Muley Point is at the southern end of Cedar Mesa, which is a 30-mile-long peninsula of pinion-juniper high country running southward from the Bears Ears in southeast Utah. In some spots there are enormous views. In others the trees block horizons and make you feel directionless.
The easiest way to get to this part of Utah is heading west on Utah 95 from Blanding on US 191, and then south on Utah 261, which is in the snippet below. A more harrowing way is to ascend the steep and vertigo-inducing Moki Dugway on Utah 261, which runs northwest from US 163 just north of the thriving metropolis of Mexican Hat, Utah.
Author Dave Roberts in In Search of the Old Ones described Cedar Mesa as “the best place in all the Southwest to see unrestored Anasazi ruins in something like there pristine state.” (1) I’d done some slight wanderings in Cedar Mesa country before. I’ve seen ruins. I’m an expert on this area compared to most, but that’s only because most have no idea Cedar Mesa exists in the first place. For those who do know about Cedar Mesa, well, I’m an infant in understanding, especially to authors like David Roberts, Craig Childs and Michael Kelsey who have explored far more of the country.
Well, I didn’t come to Muley Point for ruins. Frankly, I wasn’t intending to arrive anywhere near southeast Utah at all. As I said in my blog How did I get to Helper???, I went east for over an hour before I realized I was nowhere near Provo. So, Google displayed the quickest way home to be through Moab, which would put me close to Cedar Mesa, and a friend who was camping out at Muley. I figured I’d stop by, say high and sleep at Muley as opposed to finishing a hard drive in one day.
Dispersed camping is easy at Muley. My friend and I, and one other vehicle far away, were the only ones here. The roads are grated well enough for a Yaris. Summer evenings are a cool escape from the hot valleys below. Sunsets can be divine I’m sure.
In the above photo, where due south is down the left third, in the foreground is the San Juan River which flows into the Colorado downstream to the right, to the west, to feed ever-shrinking Lake Powell. Beyond that river canyon are the rock monuments of Monument Valley, which John Wayne and Forest Gump made famous. I’ve done many day-tours to Monument Valley, and pointed out Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa to many from afar. However, I’d only been to Muley Point once before.
I slept in the open air. The wind blew. It got chilly at 6000′, but these raw elements always help me sleep better, and as I said Under more stars. There’s something quite refreshing about the experience.
I was going to leave for Sedona on this Tuesday morning. But my friend convinced me to take a hike with him to the “25 Ruins Site”, as so labeled by Michael Kelsey in his book Canyon Hiking on the Colorado Plateau. It would be a nice way end to this fourth expedition.
Now, I’ve seen hundreds of Ancient Puebloan ruins. They’re all over Sedona’s Red Rocks. They’re all over the Southwest. They’re primitive compared to Mayan or Roman ruins. Yet, the easter-egg-hunt appeal to searching them out is due to their ensconcement. They’re hard to find. The ancient ones built them so as not to be found. This aspect of many ancient Southwest ruins evinces, among other pieces of evidence, a time of chaos and death here 800 years ago when they were built.
As Kelsey says in his book which my friend and I were using as a guide:
“…the population on Cedar Mesa was the highest of all time (1225 – 1275 AD), and most of the photogenic cliff dwellings we enjoy seeing today date from the 1200’s. They [certain authors] also think the moki houses or habitation sites were built with defense in mind, even though people lived in open sites on the mesa top near their fields of maize. They think people began leaving Cedar Mesa in the 1250’s. The latest tree ring date they found on Cedar Mesa was from Moon House complex at 1268 AD. That’s when the last tree/log construction, mostly roof beams, was cut. Researchers believe Moon House was one of the last sites to be abandoned. They also believe the Great Drought of 1276 – 1299 finished off what stragglers may have been left behind by earlier exits…” (2)
There are many books on the Ancient Ones. Many say the same things. Many don’t. It’s difficult to come up with definitive information.
Anyway, by 11 we were driving to Toadie Flat Road, which is a dirt road heading west from the paved highway of Utah 261, not too far south of 261’s intersection with 95.
We followed the south rim of Toadie Canyon. used the map to spy the ruins just below the north rim of Toadie Canyon from the south rim. To get to them we’d have to hike down to the bottom. This would involved lots of brush, and I was wearing sandals. Plus, a monsoon storm was building overhead, and neither of us wanted to get caught in a downpour. So we went back to our vehicles and waited.
The storm brought coolness and only spit on us. So we went back. It took us about an hour to get there. On the one hand it was anti-climactic because those ruins aren’t architectural masterpieces, nor do they provide us with clues that answer the deeper questions behind their existence. They don’t really tell us the stories of the ones who built these things. You can be left with a frustrating longing to know, and you will likely never know because, unlike Romans and Greeks, these Ancient Puebloans had no written language to record the events of their civilizations. It seems one must dedicate his life to the study of them, and even then you are still making mere inferences.
Yet, the Ancient Ones were here once upon a time. They did leave marks of their civilization across a large area of the Southwest. Some of those marks like Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon do betray a craftsmanship and even artistry that suggests some of these people had more than a mere subsistence existence. Some of them flourished. Many archaeologists even consider Chaco a place of royalty which suggests a society with a complex social structure beyond that of mere root-digging and bug-eating nomads, which some of them were.
It is likely that the Ancient Puebloan civilizations of the Southwest are the furthest north realm of a civilization ultimately rooted in Meso-America. The First Ones would have come here from Mexico in search of land to grow corn and get away from the mass of people further to their south. They were hearty enough to come to far-away places like Cedar Mesa in what is now Utah. This historical extrapolation makes sense. But is it true? Can I really know? No.
Yet, not knowing yields a curiosity which motivates me to see these ruins scattered throughout the Southwest. Even though I’ll likely consider the act of seeing the ruins anti-climactic, there’s always the chance I won’t. So, I continue seeking them when opportunities present themselves. Some small understanding could be gleaned. Further curiosity could be kindled. Looking at other photos from Kelsey’s book of the pristine ruins around Cedar Mesa will certainly create desire for further explorations – further Easter Egg hunts – in this part of Utah. Maybe, one day, I’ll know much more.
In this moment, however, Mr. Tummy, was becoming irritated. He was dreaming of a foot-long meatball subway sandwich. This was the final element that yielded my decision to drive back to Sedona that night. Another night of canned food wouldn’t cut it. Yet, as my friend and I started heading back, we sat down, and I stared westward down-canyon towards the setting sun, and felt tinges of romance for this whole Cedar Mesa area, and thought about the poetic descriptions made by a young man named Everett Ruess who explored and died in these canyons almost 100 years ago. Their isolation, colors and forms are so inviting to curious minds who want to know the natural forces which shaped such unique beauty. Truly, the whole Colorado Plateau is wondrous. Spending 32 years in Texas set me up for quite the nice surprise in discovering the whole new universe of the Plateau in Utah and Arizona.
Getting back to my hot car, however, evaporated this last tinge of romance. Mr. Tummy would have his way. Plus, it would be nice to drive back at night, without the hot sun blazing through my windows. Thus, I said goodbye to my friend, and headed down the unpaved road towards Utah 261 where I’d head south towards the Moki Dugway, and then to Mexican Hat, and then to Arizona.
- In Search of the Old Ones by David Roberts. Page 124. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 1996.
- Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorada Plateau by Michael R. Kelsey. 7th edition 2018. Brigham Distributing.