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Hidden Treasures of Anasazi Country

Thousand year old ruins and inscrutable rock art add interest and mystery to hiking the scenic canyons of Southern Utah's Cedar Mesa
By Peter Potterfield - August 19th, 2006

A three-day excursion down into Owl Canyon and back up out of Fish Canyon had shown us why backcountry lovers come from as far away as Europe to hike this part of Southern Utah. This is Cedar Mesa, pinion and juniper covered high country that soars to more than 7,000 feet, cut through by hidden canyons that slice deeply into the red-rock layer cake of the Colorado Plateau. Grand Gulch is the popular hike here on the Mesa, famous for both its scenic canyons and iconic ancient ruins. We chose the Fish and Owl loop in the hopes of a more solitary experience, but one with similar allure.

Our party was small, just Bob, a friend and inveterate canyon explorer from Salt Lake City, and me. We had camped on slick-rock benches above the canyon floor, and beside surprising, gurgling streams that run through the arid terrain. We had seen not just the beauty of Utah's desert wilderness, but tantalizing signs of the long lost Anasazi culture. These were the "ancient ones," a people who for centuries called the place home before their civilization suddenly disappeared from the Mesa some 800 years ago. Granaries (small food-storage structures), rock art, and the remains of dwellings and even kivas (underground ceremonial structures the likes of which are still used today among Native groups such as the Hopi) added a unique element to our days on the trail.

Now, after three days in the canyons, we clambered out of Fish Canyon--the last 10 feet actually required a few low-standard rock-climbing moves--into the bright sunshine of the rim. Here was a totally different experience. With a couple of days left before we were due back in Salt Lake, we decided to explore the canyon rims, camping for a few nights up high on the mesa top before heading back to the car. The expanse of blue sky and full exposure to the sun was in sharp contrast to our days in the canyons, where shadows prevail and the vistas are limited to the next bend in the canyon walls.

We followed the rim for several miles until we found a slick rock platform overlooking the confluence of two side canyons, offering views down into the canyons themselves and across Cedar Mesa to the distant Bears Ears, prominent 10,000-foot-high features to the north. It was a perfect overnight site, but we soon found out we weren't the first to call this place home. As we set up camp and explored the surroundings, we were stunned to discover the ruins of several Anasazi dwellings within fifty feet. These were, by far, the best preserved and most elaborate we had seen so far on the hike. The structures were small, but mostly intact, and we could peer in the tiny doorways, check out the elaborate masonry, even see the remains of the wood poles that formed the roof structures. It was one of the most dramatic and unexpected discoveries I've made in the backcountry.

We felt lucky to have stumbled on the dwellings, what archeologists might call a "cultural resource," but realized at the same time we were ignorant about exactly how to approach them. These structures had been here for centuries, and they appeared untouched. We wondered: was it possible we were the first modern humans to have stumbled upon them? Aware of their import, we were careful to inflict no damage while at the same time we felt compelled to explore, to look around at the many shards of pottery scattered about. We searched the area around our camp for more signs of the Anasazi.

The two of us, unwillingly, had become living examples of an urgent and growing problem for the BLM rangers and archeologists who manage the backcountry of Cedar Mesa. It is this: the threat to these centuries-old ruins posed both by well-meaning hikers who inflict "accidental damage," and not-so-well meaning vandals and "pot hunters" who have more sinister motives in mind.

"We think we can eliminate or at least mitigate the first part of the problem through education," said Shelley Smith, an archeologist who works out of the Bureau of Land Management office in Salt Lake City. "The second part of the problem requires more aggressive measures, and for that we turn to our law enforcement people and the prosecutors who back them up. But we are determined to save these relics for future generations to enjoy."

Cultural Treasures of Cedar Mesa

Only a few dozen BLM archeologists, rangers and enforcement agents must protect more than 22 million acres in Utah alone. That's an area that covers about half the state. The job becomes even bigger when one factors in the adjacent areas of the Four Corners region, such as Southwest Colorado and Northern Arizona, that also contain a rich record of artifacts and ruins.

"We concluded that it has to be a citizens' stewardship," Smith said. "We can't patrol every sensitive area every day, we can't tag along with every recreational hiker who starts down into the canyons."

Archeological sites on Cedar Mesa span more than 2,500 years of human habitation. Artifacts and ruins date back as far as 1500 BC, the era of the so called "Basketmaker" culture, up through the more recent Pueblo I, II and III phases of the Anasazi, dating back at least a thousand years. These cultures suddenly disappeared from Cedar Mesa approximately 800 years ago, leaving archeologists to ponder their sudden and mysterious departure. On Cedar Mesa, the people of these different eras often lived in the very same alcove or on the same stretch of canyon bench, literally building right on top of the homes of their predecessors.

