mcloyd canyon

A scenic hike to arguably the most interesting, and certainly unique, Anasazi ruin in the Utah.

 

This canyon is home to the legendary Moonhouse. Whilst it lacks the grandeur of big Anasazi sites such as Mesa Verde, Keet Seel, Betatakin et al, it has plenty of charisma. It’s definitely not a ruin. It’s much better preserved than most structures in the area, and it’s very special. Built in the mid 1200s and sitting in an alcove high above the canyon bottom, a defensive curtain wall hides rooms that housed around five families. And legendary? Up until 2000 this wasn’t in any guidebook or on any published map. The visitors each year numbered in the low hundreds and directions to this ‘secret’ site were found by word of mouth only. Its name was whispered by those in the know. Many people knew of its existence but not where it was located. In fact it was only recently that the name McLoyd Canyon found itself onto some maps. Before you would have seen it as just a spur of Fish Creek. For me, Moonhouse is to Anasazi dwellings what Horseshoe Canyon is to rock art. Visitor numbers have shot up in the past 10 years or so and Moonhouse has been compromised. Tap ‘Moonhouse’ into Google and you’ll come up with over 150,000 results. Over the past 20 years visitation has increased significantly and there has been a certain amount of wear and tear of the structures. Up until a few years ago you could enter it but that's now forbidden. Luckily there’s plenty to see without going inside.

 

The jewel in the crown of Cedar Mesa’s Anasazi cliff dwellings, it's now protected to some degree by a BLM permit system (book your places now). To that end the BLM are now issuing a maximum of 20 permits a day. During Spring and Fall you must pick these up from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station a few miles north of the McLoyd Canyon turn off. At other times of the year the permits are available on a first come first served basis at the trailhead. I’ve visited Moonhouse 5 times but not since the permit system started in 2014.

 

To get to McLoyd Canyon take the signed Snow Flats Road off UT261 and drive east for around 8 miles until you come to a kiosk and pullout. (This road forms part of the historic Mormon pioneer trail and continues on to Comb Wash Road and Comb Ridge. If you’re in no hurry after your hike then this is a very scenic road that’ll take you close to Bluff via spectacular landscapes.) Snow Flats Road is 2WD but high-clearance is essential and 4WD preferable as there are slickrock sections that are very bumpy. Note this road can be undriveable after rain.

 

This is where I park, though I’ve heard the BLM are asking permit holders to drive the adjacent north-trending singletrack all the way to the rim. I’ve always hiked this as I enjoy the scenery and there’s a very steep section right at the start that would certainly be impassable on your return after even a brief shower. It’s a 20-30 minute stroll across typical undulating Cedar Mesa country to the rim of McCloyd Canyon. Pinons, juniper, sage and cholla and more all vying for what little moisture they can find under the cryptobiotic crust. The vegetation seems almost mathematically spaced apart. Bright yellow and green collared lizards sun themselves while tiny horned toads lie in the shadows.

 

Close to the rim there’s little sign of what’s to come. But once you’ve located the first cairn you can wend your way down the steep rocky trail. One ledge halfway down is tricky to negotiate. A helpful pile of rocks make it easier but another pair of hands is welcome. After five or ten minutes you’ll notice some small structures appear on the opposite canyon wall. Moonhouse is to the left of these but still out of sight. Descend a little further and it comes into view. You can’t miss it. With just one small doorway, it looks like a huge single dwelling but this is just a curtain wall behind which lie 5 rooms.

 

Now’s a good time, in your current lofty position, to check out your ascent route on the other side. The cairns are easy to follow and within 30 minutes from the rim you’re now at the bottom of the canyon, ready for the 10 minute push up to Moonhouse. As you approach it from an acute angle the first thing you notice is an imposing rock formation in front of the structure. It’s common for the Anasazi to build homes and create rock art near natural phenomena such as pinnacles, arches, waterfalls etc. Just like us, they liked a good view from their homes.

