to venture to nearby Natural Bridges National Monument, and do take the time to make the short hikes out to each natural bridge. To further satisfy your Anasazi craving, visit Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, and see a restabilized village and enough spectacular artifacts to make those lives seem even closer to our own.
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness — Edward Abbey
In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest — David Roberts
Sandstone Spine: Seeking the Anasazi on the First Traverse of the Comb Ridge — David Roberts
National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Grand Gulch Plateau topographical map, #706