Exploring Utah’s Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Ruins in Bears Ears

The people that walked these lands before us, have a history that most of us do not know about. As early as 13,000 years ago, the Clovis people hunted in the Cedar Mesa. After them, the Ancestral Puebloans came into the picture 2,500 years ago. These people occupied these desert landscapes up until the mid 1200s when nearly all of them disappeared from the San Juan Region and settled elsewhere in the Southwest. They left behind the pots and baskets they created, along with their homes built into the cliffs that scatter across the desert canyons. This is the reason we came to Monticello, Utah.

The four of us, Courtney, her mom, Gregor, and myself, all piled into the Jeep on Friday night after work and headed South towards the desert for the weekend. The plan was to stay just outside of Monticello, 1 hour south of Moab, for the weekend as a basecamp to explore the Native American cliff dwellings around Monticello and Blanding. What we found and learned was more than I could have ever imagined.

House on Fire

From the dirt road that enters Mule Canyon, we headed onto the sandy trail in hopes of seeing the infamous House on Fire ruin. Through the dried up riverbed we hiked for nearly a mile before following the trail markers up towards the canyon walls. There it stood, like it has for hundreds and hundreds of years before, the ancient ruin under a firy ceiling. No, the house isn’t actually on fire, but the wavy colors in the sand stone cliff above it really do make it look like flames are shooting out from the dwelling roof.

First impressions: it’s much smaller than photos make it seem. The doorways were only 4 feet high, with the windows even smaller than that. Rocks have been placed in the doorways to prevent anyone from entering inside and disturbing this pristine piece of their history. Largely intact, this was only the beginning of all we would learn on this day about these ancient people and how they survived in this arid desert.


Butler Wash Ruins

Once we finished the first hike, we headed back out towards Blanding to make the stop and see the Butler Wash Anasazi Ruins. Just a quick hike from the road, only 0.5 mile or so, you reach a viewpoint that spans across the canyon. Tucked under a massive amphitheater-like cliff, a large dwelling was built into the wall. Large walls, separating rooms and religious areas, still stood strong in this unforgiving environment.

The most incredible part of this ruin is the access to it, or lack there of. A sign at the viewpoint states, “enter at your own risk.” Meaning, we could go in there, if we could make it. From the looks of it, the only way down from the walls above were by these shallow, man-made steps that were chiseled into the cliff walls. Maybe, at one point in time, the steps were manageable for a village to use, but now look just as difficult as rock climbing the wall. Needless to say, we were not going to try and navigate those dangerous “stairs”.


Five Kiva Pueblo

After exploring these ruins all morning, from up close and afar, we were finally able to go inside an ancient cliff dwelling when we reached the Five Kiva Pueblo. This stop was by far the best one on the trip. Not only was ruin a quick hike from the trailhead, but you could still walk through the ruin. Showing respect for the ancient structure that has stood the test of time, we carefully walked through this piece of history. Here, Courtney’s mom explained to us the purpose of the rounded rooms of the dwellings that were built into the floor. These are called Kivas, which are rooms used for religious rituals and political meetings. In this ruin, they claim there are 5, but we only found 4 of them.

Walking through this place was incredible. Knowing that this was home to dozens of people throughout time, and now an invaluable piece of history telling the story of this group. You can see where they used to sleep, where they stored their grains and food, where they prayed, and how entered in and out of the canyons. A true artifact, that was built with incredible masonry skill.


Edge of the Cedars Museum

Experiencing first hand where the ancient people lived, only left us with an endless amount of questions to still be answered. Stopping at the Edge of the Cedars Museum was a necessary step in learning this important lesson in history. Considered a State Park, we walked through the self-guided tour which explained the timeline of which people came, and when they were here. We found out the different styles and capabilities of the pottery and baskets they made. Some baskets were woven so tightly that they held water. We learned about the lifestyles as well as the farming and hunting equipment they used to survive. This museum is home to the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery and relics in southeastern Utah.

Outside the museum, a village was uncovered that was buried by the sands of time. From 750 A.D. to 1220 A.D. this village was home to various ancient cultures like Ancestral Puebloans/Anasazi, Navajo, and Utes. Historians say that even cowboys were camping near the area in the late 1800s. The restored pueblo even includes a subterranean kiva that is open to the public to enter. Of course we climbed down the ladder to experience it for ourselves. The structure was shockingly well built, with a roof that you could even stand on.


News Paper Rock

Any trip to Southeastern Utah to see the history of those who came before us would not have been complete without a stop at Newspaper Rock in Indian Creek. Without knowing exactly what each of these petrogliffs stand for or signify, it was amazing to wonder about. Was this a story of native peoples ancestors, finally written down rather than passed on by word-of-mouth. Was this a dictionary of sorts to be used for all stories to come. Was this the work of one person, or generations of people. All of which we will never know, but it didn’t mean we couldn’t make up our own stories involving these strange alien creatures and flying squirrels

We walked away from this trip with so much more appreciation for the way these people lived off the land and within it. Realizing the struggles they must have faced every single day to survive. Learning about how they evolved as a species from strictly nomadic hunters, to villages built to stay and lands to farm on. They walked the same canyons we still do to this day, but we just do it in different shoes.

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