Highlights: Canyon De Chelly; Hike to Monarch Cave Ruins & Processional Panel area in Lower Butler Wash Complex; Road trip up Comb Wash; Bluff Fort; Comb Ridge Eat & Drink.
Discoveries but didn't get to: House on Fire Ruins, Butler Wash Ruins, 17 Room Ruins; Pink Sands Petroglyphs. Places to note for next time.
Campground: W/E/S; A few OTA TV channels; Good wifi; Very friendly and helpful owners;
Bluff Fort: This was the destination of a major settlement assignment of the Mormon Church in the 1880's. The “fort” was a conclave of buildings constructed in a square with doors facing inward built with the intent of protection from Native Americans. This destination was at the end of the famed “Hole in the Rock Trail,” which is a story much to big to write about here. Try http:www.hirf.org
The settlement is an extremely interesting couple-hour free tour. The visitor center is staffed by volunteers who are very eager to tell you the difficult history of these early settlers. They also have an interesting store and sell home made jalapeño peanut brittle!
Of the many buildings on site, ten or so were built and housed by families whose stories are displayed at each entrance. Most have an audio story accessed by a push button. Each building is open and furnished with period and personal items of the original occupants. Sandy and I spent well over an hour walking through the grounds and spent another hour in the visitor center talking to one of the volunteers. He and his wife who worked the cash register were from Monticello and were staying in the same park as us in an Airstream they bought for this job. Just before we left another volunteer came in who was a direct ancestor of one of the original founders. I talked to him for only a few minutes, but he was obviously very excited about sharing the history of these people. We felt very welcome and enjoyed this visit immensely.
Canyon De Chelly National Monument: These historic and beautiful canyons have been on my bucket list for years – since I read about Kit Carson's scorched earth attack and round up of Navajos here during the winter of 1864. The Navajos that weren't killed outright were forced into “the long walk” - 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico as scores more died along the way. Some of the Navajo had hidden in the cliffs of the canyons. There are also several Puebloan cliff dwellings visible from roadside pull offs and short trails. People have lived in these canyons for 5,000 years. This was a 90 mile drive from Bluff, making for a long and sometimes scenic day trip with some interesting rock formations along the way.
Canyon De Chelly is actively farmed by Navajo
Our plan was to visit the rim overlooks for the day, stay at a local hotel and do one of the guided trips through the canyon the next day. The only way into the canyon is through Navajo led excursions, which sound pretty good from what I've read. However, once we saw the deplorable conditions/neighborhood of the hotel in Chinle we decided to do a single day trip on the rim. I was really worried about leaving the truck in the parking lot of the hotel – it was that bad.
The monument is really two 20 mile long canyons running laterally coming together at their west end. Canyon Del Muerto to the north and Canyon De Chelly on the south. Many smaller canyons (still miles long) jut off from each.
Note: you cannot book (nor will they recommend) Navajo tours of the canyon through the Visitor Center, but they do have contact information for them. The following descriptions are in the order we visited them.
From the Visitor Center Route 64 becomes North Rim Drive along Canyon Del Muerto. The first stop is for Antelope House Overlook with views of Sanding Cow Ruin, Antelope House Ruin and Ledge Ruin. The parking lot had two Navajo women selling jewelry from their cars. Our experience has been good. These local artisans do not come after you or plead for your business. In contrast, they have been pleasant and friendly when and if you show an interest in looking at their goods.
Massacre Cave Overlook and Mummy Cave Overlook are further north. The former has an incredibly sad background. During a mostly one-sided war with the Spanish, 115 Navajo (mostly women and children) took shelter on this recessed ledge. While the Spanish couldn't reach it by foot, they simply fired their guns into the mouth. Bullets continuously ricocheted under the ledge until everyone was killed.
Note, while looking out at Antelope House, I saw several ravens circling high above the rim catching the drafts - then they would dive straight down like gannets - wings tucked in.
The South Rim Drive has seven overlooks. We started at the easternmost, and maybe most scenic spot, Spider Rock Overlook. Coming back are overlooks for Face Rock, Sliding House Ruin, White House Ruin, Junction Ruin, and two scenic overlooks named Tsegi and Tunnel.
Canyon De Chelly
White House Ruins
See the dwellings in the cracks of the cliff. I chose this crop to highlight the height from the canyon floor.
