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Mancos Mesa is part of Bears Ears National Monument - has anyone ever been there?

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

Since Mancos Mesa is in the Monument, I'd like to see it. That shouldn't be too hard — right?

Mancos Mesa is a remote and rugged "island in the sky" in the desert southwest. It is bordered on the west and north by the Colorado River, and to the east and south by Red and Moqui canyons. Because of its physical isolation and infrequent visitation, it has long been a Wilderness Study Area. For the same reason, and because the mesa and its canyons were inhabited (sparsely) by ancient peoples, it was made part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Moqui Canyon as seen from its southern rim. The visible sand slide is visible will be my route into and out of the canyon. It is tempting, but the sand is much too deep and soft to drive down.

Mancos Mesa was included in the original Monument created by President Obama. It remained part of the monument even after President Trump reduced its size by 85%. With president Trump now out of office, and with a newly appointed Secretary of the Interior (a Native American), the Monument's boundaries are somewhat uncertain. However, Mancos Mesa will likely remain within its borders.

If Mancos Mesa is to remain within the Monument, I'd like to see it.

I had a September trip to Comb Ridge planned and I had a little extra time. Perhaps I could add a quick side trip to Mancos Mesa — just to lay eyes on it.

My hastily conceived plan was to drive to the edge of Moqui Canyon, find a way in, and cross to the other side. Then, I'd find a route up and out of the canyon on its north side. Once on the north rim of Moqui Canyon, I'd be on Mancos Mesa. I'd take a few photos and return the way I came. Simple.

Google Earth shows a 4WD road leading to the edge of Moqui Canyon. From there, the road appears to zig-zag down a huge sand slide that provides access to the canyon floor 600 feet below. A mile or so down canyon, the Google Earth images suggest a route up a slick rock ramp to the north rim of the canyon and Mancos Mesa. I decided to give that route a try.

The 4WD road to the rim of Moqui was a rocky 10 miles long with lengthy stretches of deep sand. However, it had been recently graded, so I managed to make it to the rim of Moqui without too much difficulty. From the rim, I got my first glimpse of the massive sand slide. A bulldozer had plowed a sinuous "road" down the 40º slope, but the sand was deep and soft — there was no way my car could make it down and back.

I parked the car and set up camp on the flat slickrock at the edge of the canyon. Since it was only 3pm, I thought there might be enough time to go down the sand dune, explore the canyon a bit, look for a possible route to Mancos Mesa, and return to the car before sundown. If I had time, I would use a second day to exit Moqui and get on Mancos Mesa, but there were weather warnings about possible heavy rain from the remnants of Hurricane Nora that was moving north from Mexico.

Mancos Mesa as viewed from the south rim of Moqui Canyon.

I grabbed a liter of water, pulled on my backpack, picked up my tripod, and headed for the sand slide. It was 93º and sunny. This was my first day at 5,000 feet of altitude, and although I had been driving for 3 days and had a poor sleep the night before, I felt confident I could make it down and back in the 4-5 hours of remaining daylight.

My first steps on the sand slide eroded some of my confidence. Even though a bulldozer had recently bladed the steep sand slide, the sand was deep and soft. I slid as much as stepped down the slope, and halfway down I began to wonder if I could make it back up.

View from camp, looking down to a portion of the sand slide into Moqui Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The canyon was oriented northeast/southwest so the afternoon sun baked the canyon floor. A few areas of shade were to be found near the canyon's southern wall and I sought them out frequently to cool down and rest. I looked for, but did not find, a petroglyph panel a friend had told me about and the side canyon that looked so promising as a route up to Mancos Mesa was blocked by a large rockfall.

There were supposed to be more archaeological sites further down canyon, but I had concerns about making it up that sand slide so, with some disappointment, I decided to head back to camp. On the way, in the available shade, I made a couple of photos — more as souvenirs of the canyon and opportunities to rest than anything else.

Rockfall in Moqui Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

Dried mud in Moqui Canyon. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

The sand slide was as bad as I feared. Counting my steps, I could do 50 in a row at first before needing to stop. Then it was 25, then 15, then 10. Climbing that sandy slope was exhausting work in the heat. At times, I didn't think I would be able to make it to the top. One long rest of 15-20 minutes helped me recover some of my energy and I was able to push to the top. It took nearly two hours to cover the 1/2 mile of the sand slide.

After some food and a good sleep, I woke to a lovely sunrise, The approaching rainstorms threatened flash floods and rutted roads of gumbo in the next 24 hours, so I made the decision to pack up camp and leave.

Alas, this would not be the time I would visit Mancos Mesa. But there it was, just across nearby Moqui Canyon to the north, a golden, inaccessible island of stone, glowing in the morning sunlight. That will have to do for now.


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