Ancient Anasazi ruins open up a remarkable, endangered landscape in southern Utah

House on Fire Ruins is one of hundreds of archaeological sites Indian tribes hope to protect as part of a proposed Bears Ears National Monument.
House on Fire Ruins is one of hundreds of archaeological sites Indian tribes hope to protect as part of a proposed Bears Ears National Monument. The Sacramento Bee

Hiking Owl Canyon in southeastern Utah, I reach a dry waterfall too steep to descend, forcing me to explore both sides of the canyon in search of a path down. I find a route that funnels me back into the canyon, which quickly becomes crowded with boulders, blocking my progress again.

Anxious to clear the obstacles, I nearly miss the ruins tucked into an alcove to my right. I climb a large rock and hop down about 10 feet, landing in front of the ruins.

Around 1,000 years old, the three masonry structures are well preserved. A circular building with a small entryway sits in front of two smaller buildings, one of which has a real-life corn cob on it, suggesting it was a granary.

The ruins are all the more remarkable for being unexpected, and they fill me with a sense of discovery. Cedar Mesa, public land supervised by the federal Bureau of Land Management, contains hundreds of similar sites that give visitors the opportunity to see the architectural remains of the Anasazi, ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians. Some people argue that this is the best way to learn about one of the country’s first civilizations, away from the crowds and interpretative displays found at museums or national parks.

Greater Cedar Mesa is “an iconic area in North American archeology,” according to the lead story in a 2014 edition of Archaeology Southwest Magazine dedicated to the region.

Unfortunately, largely unfettered access to the ruins has also allowed for vandalism and looting, which is why a coalition of five Indian tribes has asked President Barack Obama to turn 1.9 million acres into a national monument. The proposed Bears Ears National Monument, named after a pair of buttes in the area, would be between other federal land – Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Canyonlands National Park – and incorporate existing federal land, including Natural Bridges National Monument and Cedar Mesa.

Worried about mining proposals as well as vandalism and theft, the tribes say monument status will help save “America’s most significant unprotected cultural landscape.”

The proposal has ignited a virulent debate in Utah focusing on the conflict among the tribes, their supporters and some Utah politicians and residents who want to use some of the land for economic development.

Another question has received less attention: How would the area be protected as a monument? The answer has not come in any detail. While protection of the ruins and the area’s tremendous natural beauty may sound like a great idea, some residents and Cedar Mesa enthusiasts worry about what the change would mean for access. The tribes say a management plan would be completed after the monument is designated.

I visited Cedar Mesa just two years ago but wanted to return before any changes are made. Seeing the ruins, the huge “Goosenecks” – a succession of curved canyons in the San Juan River — and the remarkable rock formations in the Valley of the Gods, I became convinced the area was worthy of protection. But at what cost?

Despite its location near three national parks – Zion, Bryce and Canyonlands – this swath of canyon country has never attracted huge crowds, creating less need for protection. It was in the “last blank spot on the map” until John Wesley Powell led his expeditions of the Colorado River in 1869 and 1871. While following Powell’s footsteps nearly a century later, author Wallace Stegner wrote that starting a trip there is “to start off into empty space from the end of the world.”

The rugged, arid land has deterred population growth, and only a few thousand people live in the towns on the edges of the proposed monument, with the exception of growing Moab on the far eastern end.

Still, interest in the area has increased. Some people, like me, were drawn to Cedar Mesa by a pair of books by best-selling adventure writer David Roberts, “In Search of the Old Ones” and “The Lost World of the Old Ones.” Roberts focuses heavily on Cedar Mesa in the books, advancing the idea of former BLM ranger Fred Blackburn that it’s an “outdoor museum” where people can understand how geography influenced life there. Blackburn believed that finding the ruins in their natural settings forged a strong connection to the past.

History at risk

Websites and books have published the GPS coordinates of many of the best-known sites in Cedar Mesa, which has brought challenges such as more than a dozen serious looting cases reported between May 2014 and April 2015, according to the Bears Ears Coalition website.

But looting seems less of a problem than vandalism and other forms of destruction, if only because there’s little left to steal. People have been taking pots, jewelry and other items from the ruins since white people “found” them in the late 1800s. Many of the treasures ended up in museums, while others have been sold on the black market.

