Glowing Cedar Mesa

Over Thanksgiving in 2023 I decided to head over to Cedar Mesa, in hopes of spending some time in unfamiliar portions of Grand Gulch. I have yet to through-hike its entire length (a bucket list dream of mine), but have explored various parts of its canyons. Before this trip I had visited the long and winding canyon system in three sections: Sheiks Canyon, Government Trail to Big Man Panel, and Collins Spring to Water Canyon. Every time I have visited Grand Gulch, I have left feeling more mystified and inspired than when I arrived. I owe it to the person who told me about this magical place – a lone hiker I met while backpacking in the Needles District of Canyonlands.

Since it was too cold to camp, I decided to stay at the Bluff Dwellings Resort, a beautiful hotel in the small town of Bluff. I had stayed here once before, and was really impressed with the adobe architecture and luxury amenities. I am not one to spend a fortune on lodging, and the resort was surprisingly affordable for the quality of the place. While staying here I specifically enjoyed being surrounded by red sandstone cliffs, having access to a hot tub (especially in winter weather), and the onsite cafe as food can be difficult to find during the off-season in this remote town.

Typical Bluff View

There is a pictograph panel I really want to see in Grand Gulch, but I fear that the only way to see it requires spending at least a night in the canyon. It might be possible to visit this panel on a day hike, but it would be a long one (almost twenty miles) requiring more daylight hours than are possible in November. So instead, I decided on choosing a section in Grand Gulch I had not yet explored – Bullet Canyon.

Sunrise beneath the Mesa

With the muggy weather in Bluff the day before, I wasn’t expecting this to be much of a landscape photography trip. With the ever dwindling daylight this time of year, I wanted plenty of time to hike. So I woke up super early, aiming to make it to the trailhead around sunrise.

Looking Toward the Dugway

Heading from Bluff, I passed the turnouts for Valley of the Gods, where I had watched the annular solar eclipse with my brother and his friend Tripp. The sky was filled with clouds, but there was just enough of a gap between them and the horizon for the rising sun to make its transit. The moment I noticed, I had to pull over – right before driving the unpaved switchbacks up the Moki Dugway.

Utah Highway 261

Bullet Canyon

There was still plenty of snow on top of Cedar Mesa when I made it to the trailhead. I was nervous that the moisture would be too much for my car to make it; since I was driving so early in the morning, the frozen dirt roads actually worked to my advantage. I always enjoy the first moments of a hike in this area, as the top of Cedar Mesa appears mostly flat and unassuming. But getting to the bottom of a Grand Gulch gulch canyon means finding a fingerling drainage that ultimately reaches it. The descent at first is hardly noticeable, but as one continues the drops become more dramatic, and the canyon more complex.

Typical Bullet Canyon View

This is especially apparent when navigating through Bullet Canyon’s beautiful dry falls (ice falls at this time of year). If I were backpacking, this would be an ideal spot to fill up on water. I can only imagine what it looks like when water is rushing down in the spring. Hopefully I get to see it one day, as I have unfinished business in Bullet and its connecting canyons!

Thumb-looking Formation

I continued hiking “downstream”, as Bullet Canyon ultimately converges with Grand Gulch (it is technically a tributary canyon). My goal today was to visit two known sites that I had researched, along with looking around for new things I had not known or read about. The deeper into Bullet I hiked, the wider and more impressive its canyons became. Above is a photo of a rock formation that reminded me of a thumbs up.

Unexpected Petroglyph

Near one of the canyon turns was a section that led to a long and tapestry-like piece of flat wall. Using my binoculars I could spot a faded pictograph, so I decided to climb up its banks to get a better look. To my surprise, I found an unexpected petroglyph representing what looked like a small family. I hadn’t seen this in any of my research, so I considered this a successful find. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

A Kiva of Perfection

As I approached one of Bullet Canyon’s side tributaries, I could spot a faint social trail leading up to a high terrace. I mistakenly thought that the site for which I was looking was located on the canyon bottom, but should have known better since the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area built permanent structures high up on cliffs. This is why they are known as cliff dwellings. I climbed up the trail to arrive at a place with all the trappings of a rich archaeological site: an intact kiva, a metate with several grooves (for grinding corn), pictographs and petroglyphs, and not least of all – an incredible view of the canyon. I spent a long time here, alone, enjoying a lunch while perusing through some reading materials that the Bureau of Land Management provides at the site.

