Land of Ghosts

Bears Ears’ canyons hide a scared history.

By Jeremy Pugh

In Utah’s southeasternmost reaches lies a land of secrets thinly veiled—a vast wilderness where once an ancient people thrived. An expedition onto Cedar Mesa in San Juan County and into the newly proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument brings back childhood thrills of searching, seeking and finding wonder and mystery. The 1.35-million-acre-monument protects 100,000 archaeological sites and evidence of the ancient people who lived here around 1200 AD. Beyond every corner of every canyon lingers the anticipation of discovery and the air hangs heavy with ghosts.

There is an informal tradition among the locals to keep tight -lipped about the locations of the more fragile ruins, so finding and rediscovering the sites is part of the adventure. The Kane Gulch Ranger Station at a main entry to the Grand Gulch primitive area is an oasis of advice, guidance and permits. Open only for the morning hours and entirely closed during the height of summer heat and depths of winter, visitors should stop here for guidance, maps, interpretive displays and education in protecting the monument’s antiquities. Staff can guide hikers to  accessible ruins in areas like Mule Canyon. Get to the station early if you want to snag one of the 20 permits issued daily to explore the remote and legendary Moon House Ruin.

Moon House Ruin is among the most famous of the Cedar Mesa ruins, known for its mysterious petroglyphs and intricate structure. But it is a fragile site, difficult to access and, in an attempt to limit footprints, the Bureau of Land Management offers only 20 permits a day, along with warnings to protect the site. With that in mind, I set off down the highway looking for the dirt road that will lead me to another dirt road that will finally lead me to the trail head. The word “road” is charitably employed out here and the passage is often full of steep ruts that require vehicles with substantial ground-clearance and four-wheel drive. Stuck in the middle of Cedar Mesa is not a good thing to be.

I carefully pick my way  to the trailhead. Once there, I encounter a stern hike down one canyon wall and up another, marked by cairns and boot prints. But I have the place to myself as I scramble from rock pile to rock pile and look around at the plentiful shade and water that 1,000 years ago made this a good place to call home.

The unusual thing about Moon House itself is that it contains a second layer, inside, a hallway or corridor that leads to its innermost rooms. The ghosts are thick here as I pause in the corridors’ gloom to examine the evidence of the ancients. One of the rooms contains two atypical negative petroglyphs, in the shapes of a circle and a crescent, carved out of a band of white paint. BLM archeologists think the celestial-themed petroglyphs may be a record of a solar eclipse that occurred  when Moon House was a thriving settlement. The theories of modern man fade as I gather my own thoughts in the darkness and stare hard at the black circle of sun or moon and absorb the silence. I feel the hands and creative impulse that put the petroglyph here, and shiver.

Ghosts lurk on Cedar Mesa and the thrill of meeting them is unlike few experiences you’ll have. Visit with a curious mind and kind heart and they will speak to you, too. But tread lightly because they are watching. 

Moon House? The ruin is named for images on interior walls depicting an ancient astrological event. The artists painted a solid white band, then removes moon shaped, creating a rare “negative” pictograph.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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