[Cdt-l] What is Cedar Mesa?

Jim and/or Ginny Owen spiriteagle99 at hotmail.com
Fri Apr 25 21:22:04 CDT 2008

Our last message was a bit terse, since we mostly just wanted to let those who cared know that we are still alive and well - more or less.  Jim's ribs are better but his foot is now giving him trouble.  He may have rebroken the toe he broke on the PCT.  Hiking is slow and painful - but he's too stubborn to stop.   Today we've got a bit of time since we're taking a day off in town and most of the chores are done (laundry, hardware store, grocery and pharmacy).  We even got the latest photos downloaded and more or less organized. (We've taken about 9000 photos so far this year, so keeping them organized takes some work!)  So I thought I'd try to describe the hiking and exploring we've been doing lately. After sending our last message, I realized that a lot of people have no idea about the richness of the region in southeastern Utah known as Cedar Mesa.  It is a beautiful high  desert area, with red, orange, yellow and white sandstone cliffs, green riparian areas along the streams and rivers, colorful desert flowers, sage, pinyon and juniper.  That description matches a lot of the southwest.  What makes Cedar Mesa unique and wonderful is that 1000 years ago this land was heavily populated with people who built stone houses and granaries high in the cliffs and painted and carved art on cliff walls and in caverns.  Because of the lack of rain and the sparse population in subsequent years, a lot of the art, ancient houses, kivas and granaries are still in place.  Cedar Mesa is an area about 30 miles by 30 miles by 30 miles.  Remains of the past surround us.  To the east is the area in southwestern Colorado that includes Mesa Verde and Canyon of the Ancients (more Anasazi ruins), to the south is the Kayenta Anasazi region of Canyon de Chelly and Navajo NM, to the west the Escalante with its beauty and historical remnants, and to the north the rock art of the ancient Fremont people.  For those of us who are interested in discovering the archaeology and art of the past, they are all terrific areas to explore.  But none is quite as intense an experience as Cedar Mesa.  Almost every canyon here has some sort of remnant of the people who once lived here - the basketmakers of 2000 years ago, the ancient Puebloans who lived here from 700-1300 or so, and the more modern Ute and Navajo people.  All left signs of their passage through this land.  It is mostly BLM land, sparsely settled, and open to hikers who are willing to make the effort to walk into the backcountry to see what is hidden there. Some hikes can take you to cliff dwellings in a mile or less.  Others require a few days.  The hiking is a mixture of good hiking on cairned sandy trails, slickrock routes and rough bushwhacking along streams and up and down steep cliffs. Our guidebook has maps and brief descriptions of about 16 canyons in Cedar Mesa, each of which has multiple ruins or rock art sites.  And then there are the ones that aren't described.  They are all over.  If a canyon has water, it probably has some sort of Anasazi site.  We have gotten very spoiled in our hiking here.  One canyon had four ruins in four miles.  We spent two days driving down a dirt road on the east side of Comb Ridge exploring the short canyons that cut into the ridge.  Each one we visited had ruins and/or rock art.  On an overnight hike we saw at least six ruins and five rock art sites in 12 miles.  We have seen intact underground kivas and many granaries that look almost new, with stone doors still attached, a lunar calendar on the wall of a ruin, paintings of birds 50 feet above the ground, pottery sherds, 800 year old corn cobs and worked stone chips scattered on the ground.  Hikers can wander freely, exploring the ancient sites.  Surprisingly we have seen little vandalism in the backcountry sites, though they do get damaged just by people climbing where they shouldn't.  Last year we spent some time in Grand Gulch - the queen of the canyons.  I think we saw 22 ruins in three days, and I don't know how many rock art sites.  We hope to spend more time there this year, exploring the southern end of the canyon.  Using the guidebook has been a mixed blessing, since we get frustrated when we can't find sites that  are supposed to be there (granaries are small and can be very hard to find sometimes) but then there's the feeling of accomplishment when we find places that aren't noted in the books (yeah, there are panels that aren't in the books!) This area is very popular, especially with folks from Colorado who are waiting for the snow in the Rockies to melt.  I've been surprised at how many people we have met out here who are doing  the same type of explorations we are doing.  At the same time, when we've gotten in the real backcountry, we've been able to enjoy total solitude.  One very nice thing is that because the towns are few and far apart, the BLM allows free camping anywhere on top of the mesa.  We've had some beautiful campsites.  Camping in the canyons is restricted to keep the numbers down - but usually permits aren't that difficult to get.  This is a BIG area.  Most of the hiking we've done has  been dayhiking, though almost every canyon we've dayhiked can also be backpacked. Wildlife has been sparse. We  see deer and bighorn tracks, but haven't seen either.  Mostly we see lizards, dozens every day, scattering in front of us with every step. And the beautiful song of the canyon wrens accompany us as we wander.   Anyhow - We just wanted to share some of the wonder we feel at this amazing country.  It is beautiful.  It is wild.  And the constant reminders of the past are an incredible gift to those of us who care. Ginny & Jim 
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