Bluff, Utah the second time around, Part 2

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Bluff is a great home base for several adventures in the area, all surrounded by incredible scenery.  As I mentioned in my last post, this was our second visit here and I’d published two posts of our previous explorations a couple of years ago:

Having experienced/viewed/photographed the jaw-dropping scenery here, we focused our energy this time on exploring more ancient ruins.  You see, the southwest and in particular the Four Corners region (CO, AZ, UT, NM) was the heart of the ancestral Puebloan culture.  They lived here eight centuries ago and left behind impressive and well preserved rock art and village ruins.

Also known as the Anasazi Basketmakers, the ancestral Puebloans were the first humans to establish permanent settlements in the area – building small pit houses at first, then larger, multi-roomed cliff dwellings.  Some now have well-marked trails to them, while others are not shown on maps, remaining unknown and maybe even undiscovered.  During this visit we checked out Hovenweep National Monument and the Citadel Ruins.

Hovenweep National Monument

This monument is an hour’s drive from Bluff, located in canyon and mesa country north of the San Juan River.  It spans the UT/CO border and consists of six separate village ruins.  Of the six, we visited Little Ruin Canyon, which featured a collection of structures clustered along its rim.

Hovenweep

Hovenweep is the Ute Indian’s way of saying “deserted valley”

We followed the Rim Trail loop, where most of the dwellings stood right on the canyon rim while others sat atop irregular boulders.  The unusual architecture featured round towers and square or D-shaped structures grouped at canyon heads.  These fine ruins have withstood 7 centuries of weathering and were designated as a national monument in 1923.

Square Tower rises from the bottom of the canyon, with Hovenweep House in the background

Eroded boulder house features a double-sided wall

Twin Towers, among the most carefully constructed dwellings in the southwest, had 16 rooms

Hovenweep

Skillfully laid thick and thin sandstone blocks built on solid rock

Hovenweep Castle is perched on the rim.  The people who lived here were farmers, not kings and queens

We pondered what life must have been like way back then, the canyon abuzz with sounds and activities.  The fact that parts of these structures remain standing is a testament to the skill used to build them.

According to the visitor center movie, this is how part of the village probably looked 700 years ago

Citadel Ruins

On another day we intended to hike the Lower Fish Creek Ruins only 18 miles from Bluff.  But after driving 4 miles on loose and sometimes deep sand, we gave up after getting stuck a couple of times (no AWD on our CRV).  With the winds here, a lot of sand can collect on the roads in a short amount of time.

Cleaning sand out of the tailpipes after sinking deep

Is he laughing at us?

Figuring out a Plan-B, we proceeded to drive an hour to Cedar Mesa to hike the Citadel Ruins, a trek John and Pam had completed a couple of days prior.  Using their post as our guide, we heeded their warnings about the rough road out there and parked the car about a mile short of the trailhead.  But just the drive to Cedar Mesa brought back fond memories:

Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears National Monument in the distance

Passing Valley of the Gods

Driving Moki Dugway again – three miles up steep and sharp curves for a fabulous view!

Raplee Anticline – aka Navajo Rug – is like abstract art painted by natural minerals in the rocks

The first part of the hike to the Citadel was fairly easy, but we eventually had to figure out how to get down to the “land bridge” leading out to the end.  We finally found a route across slick rock and scooted on our butts a couple of times to resume our route.

The only wildflower we saw – Indian Paintbrush

There were several Anasazi ruins on the many ledges along the canyon walls

Oh, maybe that isn’t the easiest way down!

Citadel Ruins

The ruins are near the top of that peninsula of rocks

It’s only when you’re at the base of the Citadel that you can see the ruins.  Hidden under a ledge, it would have been an excellent place for a defensive stronghold.  But we did wonder about the effort it must have taken to get water up here from the creek bed some 500′ below!

We puzzled over why there was no rock art here…

We were told these are the original straps that hold the window headers together – amazing!

Looking north – Steve thought this was one of the most amazing canyon hikes we’ve taken

Looking south, see the two hikers?