 

Moonhouse sits on a wide ledge with lovely views over the canyon. The curtain wall is castellated at the top and punched through with numerous spyholes. Beside it, on the alcove wall, is a large red wavy line pictograph. At Moonhouse you may not be able to enter but I suspect you can still put your head through the child-sized opening and, with a flashlight, see the glories it has to offer. Inside one of the rooms are reverse pictographs of a full and crescent moons as well as other bold, graphic wall decorations You can even see perfectly preserved fingerprints the builders left in the mortar. Other structures are close by.

 

When you’ve taken it all in, walk down canyon along the ledge a few hundred yards to find more structures (the ones you first saw on the trail down), all built to the same exacting specifications. Check out the decorative white stone chinking in the mortar.

 

If you have time walk up canyon (there is a vague trail) to see some more ruins, though they’re in poor condition. You will pass another low alcove above you where you’ll find some Basketmaker storage cysts and rock art.

 

Much later, in another world, you’ll picture this sacred place with unnerving accuracy and be pleased you invested your time here.

Trip ratings

Difficulty •••

Access ••••

Crowds ••

Overall •••••

 

 

 
 
mule canyon – north and south forks

Easy access, easy hiking, lots of ruins, solitude. What's not to like?

 

This is one of my favourite places in the area and I often hike here when the weather has made other dirt roads on Cedar Mesa impassable, as access to the trailheads is easy. Just driving here along UT261 from Blanding is a real pleasure and is probably one of the most scenic roads in the south-west. I must have travelled it 30 times and I never tire of it. When it was planned there was a lot of controversy and I can understand the arguments of keeping this landscape untouched. Yet traffic is sparse and there are only two signed attractions: Butler Wash Ruins and Mule Canyon Ruins. Don’t confuse the latter with what I’m about to describe though. Mule Canyon Ruins is a short walk from a parking area along a paved trail  to a partially reconstructed kiva. Sure, if you have only 5 minutes before dashing off somewhere else then take a look, but it’s disappointing.

 

The easiest way to access the forks of Mule Canyon is to drive to the entrance to Mule Canyon Ruin, turn around and take the first dirt road (County Road 263) on the left after a few hundred yards. The road condition is very good though there is a steep descent down to the canyon bottom that may be a little tricky coming back if it’s wet. Once I parked at the top and walked the few hundred yards down to the South Fork trailhead. There’s no big pullouts here so just park at the side of the road. It’s very wide. North Fork or South Fork? It’s possible to do a loop and cover both but most people don’t. Personally, I think the less popular North Fork is prettier. Either way you’ll need to pick up a permit at the trailhead. The Soth Fork trailhead is just ¼ mile from the highway and the North Fork is a short distance from that.

 

The forks of Mule Canyon are not majestic like many on Cedar Mesa, but gentler, more forested with Ponderosa pines, reflecting the higher altitude here. And I rarely see anyone on the trails here.

 

In the North Fork, the canyon walls start shallow as you follow the well-worn trail up canyon usually in the stream bed though elements of trail exist around obstacles. All the ruins will be found on the right hand side and the first come into view after about a mile. Others follow at around 30 minute intervals for the next three miles or so. Many are easily accessible. Some are in relatively good condition and you may still find some pottery sherds and ancient corn lying around. Some will have been carefully placed on a rock by their ‘discoverers’. It’s a shame that people do this, intent on making their own mark on the place in this fashion. One of the wonderful things about strolling through canyons is finding stuff like this beside a trail or amongst the rocks, and picking it up and handling it, then placing it back down where you found it for someone else to discover. This is apart from the fact that it diminishes the archaeological worth and provenance of the item, Rant over. Look out for rock art too. I’ve hiked here immediately after a heavy storm ad the creek bed was running with deep red silty water. It was a beautiful sight. Eventually the canyon gets brushy and hiking gets problematic so this is a good place to turn around ad retrace your steps.

