4 Cliff Dwellings that Put Me on the Edge

This is the 5th in a series on the Southwest.   Find the others in the left sidebar or at the bottom of this post.

Sometimes I can’t believe how I get into such scary spots…  and then I remember exactly how it happens: I am always looking for the obscure sites where there is nobody else around. I don’t like crowds, but for a photographer, they usually come with the job.

Not so with the obscure Navajo ruins of the southwest.  Three of these four sites are not even on a map; I found them through some meandering research, and some of them I had completely to myself.  Now that’s what I’m talking about.

There is a reason why the hundreds of ancient ruins are not publicized and it has to do with preservation.  Heavy traffic can destroy irreplaceable artifacts in a short time.  Most of these locations are protected by conservation laws, but that doesn’t stop some folks from picking up a curious arrowhead here or a stone tool there…  and soon there is no way for archaeologists to piece together the true history of the place when they eventually get to study the site.  Obscurity is their best protection.

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Looks like the Himalayas, doesn’t it? But it’s not Tibet; it’s here in southern Utah.

Pedestal Rock Ruin

I don’t think there is anything to worry about when it comes to the long-term preservation of this amazing location.  Not only is it difficult to reach by road,  it is perched on a high ledge that can’t be reached without risk to life and limb.  It’s just not worth taking the chance.

Further, though it is in plain sight, it blends in with the background cliff so well that it is all but impossible to spot without knowing where to look.

Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.
Can you spot the ruin? It is in plain sight near the middle of the photo.  This was my first view of the site as I approached on foot following a sketchy path that ended at the foot of the cliff.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.
Honestly, the natives must have had their kids on tethers all the time to keep from losing them over the edge.

When I finally reached Pedestal Rock after several miles of off-roading  (yes, four-wheel-drive was absolutely necessary) and a hike on foot across the desert,  I still had to scramble 150 feet up a loose talus slope to get within 100 feet – and still 30 feet below the ledge – to photograph the stone ruin.  No way was I climbing any farther!

What a fantastic view those guys had from 200 feet above the valley!
What a fantastic view those guys had from their stone house 200 feet above the valley!

Nobody is going to bother Pedestal Rock ruin for a long time.  It’s a thousand years old now and will continue to last undisturbed until…  well, a major earthquake or something.

I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.
I spent the night at the end of the road near the cliffs.

Seventeen-Room Ruin

This site was another well camouflaged structure.  I drove right up to it on a ranch access road and when I got out of my truck I still couldn’t see it.  It’s perfect blend with the huge alcove in which it sits also made it hard to photograph.

A gigantic alcove shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the formation.
A gigantic overhang shelters the ruin on a semi-circular ledge that follows the contour of the alcove.

Again, I was in for a challenging climb on a boulder-strewn slope.  Man, these guys knew how to pick their sites to ward off attackers!

This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan river valley. Yes, that's my pickup below.
This ruin commands a splendid view of the San Juan River valley. Yes, that’s my pickup below.

Many of these ruins were abandoned 700 years ago, but they date back to hundreds of years before that.  Just think, Columbus hadn’t even arrived yet in North America by the time these installations were vacated.  Historians say they moved southeast to more fertile locations, but I think it was because somebody had to carry water and firewood up that slope everyday and they just got tired of it.

17-Room Ruin view

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Set way back in the alcove, this structure will never be eroded by rain and snow.

False Kiva

My hike to False Kiva and back had me focused intently on my own survival.  The site is located in a high alcove overlooking the expansive views of Canyonlands National Park but it requires a sketchy climb across the face of a loose rocky slope on a rather obscure pathway where one wrong move can mean a disastrous tumble and certain death.  The drop to the Green River is over 2000 feet!

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The trail crosses the face of the loose slope with a sheer drop into the canyon below.

Long before I reached the ancient site, I was dizzy with vertigo.  Finally, the enormous alcove offered a secure place to rest…  and grab the photos for which I had just risked by life.  Wow!  What a view!

The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the old ruin.
The setting sun had already dropped below the nearby cliff by the time I reached the ancient ruin.

I still had to climb back out of here.  My original plan to stay for some night sky shots now seemed rather foolhardy and an invitation to trouble on the dangerous slope after dark.  A quick change of plans had me gulping Gatorade and trail mix and resting for a few minutes before initiating an immediate return to the canyon rim before darkness would set in.

Hovenweap National Monument

This place is actually on the map and gets a light flow of visitors even though it is a long way from anywhere.  It’s location near the Four Corners area makes it accessible on mostly nice paved roads, but it is still not really on the way to anywhere.  There is a rustic campground where I stayed the night.

Though you have to be a bit intentional about getting here, at least you will not be challenged by strenuous climbs.  The only real danger is that, just like every other ancient Anasazi installation, the buildings are perched on the edges of drop-offs.  Make the kids hold your hand.

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Some of these remarkable buildings are three and four stories high and really impressive.  The stonework is nothing short of amazing.

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Every building is contoured to the ledge that it sits on.  And apparently, the rock didn’t need to be level to be a desirable construction site.  It just had to be on a dangerous edge.  Amazing.

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Anyway, it was a relief for me to be able to wander around pretty much on the level and wonder about the way of life that the ancients experienced.  How deep must have been their fear of their adversaries to feel they had to protect themselves by building and  living their lives on the edge every day.

My visit to four ancient sites afforded only a brief glimpse of the historical installations.  There are hundreds of them, and I was amazed that most of them sit unprotected on their original ledges with nary a visit from anybody.  Hopefully, they stay that way, because they are a real treasure to all of us, not only to the native descendants.

I came away from all of my cliff dwelling adventures without a scratch, just some achy leg muscles from all the scrambling up and down steep rock-strewn slopes.  For that I am really thankful.

And I had fun.

___________________

Read Episode #1: Bryce Canyon

Read Episode #2: Capitol Reef

Read episode #3: Monument Valley

Read Episode #4: Valley of the Gods

Thanks for reading!

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