Important sites can range from entire well preserved multi-story structures to intact thousand-year-old pots or baskets (the holy grail of pot hunters), to simple "artifact scatters" or garbage piles known as "middens." The rangers, archeologists and enforcement officers of the agency try to not only protect the sensitive sites from careless hikers and criminal traffickers in antiquities, they try to mitigate the irristible forces of time and weather.

"It's a daunting task," says Nancy Shearin, archeologists at the BLM's Monticello office, as she drives us out to Arch Canyon ruin to show me how the battle is joined. We lurch and heave in her big SUV down washes and across a stream out to the ruin near the northern end of Cedar Mesa. A team of special restoration experts and archeologists based nearby at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado has been working away almost a month here in an attempt to shore up the 1,200 year old ruin.

"This is an important site," Shearin tells me, "built in the Chaco Canyon style. It's only one of two such walls still standing on Cedar Mesa. The place was pot-hunted many years ago, so there's nothing we can do about that. But we can try to repair both the damage from over use by visitors, and water-related damage caused by natural erosion."

When we arrive, the famed Mesa Verde "stabilization" crew is engrossed in its work. Mason Neill Smith and archeologist Gary Ethridge are covered in orange mud as they work to rebuild the crucial wall in the style in which it was originally built more than a thousand years ago. The two ponder and argue the merits of the placement of a single rock for 20 minutes.

"This isn't really that bad," Etheridge said, standing back to examine his work. "It's mostly water damage. At Mesa Verde, we recently had the roof of a big alcove come down in one moment. The collapse took out an entire wall. We had to rebuild the whole thing."

While the masons work to ensure the mortar is the right color and composition, Kay Barnett makes a painstakingly detailed drawing, literally rock by rock, so that the original construction is preserved as a visual record. It's hard, hot work, and slow, tedious and expensive to boot.

"This is a special place," Shearin adds. "Really, it's not unlike the Sistine Chapel ceiling. That's why you want professional people working on it. These guys are the best in the business."

Though employees of the Mesa Verde National Park, Shearin must figure a way to pay the expert members of the stabilization crew for the time they spend working for her at Arch Canyon. Just this single project could break her budget, so the dogged archeologist often resorts to grants and private fundraising to finish the projects at the top of her priority list. The Arch Canyon restoration is paid for partly by a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A recent competitive grant from the congressionally funded Save America's Treasures budget will enable her to perform similar "site assessment and stabilization" at 10 other sites on or near Cedar Mesa. The outside sources of funds free up her BLM budget to allow Shearin to start on the first thorough, painstaking survey of nearby Comb Ridge.

"We don't even know precisely what's over there on the ridge," she said, "and it may be one of the most important pieces to the whole puzzle."

Accidental Vandalism

A more pressing problem in preserving the cultural treasures of Cedar Mesa may well be the sort of thing experienced by me and my hiking partner last spring: The stumbling by accident on a archeological site by people lacking the skills to visit without inflicting damage. We were pretty careful but I was chagrined to learn that we had made mistakes as well.

"I'm convinced the most effective way to stop that kind of accidental damage to sensitive sites by otherwise law-abiding hikers," said archeologists Shelley Smith, "is through education. We developed hang tags that precisely outline the "Leave No Trace" ethic, so hikers can always have it at hand. And now during the permit process, each hiker or commercial use visitor who ventures into the canyons must signify that they are aware of the regulations--everything from the campfire policy to what constitutes lawful behavior around artifacts and ruins--by signing the permit."

There are signs that the BLM's education policy is paying dividends. Recently, a party of hikers walking around one of the landmark ruins in Grand Gulch--a place very much on the beaten path--discovered a priceless artifact beginning to protrude from the dusty soil. But, having heard the rap from the rangers at the Kane Gulch ranger station, the hikers left it alone and alerted the BLM. The artifact--a small bowl covered with a leather top carefully tied around its rim and containing many small items--was expertly retrieved by the archeologists from the BLM's Monticello office, and is now on display at the Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.