Looking down 500′

Looking back at the Citadel ruins, overlooking Road Canyon with a 360º view – it’s a wow!

Bluff’s Founder’s Day and Fry Bread Festival

Our stay also happened to coincide with Bluff’s 2nd Annual Founder’s Day and Frybread Festival.  The city of Bluff was founded in 1880 by the famous “Hole in the Rock” expedition of Mormon (Latter-Day Saints) pioneers, whose mission was to establish an agrarian community on the San Juan River.  We patronized the event by purchasing pizza from the lunch truck, and by clapping loudly when descendants of the pioneers walked by in the parade so they’d throw lots of candy at us!

The gang heads up to check out the food trucks – first things first!

We watched a Navajo mother and daughter demonstrate how to weave a wedding basket, explaining the design symbolism just as our guides at Monument Valley and Betatakin Ruins had:

Navajo fry bread with honey on top – incredible!

We were a bit melancholy at our goodbye happy hour, as John and Pam were heading back to Boulder City to finalize the purchase of their new home.  But at the same time we were glad that we’d be meeting up with Dave and Sue at Moab, our next stop.

The bluffs of Bluff as the background during our final happy hour with John and Pam for a while

 

Next up:  Moab, a city teeming with adventures



Bluff, Utah the second time around – Part 1

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Bluff, Utah is an unassuming, sparsely populated little town in the southeastern corner of Utah.  Although seemingly in the middle of nowhere, it’s surrounded by opportunities for adventure.  Along with John and Pam, and Dave and Sue, we totally agree this is a place worthy of repeat visits.  Not that we wouldn’t happily meet up with these fine folks anywhere in the U.S., or beyond!

John and Pam’s coach on the left, then Beluga and finally Betsy lined up at Cadillac Ranch RV Park

San Juan Hill

When we arrived in Bluff, our friends were waiting and ready to take us, the “jeepless travelers” for a ride along a narrow, sandy and rocky road to the San Juan Hills.  They had been on this trip before, but because they are such thoughtful and nice friends they offered to share this fun trek with us – or perhaps it was another not-so-subtle hint that we simply must get ourselves a Jeep?

Upon our arrival we were reminded how incredibly tough and determined the Mormon pioneers who passed through this area were.  Hole in the Rock tells the story of their crossing of the Colorado River, and this, the last obstacle as they climbed over what they called San Juan Hill.  It’s a tale of faith and tenacity, all in answer to God’s calling.

San Juan Hill

We retraced the amazing path the pioneers traveled in 1879 – with wagons full of belongings!

Lewis was our leader and very proficient at “herding humans”

When the pioneers finally reached the top, they carved their thanks to God into the rock, as pointed our by our red-shirted historian

San Juan Hill

“Here’s a wagon track,” says Dave.  “There’s one over here, too,” says John.  “Help me find a track, Lewis,” says Steve.  And Lewis asks “What are my crazy friends doing on top of this cliff?”

San Juan Hill

The wagon wheel ruts remain on the rocks almost 140 years later – incredible!

Can you spot Sue exploring near the trailhead way down there?

Lewis searches for mom as some cowboys ride through the area

From below the route taken by the pioneers’ wagons is clearly visible

Remains of the Barton Trading Post

The Rincone

The Rincon

Steve and John contemplate the remains of a waterwheel platform, circa 1880

140 year old logs

River House Ruins

Just half a mile or so further down the “road” we stopped to check out a stabilized ruin by the San Juan River, appropriately called River House Ruins.  It was occupied by Ancestral Puebloans between AD900 and the late 1200’s.

Ancient ruins under assault by modern machines

River House Ruins

These ruins are inaccessible to most people, therefore in pretty good condition

Soot marks indicate a kitchen area

River House Ruin

The River House Ruin is also known as The Snake House, due to a huge snake pictograph on the back wall

Pottery fragments were everywhere

Three men and a dog having a serious discussion

The scenery in the area

Multi-hued rocks

San Juan River

Do you see the feathered cliff dweller I spotted?