Sandy noticed this odd formation on the canyon rim.
Hiking: Comb Ridge runs north and south from US 163 just west of Bluff, UT to AZ95 west of Blanding, UT. This large fold in the earth is easily discernible from Google's satellite view and is remarkable in person. It could just as appropriately be called sawtooth ridge as a series of angular ridge peaks on one massive ridge extending over 20 miles.There is an elevated view point on AZ95 on the west side of the ridge (see blog entry for Monticello), but there is also a road that runs in the likewise named Comb Wash to the east of the ridge. The term wash here identifies the entire valley formed by the wash. On the west side of Comb Ridge is similar valley named Butler Wash. These otherwise arid areas are offset by the cottonwoods lining the actual washbeds.
Despite the multiple trip planners for Utah, I found little evidence of the many hiking trails along this area. We were given a one page photocopied paper of a list of hiking trails for the Lower Butler Wash Complex when we checked into our campground and after our trip to Canyon DeChelly only had two days to explore this area. I strongly recommend if you are a hiker to set up a minimum of three days for hiking this area.
On day one of this area, I chose to drive with Sandy up the more navigable CR 235 up Comb Wash. It still is a rough 20 mile sandy, rutted road, with some smoothed but still jarring rock bottom to go over. There are many places to pull over and just enjoy the scenery. Bring a lunch. We drove all the way to the end on AZ95 where there is a rustic campground surrounded by cottonwoods showing their bright yellow fall colors. Just a few miles west, we drove to the Mule Canyon Ruins, which can be seen from a short paved path, then drove back east to he parking area for House on Fire Ruins.
CR235 in Comb Wash with Comb Ridge to the right
House on Fire Ruins is the area's most popular photo spot. During orange lit times of the day, the rock face's vertical markings above the ruins seem to be on fire. Sadly, we got to the trail head late in the day, and I doubted we could make the 2 mile trip before dark. We still had an hour drive home.
I had better luck hiking the following day as I headed up CR 262 through Butler Wash to what is called the Butler Wash Complex. There are 8 different hiking trails heading west from the road up to sections of Comb Ridge to various petroglyphs and Pueblo ruins. Unfortunately, there are no trailhead markers to the many turnoffs from the main road. This road was busier (but still pretty quiet) with jeeps and a few indestructible looking vehicles– some looking like they were fit for Mars.
The paper I had identified trailheads by mile marker, but I quickly found these to be wrong. There is a sketch on the back side of the paper, showing each trailhead, but there were more actual left turns than on the map, so I really didn't know which trail I was heading toward and made a couple stops before settling on one.
I wanted to got to Double Stack/Balcony House until I realized I had gone past it. It took me about an hour to drive the 7.5 miles to get to Monarch Cave Ruins (the map said 7.2 miles, which was crossed off and replaced by 6.9 miles). This was a great hike!!!
Monarch Cave Ruins:
You start by dropping about 20 feet into the dry wash which is very green. It looks more like a drying flood plain in the Appalachians than a dry creek in the desert southwest. A dried mud floor surrounded by cottonwoods.
This was a really easy trail to a beautiful ruin that you can get close to. I elected not to go into the main ruin to save it from my footsteps - though as I was leaving I saw some young guys doing just that. I could see fine from 30-50 yards away and didn't want to disturb anything. To the right of the main ruin is a recess into the cliffs with barely noticeable remnants of dwellings. However, if you look close you can see some pictographs and rock surfaces worn into smooth bowls from manual grinding of some sort. There were also pieces of pottery to be found and people have place what they found into a mini display. It is illegal to remove anything, though the actual wish of the native people is to leave things where you find them. Everything is considered part of the land and history.
Near the end of the canyon, haunted looking brush appeared.
Monarch Cave Ruins
Small pieces of broken pottery could be found. This looks like a bowl carved into the rock.
This spot on the cave floor must have been used for grinding something.
There were a few pictographs (paintings).
This couple is just to the right of the ruins. They were from Santa Fe and are leaders in a group that runs world adventure trips for seniors.
Looking down while walking helps to find these tiny gems.
As I was leaving I bumped into some millennials heading to the Procession Panel, the next closest hike from the way I came. I helped them locate it as I had met a ranger at the parking area earlier who identified it for me. After a little thought, I decided to follow them and go on a trail that I supposedly could identify rather than try to find the Double Stack Ruins again.
