Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Sense of Discovery on Comb Ridge, Utah

After the Gossamer Gear Trail Ambassador trip, I set out with Jan for a few days of hiking and camping in southeastern Utah.  At the recommendation of Will and Janet, who were our guides for the GG trip, we headed to Comb Ridge near Blanding and Bluff, Utah.
Jan looking out from the top of Comb Ridge.
Comb Ridge is ideal for dayhiking because there are multiple short (<5 mile) hikes up to ruins or petroglyphs built 700 years ago by the Ancestral Puebloans.  Comb Ridge is composed of Navajo sandstone tilted at an angle so that the eastern slope is more gentle and provides access to the many bisecting canyons.  You can climb to the top and look out over the steep western face.  A 20 mile dirt road runs along Butler Wash parallels Comb Ridge. Trailhead elevations are between 4400-4800 feet, so there was no snow and little ice compared to what is found at higher elevations in Utah, making it an ideal destination in winter.
At a trailhead, with Comb Ridge in the distance.
In contrast to the more popular and well-established Ancestral Puebloan sites that I’ve previously visited like Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, and Chaco Canyon, our guidebook accurately described this whole area of Southeastern Utah as an “outdoor museum.”  Truly spectacular cliff dwellings and petroglyph panels were dispersed across the backcountry down mostly unmarked trails.  Visiting these lonely sites, especially in winter when there was no one else around, created a sense of discovery, adventure, and wonder.
The trail to Procession Panel is one of the better-marked routes and is a great place to develop your route-finding skills.
Hiking here is different.  Signs and trail markings are purposefully lacking to protect the archeological sites.  Trail descriptions are vague and don’t mention many smaller sites.  Parking areas may only have a generic BLM sign that only advise how protect the archeological sights, nothing about where to go or what is out there.  Numerous side trails made routefinding confusing especially where cows had torn up the trail and created multiple paths. All of this afforded a greater sense of adventure and deep satisfaction of discovery when we finally found a site.
Fishmouth Cave can be seen in the distance from the trailhead.  Now, you have to figure out how to get there!
Climbing to the top of Comb Ridge.
Desert varnish near Double Stack Ruin.
The excitement of finding a site tucked away in a cliff.
Our first night, we even “discovered” a petroglyph panel that wasn’t described in our guidebook.  After setting up camp down a dirt road, we decided to hike up to a high point to watch the sunset.  We shined our headlamps on a rock up there, and were amazed by incredible petroglyphs that we had no idea would be there.  We’d heard that there used to be more inhabitants in this region hundreds of years ago, and it really hit home just how many sites like this there must be around since we just stumbled across it.
"Discovering" petroglyphs that weren't in our guidebook.
I found I developed a stronger sense of the landscape when I had to navigate on my own around pour-offs and through boulder scrambles.  This is something that you don’t get by blinding following blazes with signs that point the way.  We had to think, to problem solve, to analyze.  Physically challenging terrain matched with mental engagement.  Because we also had to guess where the sites were, the reward was we developed an understanding of the exposure, rock formations, and features that made for suitable sites.  Having to search for sites made me feel like I gained a deeper respect for and connection with these ancient people.
Learning which cliffs and caves contain dwellings.

Seeing Tinajas made us think about the importance of water in this environment.
After Jan dropped me off in Cortez, CO, I met Still Waters and we returned to southeaster Utah to spend another two days visiting more sites.  Still Waters and I explored the northern part of Comb Ridge, and then went over to the northern section of Butler Wash.
Still Waters at my favorite sites, and by far the most difficult to find.
What incredible cliff dwellings- with intact roofs!
If you have an adventurous spirit, head out to Comb Ridge and the surrounding regions and explore for yourself.  You’re sure to be surprised and awed by what you find!
House on Fire Ruin in South Mule Canyon is just north of Comb Ridge.

See Jan's awesome Trip Report with lots more photos here.

For more information

A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa by Peter Francis Tassoni
Covers more hikes in the region but with shorter descriptions that allow you do more of your own routefinding.  Includes driving directions to trailheads and GPS coordinates of trailheads and key points.

WOW Guides Utah Canyon Country by Kathy and Craig Copeland
Covers a broader geographic region with less depth but with more through descriptions (with more flowery language).

Visitor’s Center in Blanding, Utah- provides maps, brochures, and detailed information, also has free wifi.

Read more about a traverse of the Comb Ridge in this National Geographic article.
Find out what is beyond.


  1. Great post and jealous about your additional find! What a grand adventure we had.

    1. It sure was an adventure, Jan! Loved all your photos- WOW! :)

  2. Awesome. Great training for the Hayduke!

    1. Absolutely- really helpful for developing navigation skills, and getting used to reading the rocks. Now just gotta practice all that scrambling with a full backpack. :)