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Following Comb Ridge to Moonhouse - Re-Ruined #3

Headed north up Comb Wash, I didn't have far to go - a couple miles perhaps - before I reached the turn off to my next destination. Too, the road here was in great condition, making for quick travel times as I marveled at Comb Ridge through my windshield.

Note: Visiting Comb Wash requires a pass. For more information, check out BLM Utah Cedar Mesa Permits and Passes Information.

I'm always intrigued by the "solid arches" along ridges like this. I wonder what makes this formation so common?

The north end of Comb Ridge.

Soon, I was on a spur road leading west - not as nicely graded as North Comb Wash, but significantly better than Hotel Rock had been just a day before. I was on my way to the Monarch Cave Ruins - or, what I thought were the Monarch Cave Ruins at the time!

Ahead, the cave loomed large on the hillside; my anticipation grew.

There could be an entire city of ruins in there!

Reaching the end of the spur, I pulled the truck into the shade of a Pinyon Pine and finally settled down for lunch. It had been nearly two hours since my stomach alarm had sounded - way back at the apex of my time in Arch Canyon - and by now the rumbling was enough to make me think I might need earplugs to make it another mile. A tuna sandwich, chips, and plenty of cool water satisfied my midsection and soon I was once again navigating my way up the side of a steep canyon to investigate its bounty.

Nearly there.

Upon reaching Monarch Cave, I was initially surprised by two aspects of the cave. First - the floor. Covered in a fine powder some four- to six-inches deep, it was a minefield to walk through. Every step would raise a cloud of dust. As a result, my movements became measured and deliberate - each step taken only out of necessity. Second, the complete lack of ruins! This - at the time - was a bit disappointing. I'd been promised ruins, I found myself thinking, selfishly. I caught myself quickly - one should never expect ruins - and turned my attention to the wonder I had before me, because the cave was wondrous!*

* Note: Upon my return, a little research revealed that I was in the wrong location - the cave I explored was the Comb Wash Cave. The Monarch Cave - which I now must return to explore looks similar and is nearby, but I did not hike it!

It was at this point that a third aspect of the cave presented itself. A rhythmic dripping drew me to the back wall. There, from floor to ceiling were several stalagmites! Of all different heights, I could only imagine the centuries needed to build these amazing structures - one drop of water at a time. It was - I realized - even more special than ruins.

Century old soldiers.

The view out of the cave was nothing to scoff at, either.

My exploration complete, I wondered if perhaps the ruins I'd expected to find were nearby in the canyon. I searched for 10 minutes or so - obviously finding nothing, since I was in entirely the wrong place - before heading back to the Tacoma and south along Comb Wash.

Comb Ridge is such an interesting formation.

While I'd continue to follow Comb Ridge for much of the afternoon, I first decided to take a short detour as I reached UT-95. Here, I headed west - just a few miles - to a two-mile long road heading south. This road, as one may have - at this point - presumed, led to ruins.

Cave Towers (also known as Seven Towers) is an Ancestral Puebloan site dating to the mid-1200s - the late Pueblo III period. It consists primarily of seven masonry structures built around a canyon head. Some of these structures were believed to be towers, while others were likely above-ground kivas. The arrangement intuitively appears to be in defense of a natural spring coming out of the rock below the structures. -State of Utah informational sign

I followed a well-marked trail around the site, pausing at the towers, some of them in better condition than others.

A tower.

Tower too.

Tower with window.

As I wandered, my eyes peeled, I noticed that the towers weren't the only ruins in the area - in fact, there were a series of cliff dwellings amongst the head of the canyon that looked even more intriguing to investigate.

There are at least three distinct dwellings in this photo, can you find them?

Just as I was about to set out, I found myself wondering - "Why aren't these mentioned in any of the signage?" It was then that I realized that by focusing attention on the towers, the powers that be were deflecting attention from what are - perhaps - more fragile specimens. And so, a bit reluctantly, I reeled myself in and headed back the way I'd come. After all, it's not like I was going to be short on ruins this trip!

Retracing my steps along UT-95, I soon found myself descending the grade into Comb Wash, the entire length of Comb Ridge stretching out before me.

I had to stop - Comb Ridge was quickly becoming a personal favorite.

A few minutes later, I turned south - now on South Comb Wash towards, well, the south. The road was wide an smooth. After a quick photo with the ridge stretching out next to me, it was easy to maintain a speed of 50mph - orange dust rising up in my wake.