That's a rare success story, and one that underscores the importance of following visitation guidelines when near any ruin. The rules developed by the rangers and archeologists for visiting sensitive sites with minimum impact go beyond what might be called common sense. They include:

  • Stop, look and think before entering a cultural site. Do you see a midden or trash pile in front or adjacent to the site? If so, avoid walking on the midden, as important artifacts and information is contained within.
  • Stay on defined trails but dont walk along the base of walls as additional foot traffic can cause erosion that may undermine structural walls.
  • You can pick up a shard of pottery for a closer look, but put it back where you found it--don't put it out for display (making what's known as a "collector's pile") or take it home as a sourvenir.
  • Do not camp in or near ruins, or even in alcoves or overhangs. Many alcoves contain sites that are not visually obvious.
  • Make no campfires while backcountry camping in Cedar Mesa canyons.
  • Don't move rocks or logs, as doing so may case destruction of "site integrity."

Complete instructions for hiking through Cedar Mesa can be found on the Utah BLM's website (, or at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, which is truly the front lines for the fight to preserve the mesa's ruins and artifacts. The ranger station that used to be housed in a funky old trailer (dear to the hearts of long-time Cedar Mesa hikers), is now in a modern solar-powered facility, one that probably encourages more people to stop.

"We are seeing in increase in what we call softer users," said Laura Lantz, one of Cedar Mesa's principle backcountry rangers who has by now more than a decade of experience. "Guidebooks and magazine articles have sent a new breed of hiker here, hikers who have no experience in this kind of environment, and who just don't know how to behave. It makes our job harder."

The results of that increased visitation are not hard to measure: seven helicopter rescues in six weeks, when the average might have been one per season. One group of hikers in fall 2005 ignored the most basic of rules and not only camped in a famous ruin, they started a campfire that damaged the thousand year old structure.

"Hikers who violate the rules are ticketed and prosecuted when we can find them," Lantz says. "That's a little bit unusual here as most people who come to Cedar Mesa treat the ruins respectfully, once they are taught how. And we don't have the kind of problems with pot hunters we once did, as most of the serious traffickers have moved on to more remote places where the chances of finding something valuable are better. The problems I see are mostly related to increased visitation. With that, inevitably, come adverse impacts."

Lantz and her staff of rangers and volunteers have placed ammo boxes with information and regulations at the entrances to the most sensitive of backcountry sites. In some instances, the rangers have resorted to building barriers, such as those at Split Level Ruin in Grand Gulch. So far Lantz and her staff are holding their own, but the work has become increasingly complicated by the advent of new activities such as "geo-caching."

"Not only are some hikers posting the actual GPS coordinates of sensitive sites on the web," Lantz said, "there are those who make sport of it by encouraging people to visit those areas by geo-caching, posting coordinates that others are supposed to seek out. It's a treasure hunt of sorts, but at a sensitive site it can cause significant damage. It's senseless to send people to these delicate places."

With backcountry visitation on Cedar Mesa for the first time approaching 10,000 people a year--including almost 4,000 hikers to Grand Gulch alone--it's clear that the responsibility for preserving this unique experience falls on hikers themselves. When roadside stops by tourists are factored in, visitation is expoentially higher.

Cops and Robbers

A blond, heavily armed Marie Tuxhorn sits at her desk at the Monticello BLM office and tells me some of the means she uses to apprehend criminals who actively seek out and remove valuable pots, baskets and other priceless artifacts from the ruins of Southern Utah. With the value of such items now counted in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's a big business that attracts a dangerous crowd.

The techniques available to Tuxhorn, a BLM enforcement ranger, to discourage such activity begin with her bright orange "courtesy cards." Placed on vehicles near sensitive areas, the cards tell the visitor that their vehicle or camp has been visited, and noted. "Have a nice day," the card concludes.

"It just lets those people know that our enforcement effort reaches even the most remote places," Tuxhorn said. "That might well be a deterrent to some casual looters without a serious intent. But to a committed pot hunter, it takes more aggressive action on our part. Serious traffickers routinely use helicopters and all-terrain vehicles, so we have to respond accordingly. That's why I frequently employ the use of remote cameras, all-terrain vehicles, and helicopters as well, and any other means I have at hand. And one thing we have going for us is that recreational hikers often report vandalism or theft they observe while on the trail. In fact, Utah leads the nation in the number of arrests made after illegal activity was reported by hikers."

Tuxhorn added that her efforts are focused more on the remote areas at the fringes of Cedar Mesa itself, places where there are likely to be artifacts as yet undiscovered. But she is well aware of the location of the most important known artifacts within the Cedar Mesa area, and often relies on remote cameras focused on those sites to identify people who might damage a ruin or remove a valuable item.

