A five-day backpacking excursion in the heart of Utah’s canyon country shows why backcountry lovers come from as far away as Europe to hike this part of Southeastern Utah. While many backpackers choose to hike around Moab and its Arches National Park, or Canyonlands National Park a few hours farther south, far fewer hikers venture down here to Cedar Mesa. Cedar Mesa, just west of Blanding, Utah, is a unique plateau of pinion and juniper covered high country that soars to more than 7,000 feet. The entire Mesa is cut through by dozens of hidden canyons that slice deeply into the red-rock layer cake of the Colorado Plateau.
But Cedar Mesa is also home to the greatest concentration of ruins from the ancient Anasazi culture as well. This is perhaps the most interesting combination of rugged sandstone canyons and Pueblo people artifacts in the world. Rock art and structures dating from the Basketmaker and Pueblo cultures date back as far as 2,000 years. And the fact that the hiking season here is basically spring or fall means the routes in Cedar Mesa open up far before the alpine zone hikes in the Rockies or the Sierra. A hike here can be a great way to kick off the backcountry season.
Grand Gulch is the signature hike here on the Mesa, famous for both its scenic canyons and iconic ancient ruins. The customary route is to enter Grand Gulch via Kane Gulch, and exit via Bullet Canyon. That is a popular loop as it departs from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and exits just a few miles to the south. This extraordinary loop not only reveals the broad canyon bottom of Grand Gulch itself, clearly suitable to agriculture, but many narow side canyons full or artifacts. The route takes you by iconic Pueblo ruins, such as Turkey Pen Ruin and Split Level Ruin.
But there's much more room to explore on Cedar Mesa, and routes that offer much more solitude. Veteran hikers here soon turn their attention to less frequented areas such as Road Canyon, with its frankly unbelievable Seven Kiva Ruin, or remote Todie Canyon, so steep it's not recommended as an exit route. Exploring the canyons of Cedar Mesa can reveal unexpected surprises both in terms of landscapes and artifacts.
On my most recent trip, I chose the Fish and Owl loop in the hopes of a more solitary experience than Grand Gulch, but one with similar allure. Our party was small, just Bob, a friend and inveterate canyon explorer from Salt Lake City, and me. We camped on slick-rock benches above the canyon floor, and beside surprising, gurgling streams that run through the arid terrain. We saw not just the beauty of Utah's desert wilderness, but tantalizing signs of the long lost Anasazi culture. These "ancient ones" comprise 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.
This three-day route included not just imposing geological features such as Neville Arch, but flowing water and deep pools that belie the arid terrain of this desert. hike. Beyond the confluence of the two canyons, the way broadens out to reveal groves of giant cottonwood trees and yet more evidence of the Pueblo people.
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.
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.
To see these "cultural resources" first hand adds a layer of interest to the already fascinating backcountry travel. But the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, has strict rules for backpackers to protect these ancient treasures.
Among the guidelines when hiking near Anasazi ruins:
--STOP, LOOK AND THINK before entering a site. Try to locate the midden area (the trash pile) so you can avoid walking on it. Middens are extremely fragile and contain important archaeological information. Walking over them will cause damage.
--If a trail has been built across a site, stay on it. Foot traffic causes erosion that may undermine ruin walls. Climbing on roofs and walls can destroy in a moment what has lasted for hundreds of years.
--Make your camp well away from ruins and rock art sites. Ruins are fragile; the less use they get, the longer they will last. Viewing a site from a distance, rather than entering it, will reduce the impact it receives and help to ensure its preservation. Never build fires in ruins or alcoves. Alcoves may contain hidden archaeological remains.
Cedar Mesa is such an extraordinary area for hiking that the least we, as backcountry travelers can do, is watch where we step and treat the landscape with the reverence it deserves.
Cedar Mesa is a long six hour drive from Salt Lake City, and about an hour west of Blanding Utah. Permits are required for backcountry camping on the mesa. Obtain hiking permits and trail information at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, located on Utah Route 261, about four miles south of Utah Route 95 from Blanding.