Follow the ridge.

I maintained that 50mph for the better part of half an hour before stopping again; perhaps my longest uninterrupted run of the entire trip. Comb Ridge was majestic the entire time, providing visual interest in both its profile - as well as my search for ruins - as I sped along its base.

Still following, some 25 miles later.

Eventually I'd reach the southern tip of Comb Ridge, but not today. Today, I had one more set of ruins to visit - Moonhouse, several miles to the west. First however, I decided to check out an old homestead ruining away in the valley. There wasn't much left - and even less on the inside - but it was heated at one time, so likely used year-round for some agricultural purpose.

A home in the shadow of Comb Ridge. Not bad if you can get it.

Never-ending.

Not long after the homestead, Snow Flat Road split off to my right. Nicely graded - for the most part - as well, I followed it for the better part of 15 miles. Climbing up onto what I can only assume is Snow Flat, the landscape was as orange as ever, the La Sal Mountains serving as an omnipresent landmark to the north.

Leaving Comb Wash for higher elevations.

Some nice clouds were developing in the late afternoon sky.

I arrived at the parking area for the Moonhouse ruins just before 5:00pm. It was deja-vu all over again - I'd set off at about this time the previous evening for Hotel Rock! Tonight however, my hike was significantly shorter - some three miles round trip - and I figured no headlamp was necessary as I gathered up camera equipment for the relatively short hike to the ruins.

Note: Visiting Moonhouse requires a permit, and it's day use only. A maximum of 20 permits per day are issued on a first come, first-served basis. From March 1 through June 15 and September 1 through October 31 (high use seasons), 12 of the 20 spaces are available to reserve at the Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears National Monument Permits Recreation.gov page at least five days but no more than 90 days in advance of the entry date. The eight remaining spaces may not be reserved in advance and are only available by walk-in at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station on the morning of the hike. Permit fees are $5 per person during the high use seasons, including a $6 transaction fee for reservations. All permits (including reserved permits) must be picked-up in person at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station during the high use season. The maximum group size is 12 people.

From June 16 through August 31 and November 1 through February 28 (low use seasons), Moon House permits must be reserved at the Cedar Mesa and Bears Ears National Monument Permits Recreation.gov page before arrival.

For more information, check out BLM Utah Cedar Mesa Permits and Passes Information.

I had no idea at the time - frankly because I hadn't paid much attention when scouting the route - that I was in for several thousand feet of elevation gain, as I completely descended one side of the nearly vertical canyon before nearly ascending the - again nearly vertical - other side!

Not that I'm complaining. Not by a long shot.

A steep enough descent that rock stacking was required.

My first view of Moon House, from the opposite side of the canyon. It was at this point that I started getting excited.

The floor of the canyon was a reward in itself; walls rising high on each side.

As I completed the final 30-vertical feet or so to Moonhouse, I had a decision to make: should I start here - at the main ruin - or should I investigate a nearby kiva, first? Ultimately I decided to save the best for last, and I continued the additional half-mile or so to the kiva.

Kivas were used by male Pueblo Indians for religious rites.

Made of a couple of structures, this kiva was the first time I'd seen a wall built inside the outer wall. Recesses and openings Holes in the inner wall appeared to be a place to store things - perhaps used in the rituals - and the walls themselves were entirely covered in mud and extremely well finished.

I never realized how much wood was used - essentially as an early rebar - in some of these structures.

Spring flowers, pushing up through the sandstone just a few feet from the entrance.

Excited more than ever to check out Moon House, I quickly made my way back to the enormous - and well-preserved - ruin I'd come all this way for. Even from across the canyon, I'd noticed that there were several multi-colored pictographs, one of which I quickly made a beeline for upon my arrival.

I don't know why I find this so intriguing.

Some of the structures here were totally perplexing - what could the purpose of these wooden rafters have been?

Perhaps floor (and wall) supports, now long collapsed?

Others were much more traditional - though even the traditional structures had a level of finish that I'd not seen before.

Traditional brick buildings.

Wooden rafters.

Carefully applied decoration on the wall.

Gracefully rounded wall. Likely a granary.

Finally, it was time to check out the main structure. It was by far the largest ruin I'd ever seen at more than 60 feet long, and it was initially unclear how the Puebloans had gained access.

Moonhouse.