When enforcement rangers like Tuxhorn apprehend a person engaged in criminal activity, it is the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 under which those infractions are prosecuted. The ARPA, as it is known, was the first important legislation since Teddy Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906 to protect ruins and artifacts like those on Cedar Mesa. (For more on the Antiquities Act, visit Just as enforcement officers and prosecutors celebrated the first century of the Antiquities Act, they are using the ARPA to ensure there is something left to save at the end of the next century.

"The ARPA," Tuxhorn points out, "has very real teeth." A felony conviction under the act can result in prison sentences of up to 10 years. Wayne Dance, US attorney in Utah, has aggressively prosecuted such infractions.

"We have prosecuted, in the time period that I've been handling these cases over the last 13 or 14 years, more cases than any other district in the country," Dance said recently. "The U.S. Attorney's office for the district of Utah. has been the leader in this country in the protection of archaeological resources from a criminal prosecution standpoint. We have a wealth, an abundance of wonderful cultural resources in this state and we decided in the early '90s that we were going to give higher priority to this type of crime compared to what had been done in the past, because it is a serious crime to damage, in any way, cultural heritage resources. And consequently we have over 40 convictions for these crimes, about three fourths of which are felony convictions."

As Tuxhorn looks toward how to protect the ancients sites of Southern Utah in the future, she sees both an escalation in the war against traffickers that includes the use of DNA evidence studies and under-cover officers, as well as aerial surveillance. She also predicts increasing citizen involvement such as site stewards. Blanding's Edge of the Cedars Museum already has a site steward program managed in cooperation with federal agencies like the BLM where on-site stewards may one day protect the most important sites on Cedar Mesa.

"Protecting these places and these artifacts is too important not to do everything possible," says the determined ranger.

What's at Stake

Nancy Shearin shows me around the "great house" at the Butler Wash ruin. To my untrained eye, it's a pile of rubble. But Shearin points out the location of the walls, identifies the style of construction (Pueblo III), and even shows me where the kivas were located. Here in her element, Shearin becomes loquacious, pointing out details and deciphering what they must mean, and speculating on what they might tell us.

But then she drives us south from the Butler Wash ruin to the west side of Comb Ridge, about five miles, where she points out a large boulder with elaborate rock art. Just beyond, on the steep face of the ridge itself, a line of hand-cut "moqui" steps rises to the top of the ridge--one of the so called "crossovers" used by the Anasazi culture to get up and over the ridge.

Shearin, with an archeologist's skepticism, is reluctant to rely too much on the rock art, but she concedes this: "It could be a kind of road map." That's when she points out two prominent rock features that Shearin says flank a "prehistoric road" that points to Chaco Canyon, hundreds of miles away in New Mexico--passing through both the Butler Wash ruin and the Arch Canyon ruin, the site of one of only two Chaco Canyon style walls on Cedar Mesa.

"We can't be sure," Shearin says, "but there is increasing evidence that these sites here on Cedar Mesa are in some important way linked to the great ruins at Chaco Canyon. There's a great deal of work left to be done, but it's intriguing. It's a reason to keep looking, and to protect these places so they can reveal their secrets when we know what we're looking for."

So here on Cedar Mesa are the remains of a culture that not only departed, suddenly and mysteriously, some 800 years ago, but now appears to have had some basic connection with a larger civilization that virtually spanned the Southwest. It's little wonder that archeologists such as Nancy Shearin and Shelley Smith, rangers such as Laura Lantz, and enforcement officers such as Marie Truxhorn, are committed to saving what's left of it.

And what remains is magical, adding interest and mysticism to the innate beauty of backcountry travel through the canyons. It seems the least that we, as hikers, can do, is watch where we step.


Great article

The Cedar mesa Plateau is one of the most mysterious and desolate wilderness areas in the country. San Juan County has over 17,000 sites with an ancient population estimated in the 250,000 range, currently only 26,000 folks call this part of Utah home. In that respect it has been a hot bed for people seeking "souvenirs" as well as established pot hunters whos practices have been part of family tradition and generations of treasure seeking. It is the recreational hikers responsibility to do their part to protect this area because after all it is public land. There are only a handful of volunteers and rangers that have the daunting job to protect over a million acres of historical rich areas. This makes it impossible for the BLM alone to monitor and maintain the cultural heritage of the southwest. A great source for information where you can do your part is at Before you travel into southern utah do some research and plan accordingly, this area is not for the beginner seeking adventure.

Posted on June 24, 2008 - 8:59am
by mike wilson

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