Another way of visiting the ruins – bring your own horse!

Homeward bound after yet another awesome trek

If not for our friends, we could not have enjoyed this wonderful place – thank you!

 

Next up:  More Bluff explorations



 

Let’s take a drive! – Bluff, Utah

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Mexican Hat

While driving and hiking to/from intriguing ancient ruins, we were constantly treated to amazing scenery all around.  We are after all in southern Utah, known for its dramatic sprawl of red rocks and geological splendor.  The diversity we witnessed kept my camera busy and us fascinated.

Bluff, Utah

The scenic routes around Bluff

Let me show you the scenery, and hopefully you’ll be as taken in as we were.  I snapped most of these images from the passenger’s seat of our car, so the quality will suffer some for those shots.

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Valley of the Gods

Known as the “miniature Monument Valley”, driving this 17-mile stretch off US 163 took us past many towering sandstone formations with fanciful names.  The Navajo interpret these imposing monoliths as Navajo warriors frozen in stone who can be appealed to for protection.

Valley of the Gods, Seven Sailors

The Seven Sailors oversee hubby as he cleans the windows for my picture-taking bonanza

Although smaller in size than Monument Valley, the statuesque formations here are numerous and no less magnificent.

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods in deep shadows

Of course, a formation can take on a different look, depending on your viewing angle.  For example, the formation below is named “Lady in Bathtub”, but as we continued past and gazed back, it looked more like a balanced rock.  Agree?

Moki Dugway

On one morning we drove through Moki Dugway, a 3-mile graded gravel switchback road carved into the cliff face of Cedar Mesa that winds 1,200’ from bottom to top.  The road was built in the 1950’s by Texas Zinc Minerals, as a route for ore trucks hauling uranium and vanadium from Cedar Mesa at the top of the dugway to the processing mill near Mexican Hat.

Moki dug way

Early morning drive up Moki Dugway

The views from the road and at several pullouts were breathtaking.  This is not a drive for those who have a fear of heights.  At one pullout we looked back and down at the Valley of the Gods we had just driven through:

Valley of the Gods

La Sal Mountains covered in snow at the horizon, Comb Ridge in the middle and Valley of the Gods in the foreground

Utah highway 261

Looking down at Utah Hwy 261, our route getting here

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Wavy striations form a pattern on a purple/grey hillside known as Raplee Anticline

Moki Dugway

Maybe Thelma and Louise’s car looked like this one after their famous jump?

Muley Point

Exiting Moki Dugway at the top of the mesa where the pavement ended, we followed a dirt road that went 5 miles west to Muley Point.  We took a break for lunch there and enjoyed the stunning panorama from a 1,200’ cliff.

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A sweeping view of the canyons below, and Monument Valley in the distance

Monument Valley

Another view of Monument Valley

John's Canyon

John’s Canyon

Goosenecks of the San Juan River

From Muley Point we traveled back down through Moki Dugway to Hwy 261.  I had thought we’d be back in the lowlands at Goosenecks State Park, but no!  The elevation from there to the bottom of the San Juan River goosenecks was another 1,000’ drop into the eroded landscape.

Goosenecks of San Juan river

The result of over 300 million years of geologic activity

From an overlook we could see the San Juan River’s sinuous path as it cut through multiple geologic layers.  This is the longest entrenched river meander in North America, which gives the small park its name.  We’d seen photos from friends who had camped here, and we were very happy to finaly see this beauty for ourselves.

Heading down Hwy 163 on our way home, we got a closer view of Raplee Anticline, also known as Mexican Blanket:

Raplee Anticline

Mexican Hat

This strange sandstone formation was named for its “sombrero” or mexican hat appearance.  It caught our eye as we traveled along Hwy 163 toward Bluff:

Mexican Hat

Down the road a ways I caught a glimpse of what I named “Bakers Hats”:

Bakers Hat

Comb Ridge

Comb Ridge is a sandstone monocline, with a 1,000’ wall from the wash bottom to the top of the cliffs.  Tilted at an angle of almost 20º, it runs for 80 miles.  It was home to the Anasazi, or ancestral Puebloans, and its cliffs sheltered the inhabitants.  The comb’s springs and seeps provided water to them, while the back walls of its shady, hidden alcoves served as a canvas for their rock art.