Eventually however, I found the exterior door and made my way in. And that's when I knew I was somewhere really special. I'd expected - as with every other ruin I've visited - to look in the door and see the rock wall of the canyon angling down toward the floor; some rocks, rat scat, and perhaps a few stones scattered about. Here, I saw nothing of the sort. Rather, it was like entering an underground city street, the outer wall providing protection from the wind and rain for an entire community living inside.

A secret world.

Holes in the outer wall allowed plenty of light to radiate in.

A series of rooms.

The walls were even painted with a - still, hundreds of years later - bright white design.

Not only did the exterior wall provide protection from the elements, it also contained 27 "loop holes." These holes provided line of sight coverage of all angles of canyon access, the main ledge in front of the ruin and part of the canyon bottom. Common in many late period (late 1200s) structures on Cedar Mesa as well as the northern Colorado Plateau, current theories suggest that these holes may have served a defensive function as visitors approached settlement.

Loop holes allowed views of anyone approaching with no risk of being detected.

This view shows exactly where I descended the canyon rim.

Needless to say, I'd been blown away by Moonhouse. Having explored it for nearly an hour, I felt like I'd seen nearly everything and yet could continue to discover details for several more. Unfortunately, with sunset on the way - and 1500 feet of canyon to climb - it was time to get going.

Luckily, on my drive to Moonhouse, I'd spotted - and marked - a camp site that I thought would be an ideal place to wake up in the morning. Five miles away from the parking area, I nearly made it without having to turn on my lights - the lengthening days of spring a nice change from the 4:30pm sunsets of winter!

My own personal moon-house.

My usual routine followed - dinner, a quick wash of my face and legs after a dusty day of hiking, and a few minutes transferring photos - before I extinguished the lights and fell asleep to a brilliant moon rising in the east. I felt redeemed after my experience with Lewis Lodge the day before, but I already had a plan brewing in my mind.

A plan - unbeknownst to me - destined for failure.

But a recovery that would lead to redemption, eventually.

 

The Whole Story

7 Comments

  1. turbodb
    turbodb May 4, 2021

    While at the Moonhouse, I read through a packet of information stored in an ammo can at the site. I felt like these several paragraphs were worth sharing, but didn't know where to put them in the actual story:

    MOONHOUSE

    Welcome to Moonhouse. This Anasazi ruin consists of three cliff dwellings spread out along one quarter mile of the canyon. With a total of 49 rooms, it one of the largest prehistoric dwellings on Cedar Mesa. It Is also one of the most fragile.

    We ask you to make your visit to this fragile ruin as low impact as possible. Please do not enter any of the rooms; don't lean, climb, or pull on the walls; and avoid touching rock art and plaster. Please leave all artifacts where you find them for others to enjoy.

    The Cedar Mesa area is influenced by two branches of prehistoric Puebloan people, the Mesa Verde people to the east, and the Kayenta people to the south. The influence of both can be seen in the architecture and pottery found throughout the area.

    If you Look closely you will notice several different types of room construction. Face the ruin and look at the unroofed structure to your right an9 also the buildings on the shelf in back of it. Notice the difference between these buildings and the structure on the far left side of the shelf.

    The walls, and in some cases entire buildings are constructed of poles and mud. This is called jacal (pronounced ha-kal) construction. Vertical poles are put in place, then smaller poles are placed horizontally and tied together with willow or yucca strips. Sometimes mud is packed on both sides, and in other cases only part of the wall Is covered with mud. Juniper, willow, oak, and cottonwood were used in the construction of jacal walls at Moonhouse. These buildings are some of the earliest standing structures built here.

    Now look at the long wall that composes the main part of the cliff dwelling. This wall was constructed of irregularly shaped blocks set in Place with the flat surface to the outer and inner wall. The blocks are generally well-spaced and uniform in size. You will also notice small stones placed between the blocks. This is called chinking, and it fills space between the blocks. As you wander around the dwellings, notice how chinking takes on a decorative quality on many of the buildings. These buildings are the later structures at Moonhouse.

    Notice the series of small' holes in the long wall. They are called loop holes. There are 27 loop holes in the wall here at Moonhouse. These holes provided line of sight coverage of all angles of canyon access, the main ledge in front of the ruin and part of the canyon bottom. Loop holes are common features in many late period (late 1200s) structures on Cedar Mesa and many other areas on the northern Colorado Plateau. Some theories suggest that these holes serve a defensive function. Further research may help us answer the question about the function of loop holes.