 

The South Fork is more popular due to a named ruin, the so-called Burning/Flaming House Ruin. It’s the first ruin you come to after 20-30 minutes and is close to the trail. Some people miss it as it’s partially hidden by trees as you approach. Try to be there in the morning when the light is best and the roof of the cave appears to be engulfed in flames. Just up canyon a few yards is a small alcove with several handprints. Over the next 3 miles there are another 7 groups of structures, some easy to reach, others 200 feet above the canyon floor.

 

Whichever fork you choose this is an easy half day hike with little elevation gain and where you’ll likely be on your own in typical Anasazi country. Mule Canyon may not have the cachet of Grand Gulch or other more popular Cedar Mesa canyons but you get a lot of bangs for your buck and it’s great for families with young children and highly recommended.

 

Trip ratings

Difficulty ••

Access ••

Crowds ••

Overall ••••

(based on exploring the more accessible sites)

 

 

 

mule canyon towers

A short walk around a group of Anasazi towers and an optional scramble to ruins and rock art.

 

Even if you have just an hour to spare before of after another hike, this is a worthwhile option if you’re in the vicinity, perhaps hiking the North or South Fork of Mule Canyon which is close by.

 

If you’re travelling from Blanding along UT95 turn left (south) just before mile marker 102. The road and towers weren’t signed when I was last there. Go through the gate and drive a sometimes bumpy road for ½ mile or so to a large parking area. Note that high-clearance is recommended, though I have seen a passenger car here. Otherwise park your car near the gate and walk to the rim.

 

The rim is a short distance from the parking area. Three of the towers are in good condition, while the rest are little more than piles of rubble. You’ll see that between them they cover all the vantage points around the head of the canyon. As you walk around the rim look out for ruins below.

 

If you have time you can drop over the rim on the left hand side (the first few yards are the most difficult but you will need your hands and there is exposure – this would put the Difficulty level up to ••••) and follow a rough, steep trail to two groups of ruins, mostly granaries still with corn inside, which are just under the rim. After the second group look out for a small structure perched on a narrow ledge above a vertical cliff section. If you have a head for heights you can walk this ledge above which is a large pictograph which is often known as the ‘Smiley Face’.

 

Mule Canyon Towers is often devoid of people and it’s very rare to find anyone below the rim as most fail to spot the way down.

 

Trip ratings

Difficulty ••

Access •••

Crowds ••

Overall ••••

(based on walking the rim only)

 

 

 
the moki dugway

A graded gravel road that switchbacks up the side of Cedar Mesa leading to one of Southern Utah’s most panoramic views.

 

UT 261 is a road that links Bluff and Mexican Hat with Highway 95, the route to Hite on Lake Powell. It starts north of Mexican Hat and heads smoothly towards Cedar Mesa. There’s a turn off for Goosenecks State Park along the way (worth a visit). Even when you’re close to the edge of the mesa it seems like the road will dead end. Then, out of the blue, comes an end of paved road sign and a steep gradients warning. The road becomes graded gravel (except for most bends being paved) for the next 3 miles as it winds steeply up 1200 feet to the rim. It’s not that bumpy and can be driven in any passenger car with care. You’ll average 10-15 mph. It’s only as you start climbing do you begin to see the road above, though it helps if there’s s distant moving vehicle to help pick it out. The trip to the top takes 15-20 minutes though you may want to pause occasionally to take in the amazing views. At the rim of Cedar Mesa there’s a wide pullout and there’s usually a car or two parked up checking the vistas. Plan to spend more than a few minutes here. Immediately below you looking left is the Valley of the Gods (an exhilarating 90 minute dirt road drive amongst the pinnacles and monoliths – high clearance recommended). You can also see Monument Valley, Sleeping Ute mountain in Colorado and, way in the distance, Shiprock in New Mexico. Try to be here towards sunset when the golden light plays a show in the valley below. If you’re aiming to hike on Cedar Mesa then it’s worth making this trip.

 

If you didn’t stop off at Goosenecks along the way then continue north along 261 for a few hundred yards and take the next dirt road on the left towards Muley Point. It’s 5 miles on a good surface to the overlook where you can see the entrenched ‘gooseneck’ meanders of the San Juan River and Monument Valley in the south.  Whilst you’re higher here than in the state park below I think the views are better, though maybe having the place to yourself (very likely) helps.

 

Trip ratings

Access •

Crowds ••

Overall ••••

 

 

arch canyon

A quick trip or full day hike to an unusually verdant canyon containing Anasazi ruins.

 

I’ve noticed that many serious Cedar Mesa hikers head for Grand Gulch and the cachet of hiking one of the best know canyons in the southwest. But it’s a fact that some of the trailheads can only be accessed on bumpy, sometimes 4WD, roads, followed by a hike across the mesa just to reach the rim. Far fewer make it to Arch Canyon in the northeastern corner of the mesa, despite the fact that access is easy and suitable for most cars in the dry. Arch Canyon contains a perennial stream that allows plenty of greenery so there are lots of shade and picnic opportunities.

 

Drive west from Blanding along UT95, a wonderfully scenic road, passing through the deep cutting in Comb Ridge. The road descends rapidly from here and at the bottom just after mile marker 107 you turn right on Comb Wash Road to a junction by some corrals after about 2 miles. Do not wander off this dirt road as the land on both sides belongs to the Ute Reservation and the numerous warning signs tell you how serious they. You continue north (right) for a few hundred yards where you come to another junction. The left fork, which is where you want to head, is for high-clearance (preferably 4WD) vehicles only so you may want to park near here if you’re in a passenger car and walk in to the canyon. Note most cars can get within a few yards of the signed ruins.

 

Soon after you enter the canyon you’ll see some fenced off ruins on the right hand wall. Check out the pictographs concentric circle petroglyphs on the wall behind. None of the other ruins are fenced so please respect them and avoid climbing over or entering the structures. From here you can choose to follow the road and spot other distant ruins (binoculars are handy) or just hike freestyle. There are plenty of ruins here but you’ll need to clamber up onto ledges to access them. Most are in a poor condition. Like most hikes to ruins there’s a lot of scrambling up and down here so you could find yourself spending more than a few hours in the lower canyon. Some hike the length of the canyon to view Angel Arch and Cathedral Arch. That’s 7 miles one way from the trailhead.

 

Although Arch Canyon is (controversially) popular with the ORV crowd I’ve never seen anyone else in the canyon on my visits. The canyon is unusually full of wildlife and, at the right time of year, the whole place is buzzing with butterflies – not something you see too much of in the rest of Cedar Mesa.

 

Trip ratings

Difficulty ••

Access ••

Crowds ••

Overall •••

 

 

road canyon

Three superlative hikes through one of Cedar Mesa’s most beautiful canyons visiting excellent ruins along the way.

 

This is a real favourite of mine, and none of the hikes are too strenuous. There are two trailheads for Road Canyon, though you can hike straight through if have time. The first accesses a structure known as Fallen Roof Ruin, the second Seven Kivas Ruin and Peninsula House aka The Citadel. There are also other ruins you’ll see along the way. You can hike each of the trails in around 2 hours though most people spend more time here. I’ve rarely seen anyone else on these trails and that’s a double-edged sword. Having the place to yourself is wonderful but if you encounter a serious problem you’re on your own and a long way from the highway.

 

From UT261, close to mile marker 261, turn east on Cigarette Springs Road. It’s driveable for most vehicles when dry. At around the 3.5 mile mark is the turn off to the left. This is the trailhead to the upper canyon for Fallen Roof Ruin. You’ll see the trail signed at the parking area. To access Seven Kivas Ruin and Peninsula House drive a total of 6 miles down Cigarette Road to a junction where you turn left on a rough road. You need a high clearance vehicle for this part and, preferably for the final section, 4WD. The road ends near the rim of the canyon after about 3/4 mile.

 

To hike to Fallen Roof, follow the trail across the mesa for a few hundred yards to descend into Road canyon via a shallow side fork full of boulders. Cairns will point the way around a dryfall. Soon you’re in the main canyon and you should bear right here and head for an obvious red rock pinnacle. Just beyond on the left wall is Fallen Roof Ruin. It’s so named after, relatively recently, huge chunks of the alcove roof fell in front of the ruin. It looks like they’ve not been moved. No more than a mile down canyon are more ruins.

