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Dark Canyon Plateau. Archaeological Sites and Rugged Landscape in Bears Ears.

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

The Dark Canyon Plateau was included in the original Bears Ears National Monument, but it was stripped of its monument status by President Trump in 2017. That's too bad. Rugged and isolated as it is, the plateau and its many canyons contain thousands of cultural treasures. In this post, I'll show you one of them.

The original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument encompassed 1.3 million acres. Nearly all of it held high concentrations of culturally important sites left by ancient Native American civilizations more than 800 years ago. The original Monument extended from the San Juan River north to include all of Cedar Mesa, the Dark Canyon Wilderness area, and beyond, to the southern boundary of Canyonlands National Park.

While Cedar Mesa has the greatest density of culturally important sites in the boundaries of Bears Ears, areas like Natural Bridges National Monument, the Dark Canyon Plateau, and Canyonlands National Park all have great number of sites as well. Tourists typically visit these places to see the unique geology—bridges and canyon vistas, and the like—but with a little exploration, they quickly realize they are in a vast outdoor museum of ancient North American cultures.

President Trump stripped National Monument status from Cedar Mesa and the Dark Canyon plateau, but they deserve protection, At the time of this writing his proclamation, thought by many to be illegal, is being challenged in the courts. The sites in Nears Ears and beyond are part of our unique North American heritage and we best understand them by visiting them in their original, undisturbed, natural setting.

My excursion to the Dark Canyon Plateau might serve as an example.

In this Google Earth image, Comb Ridge is the linear feature in the lower right and the branching patterns in the upper center are the Dark Canyon Plateau and its canyons.

It’s a long way from any town to the Dark Canyon Plateau. My route took me from Blanding, on the eastern edge of Bears Ears, past Comb Ridge, and up to Cedar Mesa. At the high point of the shallow dome that is Cedar Mesa, I turned right, towards Natural Bridges. Another right turn takes you up high up on a gravel road to Elk Ridge, between the two buttes that are the Bears Ears, and further, to the Dark Canyon Plateau at 8,000 feet elevation.

Dirt roads seem to go in all directions, but they generally stick to the contours of the ridges on the forested high plateau. Cattle are grazed up here. Pools and temporary small lakes form as the snow melts and evaporate as summer progresses.

The roads are never far from a deep canyon. There are countless canyons to explore but there are few routes into them. Choosing a canyon in this wild country boils down to finding one with a way into them from the road.

A ridge-top view of one of the many canyons dissecting the Dark Canyon Plateau. Photo © Donald J. Rommes

After a couple hours of driving on dirt roads and peering into canyons, looking for a route, I found an old jeep trail heading down into a canyon and decided to explore. Parking my capable 4WD car at a clearing in the juniper/piñon forest, I gathered my gear and started walking down the trail. I had been tempted to try the two-track road with my car, but it soon became not only uncomfortably steep, but deeply rutted and impassable. Feeling vindicated, I continued on by foot.

The road down eventually led to a flat pasture-like area with a corral in disrepair where the rutted two-track came to an end. A very steep foot trail continued beyond the dilapidated wooden fence. Portions of the trail had to be negotiated by stepping sidewise to avoid sliding out of control. Juniper and piñon crowded the trail, but I could occasionally catch glimpses of the gradually approaching canyon floor.

After a 1300-foot descent, I reached the canyon floor. Stopping to rest on a trailside boulder, I drank some water, took out my binoculars, and studied the canyon walls, looking for sites. To my left, perhaps a couple hundred feet above me, a small structure was tucked into an alcove. It looked difficult to get to. To my right was another small structure, but again, it looked to be a challenging climb.

Ahead of me, perhaps half a mile across the grassy floor of the canyon, in an alcove on the distant canyon wall, was another site. Even from this distance, it appeared to have several rooms and, perhaps, a defensive wall. It was too far away to gauge whether I could get near the site.