Comb Ridge

Comb Ridge

Comb ridge

Highway 163 cuts through Comb Ridge

Returning from Natural Bridges National Monument, we followed Hwy 95 to cut through the Comb Ridge on the west side.  It was nearing sunset when we passed through, and the cliff had taken on a soft glow as the setting sun hit it:

Comb Ridge

Bluff Fort Historic Site

When not driving or hiking, our home base was at Cadillac Ranch RV Park (Steve’s review here), in the very small town of Bluff, Utah.  Right across the street was the Bluff Fort Historic Site, where we learned that this small town is rich in history.  It was founded by Mormon settlers, as 200 of them arrived here in April 1880 after an incredible and seemingly impossible 6-month journey.

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Steve learns the amazing story of the Mormon’s travels into Utah

We were shown a video that detailed how those Mormon pioneers overcame challenges of unparalleled difficulty, as they blazed a road through some of the most broken and rugged terrain in North America.  It included a path to the Colorado River gorge via a crevice they named Hole in the Rock.  They actually blasted a small road through the crevasse, a 2,000’ descent down to the Colorado River.

Hole in the Rock Pioneers

A painting of the Hole in the Rock pioneers

All of the drives we took during our stay in Bluff elicited the same exclamation as we traveled the area – “It’s a wow here!”

 

Next up:  Having a blast with friends



 

A Glimpse of Past Inhabitants – Bluff, UT

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Wolfman Petroglyph

Excitement was in the air as we left Page, Arizona, heading toward our next destination at Bluff, Utah.  Happily, our route along Hwy 163 took us through one of our bucket list “must-see” places, Monument Valley.  It’s striking landscape is the most photographed area lying entirely within Navajo Indian Reservation territory along the Utah/Arizona border.

Monument Valley

Excitement abounds as we enter Monument Valley

The Navajo name for the area is Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii, meaning “valley of the rocks.”  The sandstone buttes and mesas have been used as a backdrop for more than a dozen movies (including Forest Gump), and driving amongst them brought home the beauty of that backdrop for us.

Monument Valley

The small town of Bluff (population 258 as of 2015) was our base camp for exploring ancient ruins and rock art.  It’s in the center of the Four Corners region where ruins of Anasazi Bluff, Utahcommunities have been found not only in Utah but also in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.  The region is known as the Utah section of the Trail of Ancients, where Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) occupied from approximately A.D. 1 to A.D. 1300.  Some of the remarkable remaining remnants left behind have easy access, but most require a drive and a hike, while still others exist in inaccessible back country areas.

Sand Island Petroglyphs

The easiest site to find here was the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, located within the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Sand Island Recreation Area just 3 miles south of Bluff.  The petroglyph panel stretches more than a hundred yards and features hundreds of  petroglyphs of every style.

Sand Island Petroglyps

The panel is registered in the National Register of Historic Places

Sand Island Petroglyphs

This small section alone has numerous types of petroglyphs, most notably big horn sheep

Sand Island Petroglyph Panel

Amy and May certainly weren’t ancient inhabitants.  Vandals force ugly fences to be installed around these precious works

Wolfman Panel

The famous Wolfman Panel is about four miles west of Bluff along Butler Wash Road and just a mile from Utah 163.  It’s a large, crisp and artistic group of etchings on the cliffs bordering the east side of Butler Wash.  The panel has designs that include a mask, shields, human figures and the wolfman himself.  Unfortunately, some of the artwork had been damaged by one or more morons shooting the rock with guns.

