Step House Ancestral Site, Mesa Verde

Overlook on Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site from an overlook, Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park.

At Mesa Verde National Park you can only visit the cliff dwellings on-site as part of a Ranger-led tour. To protect them from the high numbers of visitors that want to see them these days. (If you don’t care for such a one or two hour trek, there are nice overlooks to get photos from above).

Path to Step House ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Paved path down to Step House alcove site, Wetherill Mesa.

The Ranger-led tours only cost $5 per person, per tour. A nominal fee. But you have to buy your tickets in person at the park, or in Cortez, not online. You can buy them locally up to two days in advance, though.

Step House Ruin, the stone steps, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step House site, looking up at the ancient stone steps hugging the face of the alcove.

There is one notable exception: the Step House site on Wetherill Mesa. You don’t need to buy a ticket, because they station a Ranger down there from 9am to 4pm to both protect the site and to answer questions for visitors.

Step House cliff dwelling pueblo, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The cliff dwelling pueblo at Step House, Wetherill Mesa.

Step House is also an easy walk, on a paved path. Not only that, but it has been developed so as to show off two very distinct periods of habitation. Most noticeable is the cliff dwelling pueblo, which was the later period, just before they exited the area around 1300 A.D. But long before that, the pre-puebloans, who had not yet learned how to fire pottery, let alone build habitable stonework pueblos, lived on the same site in pit houses.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling, Step House Ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Reconstructed pit house dwelling at Step House.

And at Step House a pit house has been reconstructed to give you a much better idea of what that had looked like. It’s a wonderful two-for-one walk, just a stone’s throw from the parking lot.

Panoramic photo of the Step House Ruin site on Wetherill Mesa, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Step house alcove panorama, Wetherill Mesa.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

© Copyright Stephen J. Krieg

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Winter Solstice Time at Canyonlands

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in the distance.

Winter Solstice occurred on December 21 this year. Supposedly the shortest day and longest night of the year.

However, the day length had been stuck at 9 hours and 32 minutes since December 19, and won’t be a full minute longer until Christmas, Dec. 25, when it will be 9 hrs. 33 min. for four days. Yes, a whole minute longer.

Utah Highway 211 along the upper part of the Indian Creek canyon, in winter.

Upper Indian Creek area of Highway 211 east of the Needles.

Just two days after that, on New Years Eve, the daylight will be two minutes longer than on Christmas Day, at a whopping 9 hrs. 35 minutes! You can follow along at sites such as The days start getting longer faster the further they get past Solstice, but until then it rather creeps along. The dead of winter begins.

Wintertime snowy cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Snowy sandstone cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area.

The day before Winter Solstice I drove in to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It’s only an hour’s drive from my home, and I hadn’t been there lately. The roads were cleared from a recent snowstorm, so I was sure it would be fun. Sunny and calm.

Sandstone cliff face in upper Indian Creek, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sandstone cliffs and snow along Highway 211.

Driving north from Monticello, Utah on U.S. 191 it’s only about 15 minutes to the turnoff onto Utah Route 211, the highway into the Needles District. Route 211 parallels the Indian Creek drainage before it finally empties into the Colorado River inside the park. The easternmost part of the drive was still high enough in elevation to have snow on the cliffs, under a trademark Utah high desert blue sky.

Newspaper Rock State Historical and Archaeological Site, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock site, from the parking lot.

Roughly halfway to the Canyonlands National Park entrance is the famous Newspaper Rock archaeological site. There is a parking lot with restrooms and a very short walk to this amazing petroglyph panel.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel archaeological site in winter, San Juan County, southeast Utah..

In winter the sun’s angle is low enough to keep much of the petroglyph panel in sunlight.

I’m not wild about the name “Newspaper Rock”, because it conjures up a modern image of ink on newsprint. Instead, these are ancient symbols laboriously pecked into rock, some of which could well be 2,000 years old. And they last infinitely longer than ink or paper.

This was the perfect time to visit the site, with the fresh snow, the low angle of the December sun lighting up the panel, and only one other visitor for a few minutes. It would make for photos much different than the typical ones you see over and over of this site.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site, petroglyph panel, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock in winter.

