Southwest Vacation – Part III

I’ve been down in southeast Utah a few times in the past two years, and Brooke was down here for family vacations and for her 8th grade “LEAP” experience to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. My family never ventured this far for vacations, so Brooke has a bit more of a “connection” to the region. Thus, it’s always been on the list for our own family to someday visit.

There are multiple reasons to visit this area. For one, the desert environment is pretty foreign compared to what we’re used to in Missouri. Secondly, depending on when you go, the “dry heat” effect means that 90 F is still remarkably pleasant compared to the same temperature in Missouri. This time of year, the evenings are in the high-50s/low-60s, so it cools off right as the sun goes down. Not bad!

The are also a lot of outdoor adventuring activities to consider, especially around Moab, UT, where you can rent off-road vehicles and you’ll see countless trailers and camper vans to be jealous of.

And finally, there’s the Ancestral Pueblo culture. One could argue that this is the big reason to come here, as there are only a few places in the world where sites like these are preserved for people to see.

In short, for thousands of years, Ancestral Puebloans settled in this region, likely beginning around the 12th century BCE. They inhabited the area and, again due to the climate, many artifacts have survived from that time frame all the way up through around 1300 CE, when most of the sites we visited were ultimately abandoned.

A big misconception that’s been rectified in the last few decades is that the people of this region did not “disappear” for some strange reason: instead, they simply migrated elsewhere as anyone else would. Many of them settled in areas around the Rio Grande river basin, where agriculture was a bit easier. Still, the archaeologists who study this culture have been able to trace the development of advanced pottery and architectural techniques, making for a fascinating area to explore.

That….all….being…..said…. We first stopped at Edge of the Cedars State Park, which happened to be in Blanding! They’ve got world-class research facilities and artifacts, including the room pictured above. They’ve got pottery dating back over a thousand years, and with the computer in the bottom-left, you can select an artifact and learn more about where it was discovered and what was painted on the pots, if anything. It was a pretty neat display!

Out behind the museum, they also have a ruin that can be entered. We saw many such ruins, called kivas, as we visited various sites in the region. These were the “village centers” of small communities, where the structure would be dug into the ground, then bricks stacked in a circle around, and then finally a roof thatched with timbers and clay that was strong enough to walk on. In the center of the structure, a fire could be set up, and a ladder would descend from a hole in the top that allowed smoke to come out from the fire. They Ancestral Puebloans believed that passing through the smoke was a spiritual experience.

There was also more modern art along a short trail behind the museum, including this piece that acted as a sundial. You can see the shapes cut into the piece, including antelope and dancers, and the sun would then pass through those shapes, projecting to the inside. On the summer and winter solstices, those images combine to form a line on the inside, which is probably pretty cool, though we aren’t planning on driving back in late June to find out!

After we were done at Edge of the Cedars, we headed toward “House on Fire,” which is in Mule Canyon, but on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Before we went in, we visited another ancient kiva that was preserved until a permanent shelter. Here, you can get a better sense of what a lot of these look like. Typically, they are in a circular shape like this one, however the bottom of this one has more sand in it, rather than a fire pit. You can see what looks like a tombstone on the right-hand side of the floor, and that was a “reflector,” of sorts, so the fire in the center of the kiva wouldn’t be blown out by the air vent coming in from the right side (the hole in the bottom on the direct other side of the “tombstone;” that hole went to another hole further from the kiva, coming out of the ground).

We then took the trail toward House on Fire. As this is BLM land, trails aren’t as well marked as we’d like, so we weren’t entirely sure we were going the right way for awhile! No one else was with us, though we’d eventually run into some others as we got closer to the site. The trail was up in the grass, but also down in this “wash” picture above. We moved back and forth between the two routes. I was wearing my Chacos, so I wasn’t as well-prepared as others (I didn’t know we were going to be in a sandy ditch….sue me….), but it worked out alright. The hike was less than a mile out before we reached our destination.

“House on Fire” gets its name because, well, there’s a house built under the rock face, but also because depending on the time of day and how the sun is hitting, the erosion in the rock face looks like it’s…..”on fire.” We unfortunately didn’t get to see anything so spectacular, but it was still pretty cool! There was another couple there who had been there since 9:30 and they hadn’t seen anything, either. We were told 10:00-11:00 was probably the best time of day to be there, and we arrived closer to 11:30, but again, apparently we didn’t miss much. For our first “up close” cliff dwelling, it was pretty neat!

The walk back, again, featured the same trip we’d already taken, but I wanted to point out the varied terrain. Unlike what we see in Missouri, where a trail is a trail is a trail, in Utah, you can be in a sandy “wash” like we had above, or through a more grassy soil, or on flat rock like above. We’d hit other trails later on in the vacation more like this, but I think it was interesting for the kids to experience such a difference!

Calvin, at least, found it interesting. Meg mostly grumbled.

Our last stop of the day was Natural Bridges National Monument. Arches National Park is near Moab, UT, which makes it a very popular tourist destination. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to deal with that, so instead, we figured that the kids need to see some arches, but maybe bridges would be close enough!

The difference is that an “arch” is formed by any number of things, like erosion from seeping moisture, whereas a “bridge” is formed by erosive action of moving water. For example, water hitting a rock face and being diverted around it: over time, that water would eventually punch through the rock, creating a direct route underneath, whereas the original, diverted water would now exclusively flow in the new channel, leaving the old one dry.

There are three main bridges in the area, all of which can be seen and hiked to. Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge involve relatively strenuous hikes down, so the kids weren’t all that enthusiastic about trying that (they also weren’t crazy about an 8.6 mi hike to see all three of them…).

Luckily, Owachomo Bridge was pretty easy to get to, and it’s the largest one, so that’s what we did! I mostly wanted to include this picture because it’s a good one, but….

This shot provides better scale to see just how big it is. Meg is standing in the middle of it, at the bottom. Pretty cool!

After we left Natural Bridges National Monument, the real adventure began. Brooke wanted to try an “off road” trip that wasn’t necessarily difficult, but still took up off the beaten path a bit. Leaving Natural Bridges, we noticed a dirt road that went around Bears Ears National Monument, which is one of the newest in the system. The sign said “15 miles,” though we admittedly can’t remember specifically to where it was indicating, and given where we ended up going, it may have simply meant “to the end of the road you’re getting on right now.”

This trip took us nearly 2 hours to do what we thought was 15 miles. Brooke was driving (thankfully), and we were going pretty slowly. Some stretches were fine, with some slow ups and downs, but others took us at a 4 degree angle up a one-lane cliff where I didn’t want to look over Brooke’s shoulder to the canyon below. We kept watching the mountain on our right wondering where the pass was going to cut through, and it continued to not do so.

I’m still working on my best estimate as to how far we actually went, but 45 miles is what I’ve got as of writing this (I may edit it as I plug through Google Maps to figure out which road(s) we were actually on). I know we were on Burch Canyon Road for most of the scary stuff, and then we got off onto Wooden Shoe Road for awhile before passing right by Bears Ears East. The GPS tag on the pictures I took confirm we made it at least that far. We also know we ended up on CO-95 when we finally hit pavement again, but specifically where is what I’m a bit fuzzy on. Still, it took quite a bit longer than planned and, after all that, it was time to head home so we could decompress a bit.

It’s good to have an adventure like that sometimes! Next time, maybe we’ll do it at a lower elevation!

The next day brought new challenges, though, when we hit Canyonlands National Park!