Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah is a 400 square mile plateau riddled with a maze of steep, eroded canyons, arroyos and washes. It is also peppered with archeological sites of Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings and rock art. My new quest is to create a portfolio of outstanding images of these long abandoned, ancient ruins. So, after considerable and detailed planning, Jane and I packed our proverbial bags and headed for Indian country. Our friend and photo-buddy Bruce Hollingsworth signed-on to join us on this expedition.
For those impatient souls who just want the highlights, here is a brief recap of our adventure. We left San Diego on May 26th bushy-tailed, bright-eyed and full of vim and vigor. We returned on June 6th travel weary, fatigued with blisters on our feet and faces adorned with big red, itchy gnat bites. In between we had an exciting, thrilling and stimulating quest. In addition to seven days exploring and photography on Cedar Mesa, our stops along the way included Wupatki, Navajo, Hovenweep and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments as well as a tour of Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley.
Now for the particulars!
Our first stop after leaving San Diego was Wupatki National Monument (www.nps.org/wupa) just north of Flagstaff, Arizona. This national monument includes several impressive ancient pueblo sites. We photographed at the main Wupatki Pueblo, the Box Canyon dwellings and Lomaki Pueblo. The pueblos at Wupatki National Monument were built and occupied about 800 years ago. For fun, Bruce and I tried to photograph moon rise with Lomaki Pueblo in the foreground. We had stopped to purchase some large flashlights in Flagstaff to "light-paint" the pueblo from the front. I won't show the results as they were dismal. But, it was fun trying.
The next day, on our way to Blanding, Utah (www.blanding-ut.org) , we stopped briefly at Navajo National Monument (www.nps.org/nava) , just long enough to for some distant shots of Betatakin Dwellings from the overlook on Sandal Trail. We reached our final destination, Blanding, later that afternoon. There we settled into our cozy suit at Craig and Kathy Simpson's Stone Lizard Lodging (www.stonelizardlodging.com) and shopped at Clark's grocery store for supplies. Each morning of our weeklong stay started early with a cold breakfast, preparing lunches for the day, filling water bottles, loading camera gear, setting GPS coordinates, and applying generous portions of bug spray.
Our experience on Cedar Mesa was not that of a typical, run-of-the-mill photo trip. Using the Stone Lizard as our "base camp" we day-tripped to the mesa each day. I had created an itinerary that allowed travel to two or three archeological sites per day. Typically, from the Stone Lizard it required anywhere from a half hour to a couple of hours to reach the dirt road turnoffs that lead to the trailheads. Some of these dirt access roads required some serious four-wheel drive maneuvering. After reaching the trailhead, the real work started. I had selected sites that were within no more than a mile and a half from the trailhead. Even with the GPS coordinates I had obtained, it was difficult to find our way to the cliff dwelling sites. Many wrong turns were made as we followed poorly marked trails over slick-rock or were fooled following trails created by free ranging cattle. Hiking the trails required scrambling up precarious sandstone ledges and trudging through dry sandy washes.
In all, we were able to visit 14 separate archeological sites during our exploration of Cedar Mesa and make a day trip to Hovenweep National Monument (www.nps.org/hove) to photograph the well preserved ruins there. One of our favorite Cedar Mesa ruins was River House. It was in this vicinity, along the north bank of the San Juan River, that the "Hole-In-The-Rock" pioneers bivouacked before ascending Comb Ridge. The reallife story of these heroic pioneers is truly inspirational. Another favorite ruin was Moon House. The trek to this cliff dwelling was by far the most difficult. The trail down the south rim of McCloyd Canyon descended steeply along precarious sandstone ledges to the slick-rock bottom of the canyon. Only Jane and I made it to the bottom. Bruce opted out after seeing the ruin on the north rim and anticipating the steep descent and climb back up. Jane made it as far as the last scramble up the final jumble of boulders to the ledge with the Moon House ruin. The last few hundred feet were nearly vertical and required full use of both hands to pull and maneuver through the rock fall.
After a week of jarring four-wheel drive excursions and slick-rock scrambling, we were ready to head back to San Diego. Satisfied with our accomplishments we bid adieu to Craig and Kathy at the Stone Lizard, taking our sore muscles, blisters and bug bites in stride. Being the intrepid photographers we are, however, we could not go all the way back to California without stopping at the Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley (www.navajoparks.org) and Canyon de Chelly National Monument (www.nps.gov/cach). These stops were brief, but long enough to start us thinking about our next Indian country adventure.
Be sure to check the Cedar Mesa gallery for images from this adventure. Also, if interested, I wholeheartedly suggest you read about the "Hole-In-The-Rock" expedition (www.nps.org/glca/historyculture/holeintherock.htm) . It is a tale of true endurance, fortitude and perseverance.