A scenic hike to arguably the most interesting, and certainly unique, Anasazi ruin in the southwest.
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. Tap ‘Moonhouse’ into Google now and you’ll come up with over 15,000 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. Moonhouse is now protected to some degree by a BLM permit system (see more here).
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.
The pullout is where I park, though I’ve heard the BLM were 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 short steep section right at the start that could certainly be awkward 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 some of 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.