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May 2021 — Exploring Southern Utah: Arches, Bridges and Ruins
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Ruins — Photo Galley

In the previous trip report about exploring the Southern Utah backcountry we traveled through the rugged landscape and rough roads of the Maze District in Canyonlands National Park. In this final report we will be visiting a few arches and bridges along with getting up close and personal with cliff dwelling ruins that were originally built by the Pueblo and Anasazi that lived in southern Utah 0ver 700 years ago.

Leaving our campsite from the previous night we headed into the Bears Ears National Monument on our way to Natural Bridges National Monument. We traveled on a well maintained gravel forest service roads, a welcome change from the roads in the Maze, as we passed through the monument. Bears Ears gets its name form the two peaks that look like the ears on a bear from a distance, of course you have to be in the right place to see the resemblance.

The view from the road down from the pass between the ears is spectacular. There were a few people camped at the vista points that had a commanding view of the Manti-La Sal National Forest below.

At the pavement we turned right towards Natural Bridges. The monument was created in 1908 as Utah’s first national Monument. There are three bridges in the monument as well as ruins from the people that occupied the area 700 years ago.

Our first stop was the visitors center and gift shop where we got maps and historical information about the monument. We learned that natural arches and bridges may look similar they are formed differently. Bridges are formed by water erosion and are always over a wash or what was once a river or stream. Arches are formed by the freezing and thawing of water in the rock that cause chunks of rock to break away.

Sipapu Bridge

Sipapu Bridge — Photo Galley

Then it was on to Sipapu Bridge overlook. We decided to hike the 1.4 mile (2 kilometer) trail down to the base of the bridge. The trail drops 436 feet (133 meters) as it passes over slick rock slabs, down ladders and stairs, and flat sandy sections on the way to the wash floor. The view of the bridge from the base is impressive. It is also cool and shady under the bridge making a good spot to rest before heading back up to the parking area. The bridge has a height of 220 feet (67 meters), a span 268 feet (82 meters), a width 31 feet (9.5 meters) and is 53 feet (16 meters) thick.

Horse Collar Ruins

Horse Collar Ruins — Photo Galley

The next stop on the one way road that winds through the monument was at Horse Collar Ruins. It was built by the ancestral Puebloans about 700 years ago. There are several unusual round adobe and rock structures under the overhanging rock cliff on the opposite side of the canyon from the view point, so bring your binoculars. A hiking trail leads through the canyon to the site.

Kachina Bridge

Kachina Bridge — Photo Galley

Next we headed to the Kachina Bridge overlook. The bridge was a bit hard to pick out from the surrounding rock due to the angle of view and the huge cottonwood trees that grow under it. The bridge has a height of 210 feet (64 meters), a span of 204 feet (62 meters), a width 44 feet (13 meters), and a thickness of 93 feet (28 meters)

Owachomo Bridge

Owachomo Bridge — Photo Galley

Our last stop in the monument was at Owachomo Bridge. With a height of 106 feet (32 meters), a span of 180 feet (55 meters), a width 27 feet (8 meters), and a thickness: 9 feet (3 meters) it is the thinnest and narrowest of the three bridges. Looking at it from a distance it is hard to believe that something that thin with a flat arch could span the distance.

Heading east from the monument we started looking for a place to camp. On the way we stopped at the restored Anasazi village called Mule Canyon Ruin. There is the outline of a 12 room structure, a tower and a kiva at the site.

Cave Tower Ruins

Cave Tower Ruins — Photo Galley

A short drive later we turned right off of Highway 95 headed for Cave Tower Ruins and our camp for the night. There is a gate at the start of the road leading back to a large parking area. The rules of backcountry travel state that if you open a gate you need to close it. If a gate is already open then leave it open. From the gate it is about two tenths of a mile to a parking area. There is a hiking trail from the parking area to the ruins. Instead of parking we took the very rough and rocky four wheel drive track another half mile to the camp site near the ruins.

The ruins consist of seven round rock structures, in different states of decay, that have a commanding view of the head of Mule Canyon. As we walked around we saw a small fenced area. We have seen similar fenced areas on previous trips that were protecting grave sites. We think there were two graves in this one too.

The following day we drove back to Utah Highway 95. Once we regrouped at the highway we went a short distance west and turned off on to Arch Canyon Overlook Road and then turned off on to the Trail of the Ancients, a four wheel drive only track that took us down into Dog Tanks Draw. The track was was rough and there were two sections where we needed to stop and guide each over over some rocky and difficult terrain.

The trail eventually led us to a nice camping area. From there we heading up Arch Canyon Trail crossing and recrossing a wash that ran through the bottom of the canyon. We were surprised to find quite a bit of water flowing in it. We slowly worked our way up Arch Canyon on the eight mile drive to a pair of arches at the end of the road.


Petroglyphs — Photo Galley

Along the way we stopped at three separate Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) cliff dwelling ruins. Some of the walls were still intact to height of about five feet. Even though some of the rock slab walls had collapsed we could clearly make out the size of the dwellings and the rooms within them. At one of the sites there were petroglyphs carved into the rock wall behind the structures.