    As you walk around the site you will notice remnants of mud along the back walls of the rock shelter. Archaeologists call these 'ghost walls'. They are the remains of former structures, the materials of which were probably reused in construction of some of the buildings you see today.

    At Moonhouse, Pinyon and Juniper logs are building materials for ceiling beams and uprights. These logs are ideal subjects for the science of tree ring dating called dendrochronology, an excellent method for determining site occupation. In 1974, 192 tree ring core samples were taken from Moonhouse and 134 dates were obtained. These dates Indicate a forty-two year span of beam cutting between 1226 arid 1268 AD. During these years there were three peak building periods: 1242-1244 AD, 1249-12S4 AD, and 1256-1265 AD. Evidence suggests that some beams were stockpiled for later use - and that others were reused over time.

    You will notice several pictographs (painted rock art) either on or near the structures. The solid white band with triangles and dots a symbol that Is depicted at other locations In the area. This symbol is also painted on one of the jacal walls at the ruin. This helps us to date the painting. Since tree ring dates from the room suggest it was built around 1264 AD, we can assume a date for the rock art. Other evidence near Moonhouse suggests that there was also an earlier Basketmaker (0-500 A.D.) occupation of the canyon area.

    Cedar Mesa has probably always been a marginal environment for agriculture. With the limited estimated annual rainfall of 12-13 inches, any dry year would be devastating. During the late 1200's many of the living (habitation) areas at Moonhouse were converted to storage. Archaeologists estimate that there was a conversion of habitation rooms to storage rooms of five to one. Two theories exist regarding conversion to storage. First, the people at Moonhouse were storing up enough food to feed other residents of the canyon. Second, storage of surplus food was a buffer against increasingly poor harvests. While both theories are possible, there is evidence of increasing drought conditions in the late 1200's which may have led to abandonment of the mesa between 1270 and 1300.

    Archaeologists have used several different methods to determine population of Moonhouse. During the late period of occupation, thirty of the, habitation and storage zooms were in use. Based on the number of rooms being used, it is assumed that between 25-35 people lived at Moonhouse. It is not known how many people from the surrounding area may have also used Moonhouse.

    The ancestors of the people who lived at Moonhouse did not disappear, they are alive and well today. The Hopi in Arizona, the Zuni and the Rio Grande Pueblo people in New Mexico have ancestral ties to this area. This is a sacred place to them and should be treated with respect. Approximately 1200 people visit this site each year. Your visit is recorded in history when you acquire your hiking permit and sign in at the trail register box. You can also record your personal history by taking photographs, making sketches or writing a personal journal. Enjoy your visit.Dr. Kane Gulch\Site Information\Moonhouse

  2. Kenny Millhouse
    Kenny Millhouse May 4, 2021

    Another excellent adventure and photos and your stories are the best. I will have to try and see of these when I do the Mighty 5 later this year.

  3. Lapsley Hope
    Lapsley Hope May 4, 2021

    I'll not be missing all these amazing ruins when I go back! I'll do exactly as you have, and start at the southern end of Butler Wash, spend a couple of days exploring, then take the Comb Wash from its northern end to the southern terminus, and again spend a couple of days. Thanks for inspiring me to get back there!

  4. Randy Langstraat
    Randy Langstraat May 8, 2021

    As I started reading this one I was wondering to myself why you were headed north to reach Monarch Cave? ...and then I got to your note!

    • turbodb
      turbodb May 8, 2021

      Yeah, I'm not sure how I incorrectly marked/identified the cave in my initial research, but at the end of the day, that's just part of the adventure. I may never have visited this cave otherwise, and the stalagmites it contained were totally worth seeing!

  5. JEANNIE FREDERICK
    JEANNIE FREDERICK May 14, 2021

    Always enjoy these virtual trips you're taking me on. I have fallen behind a little bit, but I do have a life. lol Thanks again for an entertaining, beautiful trek through this great land. I cannot get enough. Stories beautifully done as well. Almost.....ALMOST....as good as being there......but I can't help but think, What a bitchin great way to live life!!! Wish I had thought of it 30 yrs ago. lol keep on keeping on.......Jeannie.

    • turbodb
      turbodb May 14, 2021

      Thanks Jeannie, I'm glad you're enjoying. Falling behind just means you can binge-read to catch up 😁 👍!

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