Wandering the West
April 14, 2009
Time to switch out the sports gear: skis to the back of the closet, backpacks, hiking shoes and camping gear to the front (unless you’re making last turns this weekend at Park City thanks, PCMR, for the extra week!).
And while everyone is getting ready or has already gone to southern Utah destinations like Zion and St. George in the southwest, or Moab in the southeast, let me suggest another great destination you’ve maybe never heard of. If Cedar Mesa were in any other state, it would be a national park. Since it’s in scenery-saturated southern Utah, it’s merely Bureau of Land Management land, open to all with few, and primitive, facilities.
Cedar Mesa lies west of Blanding, which lies south of Moab. It’s remote, primitive, relatively roadless, and packed with great day and overnight hikes that will keep your eyes busy, both from dramatic vistas and ruins of the ancient ones that seem to lie everywhere out here.
You’ve heard about bits and pieces of Cedar Mesa places like Grand Gulch, Arch Canyon, Comb Wash and Slickhorn Canyon. The BLM is trying to manage it as one big sensitive resource rather than letting cows and oil drillers have their way.
This is one of the last places in America where white men set foot. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that the first explorers started poking around, in search of ancient artifacts to take back east to sell to museums. Much was plundered, but much remains, and the BLM is trying to preserve what’s left.
The most famous of the hundreds, or thousands, of canyons and gulches piercing the mesa is Grand Gulch. I horse-packed in years ago with some colorful local guides. We were loaded with gear to film for television, but you can make it a day hike with a small daypack if you like, or you could spend many days inside the gulch exploring. Grand was like a super highway for the Anasazi, who built granaries and cliff dwellings under the many canyon alcoves. On a simple day hike from Kane Gulch Ranger Station you can hike four miles down Kane Gulch to its intersection with Grand. Hang a left for another mile and you’re at Turkey Pen Ruin, one of the best in the gulch, complete with a pen that once was littered with turkey feathers.
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Grand Gulch requires check-in with the ranger at Kane Gulch to get a $2 day-hike permit, or a camping permit for a longer stay. There’s a big list of rules for camping and for taking in horses, necessary to preserve what’s left. Dogs are getting on thin ice on the mesa. They’re allowed only on leashes and, based on rising complaints, BLM is monitoring canine behavior, so consider yourself forewarned.
Another good day hike is Arch Canyon, a 12-mile-long box canyon with (obviously) arches, a stream, hanging gardens and killer scenery. You may well have the place to yourself. Arch is a mile west of Blanding on State Road 95. Then drive north on Comb Wash Road for two-and-a-half miles. Or keep going another 18 miles west on 95 and turn right on the dirt road marked San Juan County Road 263. That’s where Mule Canyon is, right near the road, and subject to a $2 hiking fee.
Slickhorn is an all-day 10-mile loop that’s billed as a mini-Grand Gulch without the chance of seeing so many people. It’s far more rugged, with no maintained trails. It’s also not marked, so consult with the BLM before heading off so you know where you’re going.
The bonus in Slickhorn is a fully intact kiva. Kivas had roofs on them when them when used by Anasazi long ago. Most all have fallen in, but in Slickhorn, the kiva is still covered by a roof. You can even climb down into it on a BLM-furnished log ladder. Very cool.
Cedar Mesa offers three of the things I love on a trip. There’s scenery, good hiking, and a cultural payoff, with ruins galore, all in their natural state without signs, fences and railings. I’m suggesting it now because it’s good, warm spring hiking. It’s too cold there in the winter and too blasted hot in the summer, so now and the fall are prime times atop the mesa.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
THE VITALS: Park City to Blanding: 310 miles
Website: http://www.cedarmesa.org Also Google to find BLM information
Insider tip: This is tough, primitive hiking. It doesn’t involve a lot of vertical climbing, but there’s plenty of rock hopping.