 

For Seven Kivas, follow the obvious trail along the rim of a side canyon before dropping down a sinuous cairned trail into the main canyon. You may need to so some scrambling here but it’s pretty easy. Once you’re at the bottom bear right and hike down canyon for a mile or so. You’ll see the debris left by flash floods along the way. The ruin is in a large alcove not far up the left wall. It’s difficult to miss. Most of the kivas are in disrepair but a few still have their roofs intact, a rarity. Please don’t walk across them as they’re very fragile. You may also see corn cobs and pottery sherds if they haven’t been stolen.

 

For Peninsula House, drive to the Seven Kivas trailhead and hike east along the rim of Road Canyon for about a mile when the peninsula comes into view. Along the way there are some lovely views of the canyon below. Once you’re on the slickrock with the peninsula in front of you, make your way carefully down the left hand side to access the narrow ridge of rock that’s below you. There are no cairns so find a way that’s best for you. Once on the ridge, just head for the end of the peninsula. The Anasazi built some defensive rock walls here that you’ll pass on the way to the ruin. Peninsula House is right at the end hidden from view until you’re almost underneath it, under a shallow ledge right at the top. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed structures on Cedar Mesa and certainly the one with the best 360 degree views. (Perhaps only Moonhouse is better engineered.) It’s simply stunning. Walk around the ledge and you’ll find more tumbledown walls, more evidence of a people that didn’t encourage visitors. 

 

Road is a canyon that just keeps giving. Even if there were no ruins the sheer beauty of it would be tempting enough. And with less foot traffic here than in many Cedar Mesa canyons it should be on your to-do list.

 

Trip ratings

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Access ••••

Crowds ••

Overall •••••

 

 

 
 
 

kane gulch

An exhilarating day hike through two beautiful canyons, both of which contain a wealth of Anasazi ruins.

 

Cedar Mesa contains the largest concentration of Anasazi ruins in the southwest and Grand Gulch is at its heart. It’s also the most popular. Many people backpack long loops or even the entire 52 miles of the Gulch but day hikers are fewer. The northern entrance to the Gulch is a relatively easy hike via Kane Gulch which makes this trail especially popular. However, I’ve hiked this trail a few times in mid-summer and never seen anyone. This is a long hike (about 9 miles roundtrip to Turkey Pen Ruin) but feel shorter thanks to the ever-changing scenery that appears around every twist and turn. The trail is very easy to follow and not too demanding. Kane Gulch was formerly known as Wetherill Canyon, named after Richard Wetherill, the famous amateur archaeologist who was the first white man to visit many of the sites we know so well today, including Cliff Palace in Colorado. Soon after his marriage to Marietta, she accompanied him and his team to Grand Gulch and described Kane Gulch as: ‘. . . so crooked that even a rattlesnake would have a hard time getting down without breaking its back’.

 