Climbing the other side of the wash was like climbing a steep sand dune, followed by an endless view of slick rock rising up to the peaks of the ridge. I saw no trail markers, but knew the general direction of the other hikers. I caught a glimpse of them a couple times before they disappeared in the taller parts of the ridge.
Looking back at the Sand Dunes beside the Wash
Looking back along the slickrock. Note - no cairn or trail markers.
I went from right to left crossing the canyon and around the left side of the ridge and to the top of the middle peak. I returned on the right side of the ridge.
I was never sure where the trail headed after that. Occasionally I saw a small 3-4 rock cairn, but I knew I couldn't depend on them. The trail description said to cross the “pour-off”. I would have if I knew what the heck a pour off was. I did see a steep canyon to the left (my general direction) that was much too steep to descend. Eventually I found that by continuing upward in a SW direction to the left or south of a large rounded ridge top, I could access a navigable six foot drop at the head of the canyon – where the erosion between the two ridges was just starting. Eureka! A “pour off”! From this point the water accumulating between ridges must join and then pour into the erosion forming canyon.
Let me digress and quote the entire trail description: “There are several ways to get up into the canyon. Once across Butler Wash veer left up the slick rock slope. Cross above the pour-off, follow the trail [ya right] up the bottom onto the large sloping slick-rock ledge on the right, then up to the wall.” That's it.
At least I had found the bottom of the canyon, which I followed to the “slick rock slope.” This “trail” showed to my left (south) a rounded sloping edge to the canyon at an indeterminate depth below. A slip meant death. Simple as that. Scared the beejesus out of me, but I kept my eyes ahead and went forward.
The "trail" traversed the edge of the ridge from the lower left to the center of this photo. This view is from higher ground on my return.
After rounding the ledge, I saw a small cairn. OK I thought. From there I went straight from my previous direction. I climbed and climbed up to the top of one of the peaks of Comb Ridge. From there I had an awesome view to the west and into canyons on either side and in front of me. I was at a dead end. I stood taking in the view, snapping some photos, and listened carefully to sounds of the threesome ahead of me. I could not hear nor see them. I contemplated calling out, but it was too serene to disturb.
The view from the top looking straight over the edge of the end of the ridge.
I surmised the other hikers were down below the ridge to the right. I couldn't see them.
The view to the southeast over the wash was really nice too.
I went back down this promontory and tried to circumnavigate it to the north side. From there I saw another cairn leading over another infinity ledge. I walked up to the ledge, retreated about 50 yards, then went back again. I wanted to try it, was worried about the fact that if I ran into trouble (went over the edge) there would be no one to see or help. On the other hand, I had a good inclination that my friends were up ahead and I really wanted to catch up with them. It was also getting late in the day. I thought that if I DID reach them, I may struggle getting back before dark. I could not keep up with them. Discretion forced my retreat.
The 2nd cairn led to the trail going along a sloping edge. This photo lies. This was really steep!
Going back I wandered to the north side of the large promontory with the imposing drop on its' south side. I found signs of others going this way and made it around to the east side. I was lost once again, but I could actually see the direction of my truck in the distance and headed straight. This easy alternative route completely bypassed the earlier terrifying route. I was concerned that I didn't find the difficult to navigate “pour-off” but kept heading straight down. I caught glimpses of my truck and eventually made it to the trail I started on just before the wash. This was the WAY to go! I questioned the sanity and navigation skills of the people who suggested going to the other way.
Going back down, I aimed for my truck (center of photo) until I picked up the trail.
I had told the kids earlier about the great restaurant in town (Comb Ridge Eat & Drink), and after showering and picking Sandy up, I ran into them there where we related hiking stories. They told me I didn't miss much by not making it to the petroglyphs. They weren't as impressive as advertised. They agreed that the trail was tough to find as they lost it several times too. They had come from the north through Butler Wash and went to the Double Stack/Balcony House ruins which they said were very nice. They also like the Monarch Cave Ruins.
Food: Comb Ridge Eat & Drink is just across the street from out campground. They have a small but good beer selection; Great pasta with mushrooms, squash sauce, pumpkin seeds; good whisky burger, bad reuben (overcooked corned beef), good cookies and great brownies (free cuz bad reuben). Overall a great spot, extremely friendly staff.