The rock panel is perfect: Dark patina (think rock “varnish”) on a smooth sandstone face, with an overhang above to shade the panel for most of the year, which serves to slow the weathering process. Pecking through the patina reveals the much lighter sandstone beneath, making the image pop out visually.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, upper portion. (Click on image for larger).

So many symbols that it is mind boggling. Animals, tracks, imposing horned humanoid figures (shamans in sacred regalia? Alien beings from outer space?).

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, lower portion. (Click on image for larger).

Not all these depictions are prehistoric. Anything showing a horse, or a wagon wheel, is after the Spanish first arrived in North America in the 1600s. There are even some fairly modern dates added, something which is strongly discouraged by the steel fence keeping visitors a safe distance away from the panel.

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sun and shadow made for a nice vertical composition of petroglyphs and rock angles. Notice that some footprints that have six toes.

From the highway into the Needles District, a nice view of the snowy summits of the La Sal Mountains to the northeast near Moab, peeking above the red rock layers along the lower Indian Creek Valley.

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in distance.

At the Needles Visitor Center, all was quiet. The remoteness of Canyonlands National Park means that wintertime is very off season, so there aren’t enough visitors to keep the VC open at this time of year. No entrance fee, just drive on in. The restrooms do remain open, and you can get water and park brochures and maps. The campground is open year round.

Not far past the Visitor Center is a turnout for the Roadside Ruin. Again, not the best of names. I made me expect some rubble of a pueblo foundation. Instead, it’s a very nice and easy walk to a very well preserved granary tucked into a small out of sight alcove.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, southeast Utah.

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

The interpretive sign for Roadside Ruin said that stone-and-mortar pueblo dwellings hadn’t been found in this area, indicating that it was intensely farmed (corn, beans, squash) and the dried grains stored in the granaries. So it was used in the growing season, not year around.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, Utah..

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

The doorway into the granary is through the roof. Otherwise they might have built the walls up until it met the roof of the alcove, and put the door into the side. Sometimes the ancient ones did, sometimes they didn’t.

The Needles District of Canyonlands is a hiker’s and four wheeler’s paradise. But on this day I had elsewhere to go. So I will be back throughout the winter to enjoy the lack of crowds.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg


Revisiting the Mysterious Moki Queen

Barrier Canyon Style pictograph "Moki Queen" at Hog Spring, Utah.

Closeup of the “Moki Queen” pictograph at Hog Spring, Utah.

Driving across the vast upper reaches of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southeast Utah leaves one to ponder many things.

One of those things is an ancient pictograph that today is called the “Moki (or Moqui) Queen”, a figure painted on the back wall of a sandstone alcove in North Wash, between Hite Crossing and Hanksville, Utah.

How old is she (I mean “it”)? The Barrier Canyon Style is much older than the petroglyphs and pictographs of the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi). The Moki Queen should be at least 1,000 years old. Not bad for not being in a climate controlled museum, huh? Actually, the high desert canyon country of southern Utah is a museum due to its climate. Dry most of the time. Cold winters, too. A north facing stone alcove such as this one has an overhanging cliff that even keeps most of the rain and snow out. And whoever painted this must have know which local pigments would last the longest.

The Moki Queen

The setting of the Moki Queen and…whatever animal is depicted with her. And what other faces can you see?

The Moki Queen is actually visible from Highway 95 near Hog Spring Rest Area. I’ve driven by “her” a number of times, and with the springtime leaves coming out I decided it was time to pause once again and pay my regards.


A sandstone alcove such as the one housing the Moki Queen.

Since the people that painted her had no written language, no one can say for sure what this obviously carefully depicted image meant to them. A revered matriarch of a tribe or clan? A vision of a shaman?

The Moki Queen pictograph, North Wash, southeast Utah.

The Moki Queen panel from another angle.

Walking back into that alcove always gives me a sense of reverence. It’s a very isolated place, despite being near a state highway. So far I’ve always had the privilege of being there alone. The noise of other visitors would seem wrong to me. So I pay my respects, notice what I can that I didn’t last time, and wordlessly retreat to my vehicle back out on the highway not that far away.