Leave your vehicle in the Kane Gulch Ranger Station parking lot on UT 261 (don’t forget to pick up a permit and fill up your water bottles here) and cross the road to the signed trailhead by the sage flats. (I always take a small branch of sage with me and crush it occasionally under my nose – it has good reviving properties). It’s about 4 miles to Junction Ruin in Grand Gulch and a little further down canyon to Turkey Pen Ruin. The first mile or so of trail is well trodden and a mix of sand and slickrock, and well marked with cairns. In fact, outside of a national park, I’ve never seen a trail with so many cairns and I can only guess that’s because the rangers are often on this trail. After the sage field you enter the gulch where the walls are low and there’s still plenty of vegetation, including some annoying tamarisk you’ll need to wade through. As you gradually descend the height of the canyon walls increases and after 2 miles the trail gets a lot rockier and you’ll be bypassing some pourovers along the way. Some of the slickrock here is beautifully sculpted and occasionally you’ll come across huge boulders that have detached themselves from the canyon walls. Watch out for ‘The Nose’, a particular favourite of mine. There's also the occasional small ruin and some of rock art on the way down to the Gulch. If you find yourself in a very rocky section of the wash then the chances are you’ve missed a cairn that would lead you around the obstacle. The final section of the Kane Gulch Trail is easy walking in the wash amongst the cottonwoods. Here you can see the height of the water in flash floods by the debris caught up in the trees. Be warned. Grand Gulch is soon visible coming in from the right. To access Junction Ruin, turn into the Gulch at the junction and look for an obvious path that leads through a cottonwood grove. The ruins are just a few hundred yards away on the righthand north wall. You should be able to spot it before you enter the grove. The structures (including one really cute granary), situated under an enormous overhang, are in various states of disrepair but there are some features that make it special. You’ll find (unless someone has stolen them) manos and metate grinding stones, potsherds and plenty of rock art: abstract, animal and anthromorph petroglyphs and dozens of multicoloured handprints. If you’ve ever found it difficult to imagine people living their daily lives in such a place, this makes it so much more real. The other big feature here is the huge midden or trash pile. It’s fenced off to try to protect what’s left but you’ll see a lot of broken pottery in many different styles and even charcoal remnants and dried out corn cobs and flint sherds. As some of this is so small it helps to have some binoculars or a camera with a powerful zoom handy.

 

If time is short then head back the way you came. However, I recommend you hike down canyon for about 15 minutes to Turkey Pen Ruin – in a similar site to Junction Ruin. Again the condition of the ruins are for the most part poor but the chained off ‘turkey pen’ structure is interesting – whether it was actually built to house wild turkeys or not. Again there’s some rock art to enjoy. From here it’s a 2-3 hour hike back to you vehicle, allowing you to see features and ruins you missed on the way down.

 

You could do this hike in a ½ day but I’d recommend taking your time to enjoy this lovely part of Cedar Mesa.

Trip ratings

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Access •

Crowds ••

Overall •••••

 

 

 
sheiks canyon

Used as an access to Grand Gulch, Sheiks is shorter but rougher than Kane Gulch and not for beginners. You’ll find a few ruins near the top and bottom but the highlight is an extensive rock art panel a few minutes from the junction with Grand Gulch. It contains the well-known ‘Green Mask’, a 10” high pictograph.

 

 

Trip ratings

Difficulty ••••

Access •••

Crowds •

Overall ••••

 

 

bullet canyon

A very popular entry into Grand Gulch, often as part of a backpack partial loop with Kane Gulch as the entry / exit. It’s an imposing canyon and tricky in places with plenty of obstacles. Near the top is an Anasazi tower and about 4 miles down are the well-known ‘Perfect Kiva’ (into which you can descend) and ‘Jailhouse Ruin’ sites.

 

Trip ratings

Difficulty •••

Access •••

Crowds ••

Overall ••••

 

 

 
 

collins canyon

The easiest access into the western end of Grand Gulch. Look around and you’ll find some rock art at ‘The Narrows’ at the junction with the Gulch and just 3 miles up Grand Gulch is ‘Banister Ruin’, an impressive site.

Trip ratings

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Access •••

Crowds •

Overall ••••

butler wash ruins

Just off UT95, the parking lot is a short walk from an overlook to a huge overhang containing many Anasazi structures. Worth a 1/2 hour visit.

Trip ratings

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Access •

Crowds ••

Overall •••

 

 

 
 

slickhorn canyon - 1st fork

The main attractions on this hike is a large alcove high on a steep cliff which contains a well-preserved kiva complete with roof and a good ladder. While the final descent into the canyon is rough and steep this is a very scenic hike.

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target ruin & ballroom cave

You hike northwest from a pullout on UT95 into shallow, tree-lined Upper Butler Wash. There are at least 4 great ruin sites here, some in very deep caves. Please don't disturb the bats. Target Ruin (with its target pictograph) is an out-of-reach structure, accessed on a steep but short trail off the wash.

Trip ratings

Difficulty •••

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Overall ••••

 

 

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© 2016 Bob Palmer