Wolfman Petroglyph

Wolfman Petroglyph

This is said to be a Basketmaker II style of petroglyph

Monarch Cave Ruins

Getting to these ruins required a 7-mile drive down Butler Wash Road (a dirt road in good condition), then a 1-mile hike toward a large alcove surrounded by colorfully-streaked cliffs above a permanent pour-over pool.  The site has one main ruin, several lesser structures and many petroglyphs colored yellow, green and white, in addition to the usual red.  The main area had been closed off as it has been become unstable and dangerous.

Monarch Cave Ruins

Living up high on a cliff

Monarch Cave Ruins

Indentations on rocks caused by grinding grain, showing evidence of life

Images on the rock that are painted on the surface with natural materials are called pictographs.

Monarch Cave Ruin

Living this high up a cliff guarantees a great view and safety from enemies

Grand Gulch Ruins

Once again our favorite hiking tipster Pam came through, pointing us to one of the ruins she and John (Oh The Places They Go) hiked called Junction Ruin.  The trailhead is located west of Hwy 261 and south of Natural Bridges National Monument.  The area is called Grand Gulch Primitive Area, and it’s a sprawling canyon system is home to a rich collection of American Indian rock art.  Access requires a permit at Kane Gulch Ranger Station for day use and/or backpacking.

Kane gulch trail

Initially our goal was to visit Junction Ruin as John and Pam had (click here for the details of their hike).  It’s a large cliff dwelling built on three levels, and a fascinating complex consisting of storage units, habitation rooms, kivas and defensive structures.

Junction ruin, Cedar Mesa

Peering into a small storage room

After perusing those ruins we met a group of backpackers who urged us to continue another 0.8 miles to see Turkey Pen Ruin.  Onward we went to discover that these ruins encompassed a number of structures, along with some pictographs.  Just like Junction Ruin, a metal box at the site contained descriptions of the scene and the structures it held.

Turkey Pen Ruin

The actual Turkey Pen is a jacal structure near the west end of the habitation area, and although its purpose is unknown, it didn’t look like it was used to hold turkeys.

Turkey Pen Ruin

We didn’t intend to hike 9.2 miles, but seeing both ruins made it more rewarding despite the uphill climb on our way out.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Tucked away in White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument shows off three natural stone bridges.  The park ranger recommended we follow an 8.6-mile trail that connected all of them in a long loop hike.  This trek really showed up-close how the power of water cut two deep canyons and formed three massive sandstone bridges.

Sipapu Bridge

The world’s second highest natural bridge – Sipapu Natural Bridge

Descending into the canyon, we passed and crossed under the “Sipapu” “Kachina,” and “Owachomo” bridges.  They were named after Native Americans who once lived in the area.  Along the way we saw rock art panels and checked out Horsecollar Ruin.

Horse collar Ruin

This well-preserved ruin’s name came from the doorways of two granaries resembling horse collars

Pictograph

We wondered what these drawings meant

We discovered the rock art panel when eagle-eyed Steve spied it high up on a wall not easily visible from the trail.  It was near the end of our hike, which due to our extra wanderings had tallied up 11.6 miles on the GPS.  It was a long and satisfying hike!

House on Fire Ruin

Our final stop that day was the House on Fire ruin.  Consisting of about five rooms, its name comes from the patterns in the alcove’s red and white sandstone ceiling that look like flames shooting from the roof of the structures.

The best time to capture this effect is midday when the light from the opposite canyon bounces across to the ruin.  Unfortunately it was 5:30pm by the time we arrived after our all-day “Bridges” hike, so conditions for my pictures were not ideal.  This trek added another 1.5 miles to our total for the day, and we were exhausted but happy to see it while in the area.

House on Fire Ruin

Visiting ancient ruins gives us a glimpse into parts of Anasazi life, and the remnants tell tales of their daily toils.  Images and art chiseled/painted on rock walls are impossible to decipher, but they must have had special meaning to the people who created them and the descendants who followed.  Those first residents left us fascinating food for thought, and we can only imagine what their lives must have been like way back then.

 

Next up:  Let’s take a drive!