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Ancient Routes Across Comb Ridge

Updated: May 31, 2021

When visiting Procession Panel, it seems to be strategically positioned alongside a well-traveled east-west footpath over Comb Ridge. Convincing evidence is not visible from the ridge crest but can be seen from a different vantage point.

Looking northeast from Comb Wash, the dramatic face of Comb Ridge presents a considerable barrier to east-west travel for many miles. Notches in the sandstone cliffs indicate the beginning of east-flowing drainages or canyons in Comb Ridge. Many of those drainages were likely used for east-west travel. Photo: Donald J. Rommes

From Procession Panel, it is a short distance to the crest of Comb Ridge. An obvious swale or gully in the Navajo sandstone leads up to a low point in the ridge crest. From there, it is a vertical drop of 5-10 feet followed by a steep slickrock traverse to the beginning of the steep, boulder-strewn talus slope leading to the floor of Comb Wash.

It seems obvious that a natural path leads to that low point on the ridge line, and might have been a route for ancient people. But how did they get down from there?

A rope would have been useful, but it would have had to have been a long rope. I peered over the edge many times, looking for a route. Not being a rock climber, and not having a long rope with me, I couldn't see a way down I would be comfortable with. Could Procession Panel simply be a destination at the end of a long, steep walk, or was it a sort of signpost along a well-traveled east-west route??

I decided to visit the base of the cliff to see what things looked like from below.

From Comb Wash, the numerous ridge-top notches looked pretty much the same. I used a GPS to find the notch that was near Procession Panel. Once I found the right drainage, I scoured the cliff face with binoculars.

There was no visible footpath up the taus slope, but there was a line of notches in the steeply sloped cliff face, starting near the talus slope/cliff face junction and leading up to the base of the notch. They were hand and foot-holds—Moki steps—used to climb steep sections of slick rock. This was what I was looking for—clear evidence of a foot path across Comb Ridge.

That makes it more likely that Procession Panel was a signpost alongside a "highway" and not a destination at the dead end of a one-way path. Maybe Procession Panel marks the place where people met to rest or eat or drink before or after negotiating those scary Moki steps.

Close up of the notch in Comb Ridge that marks the highpoint of the east-west route passing by Procession Panel. Perhaps not discernible in this photo, an enlarged photo shows the Moki steps incised in the sloping arc of sandstone to the right and below the low point of the notch. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

It is impossible to know how many people used this east-west path between the fields and clays of Comb Wash and the water of the east side Comb Ridge drainages, but it might have been a significant number.

From my vantage point in Comb Wash, I spotted what appeared to be a blind of stacked rocks. From that hiding place it would be easy to spy on people using that route. I thought about climbing the talus slope to see the Moki steps up close and to verify the existence of a blind—but I thought better of it. Perhaps one day.

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