Perfect Kiva Interior; Built to Last

I learned that the kiva at this site was originally discovered by white settlers in 1890, during an expedition into Grand Gulch by Charles McLoyd and Charles Cary Graham, two collectors from Colorado. The kiva was hardly “perfect” when found back then, as reports indicate that the walls were damaged, and the roof caved in. There have been multiple efforts over the years, by the Bureau of Land Management, to restore the kiva – providing access to those interested in visiting it with respect. There was some other interesting literature in the cache left by the BLM, including that the atlatl (the bow and arrow’s precursor) is represented in nearby pictographs, and an explanation that the paint-like streaks within the kiva is petrified rat urine – a piece of much-needed information. In all seriousness though, middens left behind by such rodents help to paint an ecological picture of the area.

Ancient Corn Grinder (metate)

I didn’t spot the metate (pictured above) until I had finished lunch and started to leave. I couldn’t help but imagine the people who sat here grinding maize, gazing at this very same view of the canyon. I am sure more pressing things like survival were on their mind, but I often wonder if they found their surroundings to be beautiful.

Welcome to the Jailhouse

Not far from the kiva, I arrived at a second and smaller site. When approaching this one, it was easy to see walled structures imposed within the rock. As I got closer, a few circular pictographs near the top came into view. It is impossible to know what they represent, but the central pictograph could resemble a head, or at least one of them could signify something celestial. Either way, these markings gave off a spooky, uninviting vibe. Like the kiva site, this one was situated high above Bullet’s canyon bottom, offering a fantastic view back upstream.

Jailhouse Window and Bullet Canyon
Ceiling Patterns

Like the kiva site, there was a decent amount of rock art here. The pictograph above shows a few handprints and a chainlink-looking design above it. Not far from the site are more petroglyphs and pictographs, including the faded one pictured below. While difficult to see, there is still enough detail to indicate that it is anthropomorphic in design, and possibly a warrior. There are a few handprints located to its right.

Faded Warrior Pictograph
Miscellaneous Petroglyphs

At this point in the day, I checked my mileage and realized that if I wanted to make it back to Bluff before dark, then I had better turn around. I was quite surprised by how much off-trail hiking I had done – the roundtrip distance to the confluence with Grand Gulch is about 14 miles, yet I had already clocked eight miles before reaching it. While I would have loved to officially reach Grand Gulch, I was cold and the dwindling sunlight was only making matters worse. So I turned around and began the return journey.

Valley of the Gods from atop Moki Dugway

During the drive, the clouds and sunlight were combining to make some dramatic views. I simply love driving on and around Cedar Mesa, as it provides 360 degree views of the Four Corners region and its landmarks: the La Sals in Moab, the Abajo near Monticello, Sleeping Ute in Cortez, and even Navajo Mountain far away by Lake Powell. Before driving all the way back down the Moki Dugway, I stopped at an overlook to enjoy the expansive landscape above the Valley of the Gods.

Comb Wash

The Well-known Wolfman Panel

I mentioned that early in the trip the weather was far from fantastic: cold, grey, and drizzly. Had it not been for this fact, I would have probably spent the first day on a long hike (like Bullet Canyon). Instead, I decided to check out some low-commitment areas near Bluff. I remember hearing about a petroglyph panel called The Wolfman Panel but didn’t know exactly where it was. Unprepared, I lazily searched for it on Google Maps which led me to Comb Wash. I was pretty impressed by the quality of the panel, and its depictions of various birds (the image two steps to the left of the center looks a lot like a sandhill crane, for example). Comb Wash was a perfect option for a short hike close to Bluff, especially since it started drizzling just before I completed it!

Structures in Comb Wash
Additional Petroglyphs

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