Angel Arch

Angel Arch — Photo Galley

Continuing on we found what looked like a campsite at the end of the road. From there Curt and I hiked up the trail to see Angel and Cathedral Arches while Chuck and Bruce hung out in the shade of the cottonwood trees. When we got back from our hike Chuck and Bruce told us they decided to head home. We all got back in our rigs and started back towards the campground we saw at the head of the canyon. We said our goodbyes at the campground and while they headed home Curt and I setup camp.

The following morning the two of us packed up and headed south to Highway 95 and followed it over the Comb Ridge Pass to visit more ruins and cliff dwellings.

Comb Ridge gets it name from the escarpment on its west side and the comb like fingers that descend from its top into the Butler Wash on the east side. The fingers and the caves within them made excellent places for the Pueblo and Anasazi to build their settlements, grow their crops and provided a good defense agains invaders.

Our first stop was at the Butler Wash Ruins. A one mile round trip hike brought us to the ruins overlook. Unlike the Arch Canyon Ruins these were on the other side of the canyon and there was no hiking trail to them, Curts binoculars came in hady. The site was built by the Ancestral Puebloans, also called Anasazi Indians, in about 1200 AD. It was abandoned about 700 years ago. Corn, beans and squash were farmed in the wash bottom.

Continuing on we worked our way south on the well maintained gravel Lower Butler Wash Road to the first of four ruins that we stoped at. There is a parking area at the trail head for each ruin site about a quarter mile from the main road turn off. From the parking areas it is about a 1.5 mile round trip hike to each of the ruins.


Artifacts — Photo Galley

The largest and most complete of the ruins that we visited is Monarch Cave. This cave is more like a museum where you can get up close and personal with the exhibits. The site was occupied between 1150 and 1350 AD. The cave is located in a natural box canyon where the overhanging rock ledge provided an easily defendable and sheltered place to live. There are many artifacts, pottery, corn, and tools in the area that you can look at in their natural environment. Just remember to leave them there for others to enjoy.

The final ruin we visited was at the south end of the 80 mile long Comb Ridge. Once again this ruin was across the canyon like the Butler Wash Ruin. It was difficult to make out even with the help of binoculars. We did not take the hiking trail down off top of the ridge overlook into the wash and back up to the ruin site.

Our next goal was to find a camping spot on the San Juan River. The first order of business when we got to the river was to get into the cold water and rinse off some of the hiking grime from our bodies. The wind was blowing so instead of camping next to the the river we headed to the Sand Island campground to get a spot for the night and to see the Sand Island Petroglyphs.

Sand Island Petroglyphs

Sand Island Petroglyphs — Photo Galley

The petroglyphs etched into and almost covering the 100 yard long rock wall are between 800 and 2,500 years old. Some of them looked much newer which got Curt and I into a discussion of the difference between ancient rock art and todays graffiti. No we did not resolve the issue. The following day we headed for Blanding to get fuel and a few other necessities. While there we called home to check in with our families to let them know all was well. Heading east from there we took a very roundabout way through Montezuma Canyon to get to Monticello.

Arch at Ruins Site

Arch at Ruins Site — Photo Galley

We stopped at a ruin site for lunch. The ruin was just a rubble wall tucked back into an overhang. The original structure may have been a granary. There was a small arch just above the ruin. We also stopped at the Butler Wash Dinosaur Tracks. We looked for them in the slick rock wash bottom. There was a lot of sand on the bottom of the wash so we did not find them. Probably should have brought a broom and a shovel.


Granary — Photo Galley

The ruins we looked at on Comb Ridge were fairly large settlements. The ruins we saw today along the walls in Montezuma Canyon were much smaller. We think several were just granaries. One site had a series of petroglyphs on the rock near it. Looking across the valley at one of the ruins we saw three tiny arches at the top of the canyon wall.

A bit further up the road we stopped at the Three Kiva site. It was the largest site that we visited that day. It has one restored kiva with several rooms around it. I went down into the restored kiva. It had a very low ceiling and was obviously not built for someone my size.

The drive through Montezuma Canyon is beautiful. There are sections of rock walls and there were other sections were we were driving through areas of huge Fremont Cottonwood trees in a park like setting.

Cliff Dwelling

Cliff Dwelling — Photo Galley

The last cliff dwelling that we stopped at was near Horse Canyon. This was truly a cliff dwelling at about 100 feet above the road. There were several easily identifiable structures that were still intact.

From there it was on to Monticello for fuel and then on to Moab for the night before heading for home in the morning. I really enjoyed the this portion of my trip to southern Utah and visiting all of the ruins.

Miles driven: 232
Average miles per gallon: 13.5
Number of ruin sites visited: 14
Number of arches viewed: 5
Number of bridges viewed: 3

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Barrancas del Cobre

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Summer Lake Hot Springs

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Twin Rocks

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