Updated: Mar 28, 2021
A modest loop trip on Comb Ridge yields an unexpected bird sighting.
Crane petroglyph. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes
Cedar Mesa is a good place to hike in Bears Ears National Monument because of the beauty of its remote backcountry and the high density of ancient structures and rock art it contains. But Cedar Mesa is pretty far from any town, so hiking the longer canyons pretty much requires overnight camping.
Comb Ridge, another area of Bears Ears National Monument, has the advantage of being close enough to the town of Bluff to permit hiking during the day and a return to prepared food and a comfortable bed at night. It is also much harder to get lost on Comb Ridge than almost anywhere else on Cedar Mesa.
Exploring Comb Ridge's Canyons
Comb Ridge was my destination of choice for the shorter days of late fall. That dramatic sandstone monocline rises steeply from east to west. The yellow-white Navajo sandstone layer capping the ridge is tilted about 17º on average but is much steeper near the top. The eastern face is cut into numerous, generally parallel canyons, several of which contain archaeologic sites.
The canyon that holds the Crane petroglyph. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes
I had explored a number of the Comb Ridge canyons, but not all, Heading west out of Bluff, I turned onto the Butler Wash road, and casually studied the possibilities as I drove north. Picking a canyon I had never been in before, I turned onto a dirt spur road that led to a small spot to park. I gathered ny gear, shouldered my backpack, took a long swig of water, and headed west.
Crossing Butler Wash—not as easy as it sounds.
It was a hundred-yard walk from the car to the edge of the wash, but it was a 30-40 foot vertical drop into the sandy chasm of the wash. Walking the edge of the wash for a hundred yards or so, I spied a steep, sandy path and slid down to the floor of the wash. There was no obvious path, so I pushed through the dense brush, arriving at the far bank after twenty yards. I searched for a way up, found one, and got to the top. Once there, I was disheartened to see I had just crossed one of three separate channels of the wash. After two similar crossings, I was finally on the slick rock of Comb Ridge proper. .
Once on the Navajo sandstone, walking was easy—apart from the constant uphill. The rock is not perfectly smooth, but it is continuous. It is broken into small geometric sections, like corn on a cob. Some people liken it to walking on petrified elephant skin. There are irregularities of course, and the canyons can have steep walls, but it is not difficult to find a route and progress is swift. Hiking up the slope of Comb Ridge, I found myself on a ridge separating two canyons. The ridge would soon end at a wall and the two canyons would lead to the top of Comb Ridge.
It looked as if I could make a loop trip—hike up one canyon to the top of Comb Ridge, traverse the crest of the ridge to the other canyon, and take that back to this spot. I headed left on the smooth slickrock.
Bird sighting—the Crane petroglyph.
Soon, I gained the left canyon. Eventually, the slope eased and sand collected in the nearly level canyon floor. Juniper and Piñon appeared, as did rabbit brush, rice grass, and sagebrush. It seemed like a good place to have a snack. Sitting there, I pulled out my binoculars and studied the canyon walls. That's when I saw the petroglyph of the bird.
The Crane Petroglyph, as it is called, is quite well done and must have taken a while to create. I don't know what it signified to its creator, or what additional meaning it was meant to convey, if any, But it is nice to look at and was certainly meant to be seen.
The Crane petroglyph with circular "shield." The petroglyph was lightened in post-processing to make it easier to see. The short, straight grooves mentioned in the text cannot be appreciated from this distance. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.
Of interest to me, there are a series of shallow parallel grooves behind the left wing. The grooves resemble those that defined the wing, but shorter. They made me question whether this was a trial first run that was rejected, then perfected in the larger version.
Backlit grasses and junipers. looking south. Relatively level here, the slope of the sandstone layers gets progressively steeper when approaching the top of Comb Ridge. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.
To the top of Comb Ridge.
Heading back up the slope towards the top of the ridge, the incline got much steeper. The grasses and bushes on the ledges were nicely backlit by the low sun. In a particularly steep section, I was forced to pass through a narrow channel in the canyon. Shortly afterwards, the canyon opened and soon, I was at the top of Comb Ridge, overlooking the vertical cliff to the floor of Comb Wash.
Looking north from the top of Comb Ridge. Comb Wash is approximately 500 feet below. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.
Often, there is a lot of wind coming up the western wall of Comb Ridge, but on this day, it was calm. I took a few photos from the crest of the ridge and moved on.
Cross-country to the parallel canyon.
The canyon I had been following was separated from my parallel exit canyon to the north by a broad stone ridge. After climbing out of my canyon, the slope of the ridge to be traversed was very steep—perhaps 30º. The rock on this part of the ridge was very smooth and far too steep to walk across horizontally, Only by walking uphill as I crossed could I prevent myself from falling.
Eventually, I reached the neighbouring canyon and picked my way carefully down the very steep slope to the canyon floor. I first walked to the ridge crest to make sure I saw the entire canyon, but I didn't notice any archaeological sites. Then I headed down.
Frozen pool and piñons. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.
Down canyon to the car.
This canyon was a series of steep slopes, leading to narrow, stone-filled channels and pools. At one point, a side canyon joined. There, the individual rocks comprising one layer of the Navajo "elephant skin" had been shed and the flat rocks were scattered attractively over the slope. I made a mental note to return one day in better light—to photograph.
Exfoliating "elephant skin" and side canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.
In another ten minutes, I could see where I had parked. This time however, I followed a gentler slope to the north and found an easier route into and across a single-channeled and unobstructed Butler Wash. It was another half mile to my car from there, but this is route I would take the next time I would return.
NOTE ABOUT VISITING COMB RIDGE
The washboarded dirt road up Butler Wash is the only practical access to the canyons of Comb Ridge. Rarely used in the past, much has changed as Bears Ears National Monument is becoming increasingly well-known. New spur roads are being created by visitors in search of places to camp. It is more difficult to find the solitude that was once a hallmark of this landscape, and human waste is becoming a real problem.
Solutions (mitigations) are being proposed, but in the meantime, please treat the land and the sites with respect and take care to minimise your impact. Leave no trace.
For more information, or to offer help, please visit Friends of Cedar Mesa at: https://www.friendsofcedarmesa.org