comb ridge - butler wash road / comb wash road

A major geological formation packed with Anasazi ruins

 

Comb Ridge is a 120 mile long by 1 mile wide monocline tilted at 20 degrees that towers over the plains below. Much of it lies within the Navajo Reservation, but the section north of the San Juan river is the most popular amongst canyon hikers for its ease of access and wealth of ruins. The geology of the west side of the ridge gives Comb Ridge its name, while the east side is a succession of short box canyons that ascend the ridge, many of which contain Anasazi ruins and rock art. There are probably 10 well-known sets of ruins here, each accessed from its own trailhead. Wolfman Panel, Monarch Cave, Fishmouth Cave, Procession Panel and Split Level Ruin are some of the more popular ones. Hiking is relatively easy though there are few cairns so you need to be practised at route-finding.

 

They’re all accessed from Butler Wash Road which runs between UT95 in the north (about 11 miles west of Blanding) and UT163 in the south (about 3 miles west of Bluff). This good dirt road is relatively smooth but some of the washes can be bumpy. Most passenger cars, carefully driven, can make it in the dry but after rain the surface can be very slick and difficult even for 4WD vehicles without off-road tires.

 

You can also drive the east side of the ridge on Comb Wash Road which is in a similar condition to Butler Wash Road. If you’re not hiking this is the most scenic route to view the ridge with the vertical cliffs beside the road. There are a few rock art panels along this road so if you see a turn off or pullout the chances are there’s something worth checking out in the vicinity. You may also see some ‘Moki’ steps carved in the cliff face. Take a minute to imagine what it was like for the Anasazi to climb these sheer rock faces.

 

The best time to view Comb Ridge is at sunset when the ridge is bathed in golden light. Some of the best views at this time can be seen from the highways north and south of the ridge. It’s one of my favourite places in the southwest and I’ve probably hiked here a dozen times. And I’m sure I still haven’t seen everything.

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procession petroglyph panel

Extensive rock art and superb views are the highlights of this short hike to the top of Comb Ridge.

 

You can access the Procession Panel from Butler Wash Road which parallels the east side of the majestic Comb Ridge. This good dirt road, suitable for passenger cars in dry weather (driven carefully) mildly undulates over the generally flat landscape here. There are numerous exploring opportunities along this road, some to cliff dwellings, others to rock art. The Procession Panel is possibly the finest of the latter.

 

From UT163 drive north on Butler Wash Road for about 6 miles to a small parking area, It’s quite likely you’ll be the only people here. Leave your car and look for a cleft in the ridge ahead of you and slightly south. The left hand side of this cleft is a deep red, the right hand side white. The panel is behind the right hand side facing south and you’ll be hiking up the draw to that cleft. It’s important to know this before hiking out as you will see cairns on the way but it’s easy to lose them.

 

Follow the obvious trail from your vehicle and after a few yards walking through thick tamarisk you’ll find the main obstacle, Butler Wash. It’s a deep arroyo so you’ll need to scramble down the sandy banks (mosquito warning!) and up the other side. After rain it can be very muddy down in the wash. Thankfully, once you’re out of it you’ll be walking mostly on slickrock. (Look out for pottery sherds along the way – we once found half a pot behind a boulder and, of course, left it there.) The hike starts off gently ascending towards the draw once you’re in the draw it steeply ascends towards the panel. The elevation gain from the trailhead is over 500 feet and there’s not too much shade. Near the top, and in that cleft you saw back at the trailhead,  you come to a small plateau and you should look for a red rock wall rising to your right. The petroglyphs start quite low down on that wall and continue to the Procession Panel near the top and it’s an easy scramble to get there. There are well over 100 petroglyphs here including animals and geometric designs. The Procession Panel, though, is something special: over 100 small figures in a line, all with one hand raised, as well as some beautifully crafted deer or elk.

 

Once you’re done, walk back down the red cliff and turn right for a spectacular viewpoint from the ridge over Comb Wash towards Cedar Mesa. Below you is Comb Wash Road which parallels the ridge on this side. Whilst you can’t access ruins from this road, there are a few panels of rock art which are easily accessed.

 

The Procession Panel is a 3 mile roundtrip you can hike in a few hours but it’s easy to get distracted here.

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cold spring cave

A short hike to a picturesque amphitheatre with a cave well-stocked with ruins and rock art.

 

To the west of the 2WD (when dry) Butler Wash Road runs Comb Ridge. On a map you can see the many draws and saddles in this northern section of the ridge which form the ‘comb’. And it’s within many of these draws that you’ll find the relics of the Anasazi civilisation. You can combine this trip with visits to the Procession Panel, Monarch Cave and many others in the vicinity to see more ruins and rock art.

 

Take Highway 191/163 east from Bluff and turn right onto Lower Butler Wash Road close to the ridge. Set your odometer to zero. The road surface is mostly packed dirt with some light rocky sections. Please don’t drive this immediately before or after heavy rain as it can become slick and impassable, even for stock 4WD vehicles. After a few hundred yards you may see the remnants of the old route that went over the ridge. The undulating road gradually works its way towards the ridge. You may notice some dirt roads heading off to the right but you keep hugging the ridge. At mile 6.1 is a left turn to the Procession Panel Trailhead. Keep going. At mile 6.9 is another turn off, this time to the Monarch Cave trailhead. At mile 7.1, turn left to the Cold Spring Cave parking area close to Butler Wash.

 

From the unmarked trailhead, look across the wash to an obvious draw in the ridge almost directly opposite. There are a number of ways to access it but the easiest is to follow the old jeep road across a shallow wash for about a ¼ mile until an obvious trail runs off to the left which then crosses the deeper Butler Wash. There are plenty of tamarisks and mosquitoes here! After 0.8 mile from the trailhead you’ll find a fork in the trail and you should take the right fork into a wooded draw. After a few hundred yards you’ll enter the amphitheatre and see the huge overhang which contains the ruins. Like many Anasazi sites the ruins are in a poor condition but the wealth of good rock art more than makes up for that: multi-coloured handprints and lots of interesting petroglyphs carved onto boulders. If they’re still there, you’ll find stone tools and corncobs though I didn’t see much pottery. The ‘cave’ section is at the far end of the overhang and doesn’t disappoint. It’s deep and low with evidence of a seep at the rear. There’s a large kiva and stone walls protecting the entrance to the cave. Look out for a large boulder on which is carved ‘1892 Cold Spring Cave I.A.E.E.’ – evidence of the Illustrated American Exploration Expedition. The seven-man team from Ohio explored over 100 sites in the Four Corners region ‘in search of the lost race’. They were under funded, ill-equipped, had their burros stolen, and generally had a miserable time.

 

Thankfully you won’t with your 21st century gear. The views from the cave across the amphitheatre are scenic and you’re very likely to have the place to yourself which all adds to the overall ambience of this site.

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fishmouth cave

You can see the cave from the road but it's clear it has suffered serious looting and there are no structures inside. However there are some nice reverse hand pictographs and other ruins to view along the way. It’s a short, but sometimes rough, walk from your car.

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monarch cave

Sadly, like many ruin locations in this area, the structures are looking a little worse for wear. However, it’s a neat hike across the wash to the huge cave though and along the way you can find some rock art and tool-sharpening grooves.

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wolfman panel

Not far from the highway, on Butler wash Road is a short trail leading to a large rock art panel, the star of which is a wolfman-like petroglyph. There are also a few ruin sites across the wash.

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© 2016 Bob Palmer