The weather was warm and windless, the blue of the sky was uninterrupted by clouds. I could hear only natural sounds—a bit of a breeze rustling through bushes, the sound of a raven. There was no sign of another person, no evidence of an animal. Pale yellow grasses covered the canyon floor as far as the eye could see. I set a compass heading on the ancient site on the far canyon wall and began pushing through the sea of waist-high grass.

Several deep gullies, invisible from where I had been, cut across the canyon floor. About 20 feet deep and steep-walled, they required a bit of route finding and a scramble to cross, but before long I was at the far canyon wall, a couple hundred feet below the site I hoped to visit.

No route to the site was visible from directly below, so I walked several hundred yards along the base of the canyon wall to where the slickrock was less severely inclined and managed to find a possible route up. Some spots were dicey, but I was usually able to find a sturdy shrub or a solid rock to anchor my rope and give me a steadying handhold.

Before long, I was a mere twenty feet below the level of the site in the alcove.

These feelings of transcendence are made possible by the site’s splendid isolation and the absence of other distractions. This is one benefit of being able to visit unreconstructed sites in their original, natural setting.

From that vantage point, I could see a granary on the right. Attached to the granary was a 30-foot-long defensive wall on the edge of the alcove that hid the rest of the site from view. In the defensive wall, peepholes had been made that looked out in different directions.

I sat there a while in the sunshine, enjoying the warmth and natural quiet, and trying to imagine the life of people who built this site. With an unobstructed view of the canyon, I could see the little masonry structures back across the way, but no other structures up or down canyon, and certainly no other person. I wondered if those structures were granaries that stored food for the family unit that occupied this site. Perhaps they were blinds, or lookout sites, to secretly search for animals to hunt or for raiders to avoid.

From the back of the alcove, two structures occupied the left side. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes.

I climbed the remaining few yards to the site, carefully avoiding shards of painted pottery. The site could be entered on the left, where there was an open passageway that skirted the defensive wall. Behind the wall, the alcove opened up. A soot-stained ceiling rose high above, and I could hear a trickle of water from a little spring at the back wall. A tiny pool formed at the base of the trickle. From the back of the alcove, looking out, I could see the wall of a room with sawed-off roof beams, then a rectangular courtyard, and finally the defensive wall at the lip of the alcove. A glowing “T” shaped door led into the patio space.

Small spring at the back of the alcove, with reverse handprint on the wall above. Photo © Donald J. Rommes.

View from the back of the alcove. Photo © Donald J. Rommes.

To my left were two more rooms. One of them was perched on the very edge of the alcove and looked out at the valley below. I noticed a few more pottery shards and several corncobs in the powdery dirt of the alcove floor.

Two rooms at the edge of the alcove, looking out to the canyon. Photo © Donald J. Rommes.

Sunlight was shining on the defensive wall and the “courtyard” space while the rest of the alcove remained in shade. Yellow sunlight bounced off the outside of the interior wall to illuminate the inside of the defensive wall. That wall, in turn, reflected and amplified the color of the light that passed through the “T-shaped” door.

T-shaped back wall of an antechamber with peep holes to spy on people below. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The effect was magical. The interior of the courtyard, framed by the “T-shaped” door, was aglow. I briefly imagined a “T-shaped time portal” where the glowing spirits of the people who lived here appeared and disappeared behind the door as they walked the courtyard.

These feelings of transcendence are made possible by the site’s splendid isolation and the absence of other distractions. This is one benefit of being able to visit unreconstructed sites in their original, natural setting. Very few places in the world offer the opportunity for this type of experience. Preserved natural spaces are incredibly valuable and they can only be preserved if they are protected.

I admit to having felt a temptation to enter the rooms, to imagine myself living there. But I didn’t. It’s best not to.

The BLM, many years ago, used to post signs that warned, “You are not an Anasazi.”
That was a good way of putting it. Out here, alone, it is easy to let your imagination run wild, to imagine you were one of the people who built the place, enter the rooms, climb the walls, take the pottery, or try to scale the now-worn “moki steps.” But doing so will only harm the site—or get yourself injured.

I took a few photos then packed up to head back. Finding a fallen branch of a piñon tree, I swept my footprints from the alcove floor, and left.


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