On my recent trip, I was horrified to see graffiti scrawled all over the Sand Island petroglyphs, one of the most important rock art sites in the Southwest. On a long panel, pictures of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player, and animals stand next to modern markings such as “John,” “1963” and “Custer died for your sins.”

High interest in the Moon House ruin forced the BLM to restrict access to 20 people a day through a permit process, even though the site sits on a cliff in a remote and steep canyon. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Moon House during a trip to meet with leaders about the Bears Ears proposal earlier this year.

“What I have seen on this trip and especially here is this incredible treasure trove of cultural resources,” she said, according to the Deseret News. “It’s beyond imagination. I am also shocked at the lack of protection for many of these assets.”

The Bears Ears proposal calls for the monument to be run by the tribes and federal government. The Bears Ears Coalition website, which includes the proposal given to Obama, does not provide specifics, saying the “collaborative management envisioned by this proposal will involve details that are too specific to be covered.” The website says visitors will be able to continue to visit the ruins. Messages left with Bears Ears representatives for this story were not returned.

The Anasazi built small villages in the alcoves of canyon walls, now called “cliff dwellings.” Moon House is unique in Southwest archaeology because it has a masonry facade, behind which stand a number of rooms. Some of them are decorated with pictographs, such as the one with a partial moon giving the place its name. The enormous size and well-preserved condition of Moon House make it a national treasure. When I got my permit to see Moon House, a BLM ranger asked me not to enter the rooms, which he said contained electronic sensors to alert authorities.

Most ruins in Cedar Mesa have no protection whatsoever, except for small signs asking people not to enter the rooms. Visitors are allowed to enter one of the rooms, Perfect Kiva, a ruin in Cedar Mesa’s Bullet Canyon, where visitors can climb into the main building.

A hike through the ruins

Even though I had GPS coordinates for the site and directions from a ranger, finding Perfect Kiva was no easy task, as is often the case when looking for ruins in Cedar Mesa. The search, however, heightens the reward when finding them.

A top challenge is the rugged terrain of steep canyons with primitive trails. The ruins are also often built in elevated, inconspicuous places, which might have been the intent of inhabitants trying to avoid detection. While most of the Ancestral Puebloans did not live in cliff dwellings, such settings became increasingly common and “defense seems to be the only logical explanation for site placement,” Stephen Plog writes in his book Ancient Peoples of the American Southwest.”

Even when not searching for a particular ruin, it pays to watch the canyon walls, because many ruins are not on maps. Binoculars help because the stonework of the ruins typically blends in with the red rock canyons. The Anasazi used the landscape as a central design component, with canyon walls becoming roofs.

I didn’t recognize Perfect Kiva until I saw the wood ladder sticking out from a hole in the kiva while gazing through my binoculars about 100 yards away. The typical Anasazi village had several dwellings, storage rooms and a single kiva, and that was the case here. Archaeologists think the kivas were used for spiritual ceremonies, with the round underground rooms often containing a small hole where the Ancestral Puebloans came from the underworld.

Climbing down the ladder into Perfect Kiva, I noticed the hole and felt a little uneasy. Maybe I was breaching a spiritual code. I also wasn’t used to having this kind of access to a ruin. I felt a sense of awe. The kiva can be entered because it was restored by the BLM in the 1970s.

Perfect Kiva is unusual in that it has its original roof. A short distance away sits another well-preserved site, Jailhouse Ruin, so named because of the pieces of wood placed over a window that mimic the bars of a cell. Jailhouse Ruin and Perfect Kiva are two of the best-known ruins in Cedar Mesa, and they have remained intact despite many visits. They’re especially valuable cultural resources because they can be experienced up close, not from behind a fence.

If Bears Ears is approved, I hope that doesn’t change. As a writer in Archaeology Southwest Magazine put it, “the challenge is to powerfully protect that (archaeological) record, while continuing to provide meaningful opportunities for discovery and reflection.”

For more information

The Bears Ears Coalition:

Cedar Mesa permits:

Books: In Search of the Old Ones” and “The Lost World of the Old Ones,” by David Roberts