But not without spending a bit of time in North Wash itself. The little stream still flowing with clear springtime runoff. The cottonwood trees leafing out with their bright green counterpoint to the red rock layers all around.

North Wash, southeast Utah, in springtime.

North Wash in springtime glory.

Photo location: North Wash, southeast Utah south of Hanksville.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Hite Overlook panorama, Colorado River, Utah.

It Looks Better Going The Other Way

Hite entrance sign, Glen Canyon National Recreation area, southeast Utah.

Hite entrance sign, just off Utah Hwy. 95, Glen Canyon.

In Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire, about his experiences as a seasonal park ranger in then-Arches National Monument (now National Park) in the 1960s, he replied to visitors incensed at having to drive back out the same way they came in, saying “It looks better going the other way”.

Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t. But the more time you spend somewhere the more you will notice, that’s for sure.

And soon after my most recent post “Hanksville to Hite”, I got another opportunity to drive the other way. From Hite to Hanksville. As always I enjoyed it.

Hite convenience store, San Juan County, Utah.

Convenience store at Hite ranger station, on an overcast spring morning.

Hite is where the Ranger Station is in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The very upper end of what had been Lake Powell. Now the lake is low enough that the Colorado River at Hite is free flowing again. Maybe always will be.

There is no open Visitor Center at Hite anymore. You might catch the National Park Service law enforcement ranger there, but probably not. He will usually be out patrolling his region of the park.

There is a convenience store there, open in the summer, and gas pumps open year around. If the pump isn’t hung up with no one there to reset it. I have seen that happen.

Utah Highway 95, Colorado River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Hwy. 95 west of HIte, along the Colorado River.

Hite is named for Cass Hite, a legendary explorer, prospector, and mining claims promoter who lived in, loved the area, and died there. The townsite named after him is beneath the waters of Lake Powell, even today. So is his grave, I believe, at Ticaboo.

Speaking of Edward Abbey, if you’ve read his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, it’s all situated in this area. Smack dab right here, including the climax of the book. When I first read it, so long ago, I had no idea of where this locale was. Not like I do now.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone, near Dirty Devil River, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah.

Cross-bedded “petrified” sand dunes of Cedar Mesa Sandstone along the Dirty Devil River, west of Hite, Utah.

I recently had to re-read the book after a visitor came in and asked: “Which site in your campground (in Natural Bridges) did Hayduke stay at?” I had to admit that I didn’t know. The answer: it doesn’t give a site number in the novel. Besides, it wasn’t just George Hayduke, it was all four members of the gang.

So Edward Abbey’s hilarious, violent, shocking, thought provoking, extremist story of eco-saboteurs (I am not a proponent of such) was on my mind even more on this drive.

Hite Overlook, Utah Highway 95, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Utah Hwy. 95 from Hite Overlook.

The Gang was protesting the seemingly unbridled commercial development of the desert wilderness in general, and Glen Canyon in particular. They tried to stop the completion of Highway 95 from Blanding to the Colorado River. They tried to take out two of the three bridges crossing the canyon (at White Canyon, and on the other side of the Colorado River at the Dirty Devil River). But the law was closing in fast and they tried to make their escape up into the Maze district of Canyonlands National Park, one of the most rugged areas of desert canyon country on earth.

Colorado River from Hite Overlook, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah.

Colorado River below Narrow Canyon, from Hite Overlook.

Highway 95 was completed (in reality) to Glen Canyon. A lot of vacationers, especially boaters, enjoyed the new marina facilities at Hite. For some decades. But then the projections of how much water the Colorado River really can provide turned out to be a pipe dream. The lake lowered and lowered. The Hite Marina was removed, and the area became almost as lonely as when Cass Hite lived there in the horse and buggy days. You might say things have come rather full circle. At least significantly so.

Hite Overlook panorama, Colorado River, Utah.

Canyon rimrock, Hite Overlook.

Highway 95 is still one of the most lonely areas in the state of Utah. Severe and stark, almost bare landscapes devoid of all but a few low growing shrubs once in a while. Wide open skies. Red rock canyons and deep blue skies. The snow capped peaks of the Henry Mountains to the northwest.

Utah canyon country. Abbey country.

Photo location: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg