Mesa Verde Summer Evening (part 2)

Oak Tree House Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling site, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Oak Tree House environs, Mesa Verde.

On the Mesa Top Loop road, the early evening was continuing to play out so beautifully.

At the Oak Tree House cliff dwelling overlook, I started with a wide shot to capture both the location and the incredible skies above.

Oak Tree House cliff dwelling, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Oak Tree House closeup. You can only take a backcountry Ranger-led tour to it.

Then it was on to Sun Temple. A location that is most notable for me in that it has an excellent view of Cliff Palace from across the canyon.

Sun Temple puelo ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Sun Temple pueblo site, Mesa Verde.

But first I felt the desire to give Sun Temple some more attention. It’s not that easy to do, photographically, because it’s the ground floor of a big mesa top pueblo, and there is no overlook from above for visitors. So you are left with reading the interpretive sign and…imagining all that went on there with those peoples’ lives way back then.

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Cliff Palace locale, from Sun Temple.

At the far end of the Sun Temple parking lot is the Cliff Palace View lookout point. This is where the pro photographers make the panoramic-wide postcard and poster shots you can buy in the gift stores.

Um, the only problem I have with most of the Cliff Palace pro photos is that they zoom in too much on the cliff dwelling itself. Understandably so, because it’s amazing, mesmerizing, being the largest cliff dwelling in North America. So I made sure to make some wider shots, of the environs. Especially with such beautiful skies trying to distract me upward.

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Cliff Palace on a late July afternoon, from Sun Temple.

I drove over to the Cliff Palace parking lot. Where you go when you hold a ticket for a Ranger-led tour down to the site. Which these days is the only way you’re allowed to go down there. Appropriately so; too many people want to see it to let them go wild on their own. The Park Rangers have to give you the best interpretive experience while protecting these precious sites. Such a balancing act. They manage to do it quite impressively.

Visitors at Cliff Palace overlook, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Visitors at Cliff Palace overlook, Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace is the most famous site in the park, so it’s also the most crowded. But–and maybe I shouldn’t say this–still very laid-back compared to the biggest of our National Parks. Yes, and here in the middle of summer. A wonderful place to be.

Cliff Palace from above, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace and sky, July afternoon.

But the setting is at least as important as what the ancient ones somehow came to build there. And on this July afternoon, it could not have looked any better.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde Summer Evening (part 1)

Square Tower House cliff dwelling Ancestral Puebloan site, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Square Tower House cliff dwelling site.

A late July afternoon and I got off work at Mesa Verde fairly early: 4:15 pm. Dramatic monsoon thunderstorm clouds had been brewing all afternoon. Time to go home, way down in the valley below.

But not directly home. No rush. Not with this kind of light. I chose to make my way back down off of Mesa Verde gradually.

Square Tower House cliff dwelling Ancestral Puebloan site, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Closeup panorama of Square Tower House. The “tower” is the tallest Ancestral Puebloan structure at Mesa Verde.

First I drove the Mesa Top Loop. Stopping at the Square Tower House overlook, I photographed the cliff dwelling (it’s my favorite, somehow) as the summertime late afternoon shadows were beginning to creep across the back of the site. The back of the alcove being in shade made for an excellent backdrop.

Navajo Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Navajo Canyon on a monsoon season afternoon, Mesa Verde.

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The bottom of Navajo Canyon, with a fallen boulder as big as a bus.

I then walked the short distance to the Navajo Canyon overlook, which is the canyon Square Tower House is perched above. I became interested in the cliffs as usual. But this time I noticed the tan color in the bottom of the canyon. It looked like mud was down there in the stream course (when it runs), but it was grass, done with its short life and gone to seed and dead and dry. It sure did make the canyon bottom’s winding way stand out.

Navajo Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Navajo Canyon cliffs, from the rim.

My evening sojourn across the “green table” was just beginning.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, southwest Colorado.

See more of my photography at www.NaturalMoment.com.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

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

Moonrise and Sleeping Ute Mountain from Cedar Mesa, Utah.

April Moonrise, Cedar Mesa

Evening view of Valley Of The Gods from Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, Utah.

Campsite with a view, edge of Cedar Mesa.

April 21, the day before Full Moon, and I was — as usual — plotting where to photograph the rising moon over the desert landscape. It had to be somewhere reasonably close to home, say 30 miles, or I wouldn’t be able to get there in time after work.

Sunset shadows from Cedar Mesa, southeast Utah.

Shadows creep up the side canyon wall.

So I chose the southeast rim of Cedar Mesa. Although I greatly prefer situating myself so that the moon rises over some prominent landscape feature such as mountain peaks, this was not going to be one of those times. So instead I chose a yawning expanse of southeast Utah canyon country, overlooking the Valley Of The Gods and the lower San Juan River valley, with Colorado’s Sleeping Ute Mountain in the far distance.

I had heard from a local about a couple of dirt roads leading to the rim in that area — facing east — that I had not explored. Now was the time.

On my second try I drove out a road that soon came to the rim, the edge of the 1,000 foot drop the southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa provides above the Valley Of The Gods. No one was there: perfect. Cape Solitude.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone boulders, Cedar Mesa, southeast Utah.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone boulders just below the rim of the mesa.

To my left was a south facing cliff wall, the north side of a short side canyon. I was interested in the house sized chunks of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that had fallen onto the next shelf of rock just below the mesa top. Being south facing, I wondered if there were any Ancestral Puebloan ruins among them, or rock panels with inscriptions such as petroglyphs and maybe pictographs as well.

Red Buttes at sunset, Valley of the Gods, San Juan County, Utah.

Red Buttes below in Valley Of The Gods.

The lowering sun warmed the red buttes of the Gods far below. As I sat in my chair, camera on tripod in front of me, watching the golden hour show, waiting for the moon to show (which is also the name of a favorite Bruce Cockburn song).

Ancestral Puebloan ("Anasazi") cliff dwelling ruin, Cedar Mesa, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling ruin. How did I ever miss it?

Then I glanced at the opposing cliff face again, now that the sunlight was off it. There it was, an ancient cliff dwelling ruin in an alcove about halfway down the cliff. Plain as day.

Ancestral Puebloan ("Anasazi") cliff dwelling ruin, Cedar Mesa, Utah.

Closeup of the cliff dwelling ruin.

On with the sunset show. The redlands below were glowing warmer and warmer.

Valley Of The Gods, southeast Utah, at sunset.

Valley Of The Gods sunset show.

The eastern skyline was fairly hazy, so that when the moon did creep into view just before sunset it had a slightly pink cast.

Moonrise over southeast Utah.

The moon begins to show above the eastern skyline haze.

Sleeping Ute Mountain had fallen into a deep shade of blue. The redlands were now burnt red in twilight, no longer glowing.

Moonrise, southeast Utah, April 21, 2016.

Pink moon coming up from the haze.

With the sun down, the rising moon turned from pink to yellow, a product of the haze. And finally to white after it was above the haze.

Moonrise over San Juan River Valley and Sleeping Ute Mountain.

Moonrise over Valley of the Gods and San Juan River Valley. Sleeping Ute Mountain at horizon left.

I made a variety of wide shots, closeups, and overlapping images for panoramas.

Nearly Full Moon rising, from Cedar Mesa, southeat Utah.

Nearly Full Moon rising, April 21, 2016.

Finally it was dusk. Time to retire to the vehicle for the night.

Moonrise and Sleeping Ute Mountain from Cedar Mesa, Utah.

Moonrise and Sleeping Ute Mountain, from Cedar Mesa.

My “Cape Solitude” was also Cape Serenity. An exceptional spring evening on Cedar Mesa.

Moonrise from Cedar Mesa, Utah, April 21, 2016.

Moonrise at dusk, Cedar Mesa.

Photo location: Cedar Mesa, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Mesa Verde National Park in February

Mesa Verde National Park has the largest ancient cliff dwelling ruins in the Southwest, most notably Cliff Palace, though there are many other impressive ones as well.

Cortez, Colorado and snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The park is located in southwest Colorado, about ten miles east of  Cortez, or about 35 miles west of Durango, the two largest towns in the area.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk in winter.

Cortez, Colorado at dusk.

Cortez makes for a nice “base camp” if you’re staying in a motel while you explore the area. In fact, the cliffs that form the North Rim of Mesa Verde also provide a dramatic backdrop to the town. If you’re camping in winter, you’re limited to what few commercial campgrounds are open.

Although the splendid Visitor Center and Research Center is just off of Highway 160, to get all the way to the south end of the park on Chapin Mesa, where the park headquarters, the museum, and the main cliff dwelling ruins are located, is 21 miles, a drive of 45 minutes.  Thus even a quick look at the highlights of the park takes at least a couple hours. And that’s just from the side of the road. In winter, the Wetherill Mesa road is closed, as is the Far View Lodge, and the campground. Also, there are no ranger-led hikes to the main cliff dwellings.

Mancos Valley and La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

The Mancos Valley and the La Plata Mountains, from Mesa Verde.

After passing the entrance station, some sharp switchbacks take you up onto Mesa Verde’s north end. The first pull-out is the Mancos Valley Overlook. Here you can view not only the valley, with Highway 160 following it east toward Durango, but the high peaks of the distant La Plata mountain range to the northeast.

North Rim of Mesa Verde.

Cortez, Colorado along the east end of Main Street, with the snowy cliffs of Mesa Verde.

The next stop is to look the other direction: northwest, at the Montezuma Valley Overlook. Montezuma Valley is where Cortez is located, and being on the North Rim of Mesa Verde you can also look all the way to the Abajo Mountains across the state line at Monticello, Utah.

City of Cortez, Colorado, and Abajo Mountains in Utah.

Telephoto shot of the Abajo Mountains in Utah, looking across Cortez and the Montezuma Valley in Colorado.

“Mesa Verde” means “green table” in Spanish. But it’s not like a typical mesa, which is typically quite flat. Mesa Verde is more like a table with two of the legs cut short, making it tilt to the south, toward the sunlight. That makes for more frost free days than you would otherwise experience if you were living up there at 8,000-8,500 feet in elevation. Meaning the Ancestral Puebloan people that grew their crops in the fertile soil got enough precipitation (usually) from being up that high, but warm enough for corn to mature before the first frosts of autumn.

Mesa Verde canyons and ridges, in winter.

Some of the canyons and ridges that form the interior of Mesa Verde.

So overall Mesa Verde, the landform, is more like several smaller mesas along with a lot of parallel canyons that drain from north to south.

Winter is a great time to take in the many variations in this complex of mesas and canyons. When there is snow on the ground, as soon as the latest storm has passed and the sun comes out again, the hillsides that are facing south start melting off almost right away. The slopes that are facing north, however, hold their snow much later, because in winter the sun is at too low of an angle to touch them. And the ground is too cold to melt snow that’s in the shade. Until spring comes.

Different aspects of a slope show where the winter sun shines, or not.

Even slight changes in direction affect whether the winter sun can warm a slope, or not.

Finally, to the south end of the park where the famous cliff dwellings are located. The trail down to Spruce Tree House, near the Archeological Museum, was closed due to a recent rockfall. So it was on to the Mesa Top Loop drive.

Oak Tree House cliff dwelling ruin, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The ruins of Oak Tree House in its sheltering alcove in the canyon wall.

The Cliff Palace Loop is closed in winter, but you can get views of Cliff Palace from across Cliff Canyon on the Mesa Top Loop. From there, overlooks let you get scenic shots of the best ruins.

Fire House Ruin panorama, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

The two-level alcoves of Fire House Ruin. Where was the elevator?

The cliff dwelling era was when the Ancestral Puebloans built their adobe, often multi story dwellings and other structures. There are 600 cliff dwellings in the park. Cliff dwellings were built in alcoves: natural recesses in the sandstone cliffs. Alcoves that face south were preferred. Why? Because in winter they get the most sunlight, while in summer, when the sun is at a much higher angle, the alcoves are in the shade of the overhanging cliff in the heat of the day. They also built pueblos and pit houses on the mesa tops. In fact, there are many more of those than their are cliff dwellings. But the overhanging alcoves provide a lot of protection from the weather to the cliff dwellings, so they are much better preserved over the approximately 750 years since the last of the ancient ones migrated on from here.

Cliff Palace cliff dwelling ruins, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cliff Palace, from Camera Point at Sun View.

Photo location: Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

Frozen Treasures In White Canyon

White Canyon in snow, from upper Sipapu Bridge trail.

White Canyon in snow, from upper Sipapu Bridge trail.

At Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah’s canyon country, winter is the time of extremely low visitation. You can all but have the park to yourself. And that’s even if you limit your experience to the loop drive road and walking out to the overlooks for the three bridges rather than hiking down into the canyons.

Traction devices for the boots are a must in canyon country in the winter.

Traction devices for the boots are a must in canyon country in the winter.

For a much more awesome experience, you have to hike the really cool trails down into the canyons. The trouble is that, after a big snowfall, it can be hard to discern where the trails go. And since they often descend quickly down the canyon wall, one wants to make sure they aren’t going to make a misstep.

Snow covered switchback in Sipapu Bridge trail below the Ledge.

Snow covered switchback in Sipapu Bridge trail below the Ledge. You don’t want a mis-step here.

In such instances it takes someone familiar with the trails to go first. Lead the way.

Recently I did another hike down into White Canyon in the park via the Sipapu Bridge trail. A few tentative visitors had tried to walk down from the trailhead, but had quickly turned around when it became clear to them that they didn’t know where they should go. So I made some tracks to show them.

The second of three wooden ladders on the Sipapu Bridge trail.

The second of three wooden ladders on the Sipapu Bridge trail.

Down the sandstone slickrock section, then down the metals stairs and along the upper ledge. Then down the wooden ladder to the main ledge to the halfway overlook down above Sipapu Bridge from Vulture Point.

Below The Ledge, traction devices are essential when there is snow and ice on the trail. I was certainly glad for mine. To be comfortable in the winter weather and trail conditions is such freedom. Such a joy.

Snow covered sandstone slickrock can be scary when it's at a steep angle.

Snow covered sandstone slickrock can be scary when it’s at a steep angle.

However, the last pitch of snow covered slickrock on the trail gave me great pause. I was used to it in the warm season, bare gray sandstone with great traction. Now with it covered by several inches of snow, I wasn’t sure. Would my boot’s traction devices hold…or not? I was alone and especially didn’t want a fall. I was only a short way above the canyon bottom and more easy hiking for the rest of the way. I hated the thought of turning back now.

I tested the way forward, slowly, one step at a time. The first step held. Then the second one. I was going to make it. Then both feet slipped, but only about a foot downslope. I was going to make it.

The stream in White Canyon below Sipapu Bridge.

The stream in White Canyon below Sipapu Bridge.

Then I was down the last little ladder, onto the canyon bottom that I knew so well.

I stepped over the cottonwood log at the trail junction. The one where a visitor last summer told me she’d been lying upon while her family played nearby, only to look at a rattlesnake gliding by just a few feet from her face. She had the picture to prove it. (There hasn’t been a case of snakebite in the park in at least a decade, and there wasn’t that day, either).

Frozen stream, White Canyon.

Frozen stream, White Canyon.

Down the canyon, down along the frozen stream. Mostly frozen, that is. The stream gurgled around the rocks in the riffles, and flowed silent beneath the big frozen pools in between. Ice crystals radiating out from stones. Snowy rocks looking like some kind of coconut topped marshmallow cookies.

Large ice crystals around stream bottom stone, White Canyon.

Large ice crystals around stream bottom stone, White Canyon.

Coyote tracks, deer tracks in the snow. No people tracks except when I looked behind me.

Snow covered rocks and ice, White Canyon.

Snow covered rocks and ice, White Canyon.

Sometimes I followed the trail — unmaintained here on the canyon floor because it would be an incredible expense to make it flash flood proof — and sometimes I just walked down the frozen stream itself.

Frozen White Canyon can be easier walking than the trail at times.

Frozen White Canyon can be easier walking than the trail at times.

Walking onto one such frozen pool, I noted how slippery the bare ice was. Good thing I had my traction devices on…and just like that my left foot shot out to the side like it had been yanked by a rope. I recovered without falling, thinking: what the…? Had my traction thingys gotten clogged up with snow and sand again? Nope. There was no longer the device on my left boot. It had somehow gotten off, and I didn’t know how far back. No real choice but to trudge back and look for where it had happened.

Ice crystals along the flowing water, White Canyon.

Ice crystals along the flowing water, White Canyon.

Fortunately it didn’t take that long before I found it, that black rubber oval with silver metal spikes, pulled off by a root underneath the snow.

Back to the hike. I passed by handprints of the ancient ones on a cliff wall. I passed beneath the ledge holding Horsecollar Ruin itself. I once again found petroglyphs (images pecked into the stone) along the canyon wall.

Room blocks of Horsecollar Ruin, from the trail below.

Room blocks of Horsecollar Ruin, from the trail below.

Then I came to Kachina Bridge, the youngest of the three and so also the most massive in terms of rock bulk.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

After once again admiring the ancient artwork pecked into the buttresses of Kachina Bridge, I started the hike up out of the canyon to the truck.

Stone axe sharpening grooves and petroglyphs on buttress of Kachina Bridge.

Stone axe sharpening grooves and petroglyphs on buttress of Kachina Bridge.

A wonderful winter hike. May it always be so.

Snow covered stone steps on the Kachina Bridge trail.

Snow covered stone steps on the Kachina Bridge trail.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Winter Walk to Horsecollar Ruins Overlook at Natural Bridges

White Canyon and Red House Cliffs, from Horse Collar Ruin Overlook.

White Canyon and Red House Cliffs, from Horse Collar Ruin Overlook. (Click on image for larger version).

I took another walk out to the Horsecollar Ruins Overlook at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah.

Handrails along trail to Horsecollar Ruin Overlook.

Handrails along trail to Horsecollar Ruin Overlook.

Some of the recent snow had melted, but not much. In fact on this hike I was the first one out to the overlook. Amazingly. It’s an easy walk despite the snow, especially with the handrails on the steeper pitches of sandstone slickrock near the end of the trail. The views are fantastic. Not just down into White Canyon and Deer Canyon, but of the surrounding cliffs, such as those below Deer Flat (an extension of Elk Ridge even higher above) and the Red House Cliffs and Moss Back Butte. If you like easy solitude, with great photography and no crowds, Natural Bridges is your place.

Horse Collar Ruin site, from the overlook.

Horse Collar Ruin site, from the overlook.

At the overlook itself, you are gazing down into White Canyon, the main canyon through the park, and in which two of its three natural bridges are located.

The Horsecollar Ruin cliff dwelling site is situated on a ledge on the other side of the canyon wall, just above the stream bottom. On this winter morning the sunlight hadn’t yet gotten down the canyon wall far enough to warm it. But it would soon. And remain on it for most of the rest of this short winter day. That’s one big reason the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) chose to build in these south-facing cliff alcoves: maximum solar warmth in the winter when the sun’s angle is low, and then maximum shade in the summer months when the sun’s much higher angle was cut off by the overhanging alcove during the hottest portion of the day.

Horsecollar Ruin closeup, from the overlook on the rim of White Canyon.

Horsecollar Ruin closeup, from the overlook on the rim of White Canyon.

It’s interesting to stand at this precipice in winter and imagining living here. Down there, I mean. Archaeologists aren’t even sure if the site was occupied year around, or if the ancient ones migrated seasonally down to lower elevations in winter. Wood would have been plentiful above the site on the mesa top. But that was far above the site, vertically, and they only had stone headed axes with which to cut wood.

To see what Horsecollar Ruin looks like up close and personal in wintertime, see my post “Beauty Between the Snows“.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Beauty Between the Snows

Trail down White Canyon, between Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge.

Trail down White Canyon, between Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge.

December. Usually one of my favorite months, because the fourth season — winter — is here, and I like the change of seasons. I enjoy the beauty of snow, how it adorns the landscape and shows off shapes.

Residue from past flash floods, White Canyon.

Residue from past flash floods wrapped around a cottonwood tree, White Canyon. Twigs, branches, roots, you name it.

This year, though, I’ve felt somewhat of a letdown. Because after a green spring and summer, and a colorful autumn, it suddenly looked so drab to have all the leaves down. It has snowed several times already, but lightly and the beautiful ground cover didn’t last long.

I knew what I had to do. I had to get back out there with my camera and see what I could find that was beautiful among the drab. Nature never lets you down.

Coyote Willow's last leaves, White Canyon.

A Coyote willow’s last leaves, White Canyon.

So at Natural Bridges I once again hiked down into White Canyon. To Sipapu Bridge and then downstream on the un-maintained trail that follows and repeatedly crosses the stream course.  As always it felt good to have the body moving, tasting the fresh outdoors. It’s not a maintained trail because to build one that would survive the frequent flash floods would be a massive, expensive undertaking, and greatly scar the canyons. Easier and better to let hikers follow the stream course wherever it’s easiest to walk.

I paused to photograph a willow bush along the stream bank, its last leaves hanging on but not for long. “Until the last leaf falls” I keep appreciating them.

Condensation drops underneath ice.

Condensation drops underneath ice.

My attention gets snagged by some bright little circular lights in the ice in a frozen pool. What is that?

Ice condensation beads and Cottonwood leaves.

Ice condensation beads and Cottonwood leaves.

As I walk closer I can fathom how the dry spell since the last snowfall has had the water level dropping in the stream, while the ice cover remained, the air temps being too cold for it to melt. Then maybe it warmed up a bit to cause evaporation underneath the ice, with the moisture condensing onto the underside of the ice. How cool. A prime example of the seemingly little treasures I’d hoped to experience on this hike.

Frozen cottonwood leaf, White Canyon.

Frozen cottonwood leaf, White Canyon.

And I am interested in how the prickly pear cacti are doing in this weather. Obviously shriveled up, their tough skin keeping the remaining moisture within bounds. Their green adds a splash of color to the brown streamside bottom.

Prickly pear cactus, White Canyon.

Prickly pear cactus, White Canyon.

I come to the mouth of Deer Canyon, a side canyon to White Canyon.

The mouth of Deer Canyon, at White Canyon.

The mouth of Deer Canyon, at White Canyon.

I decide to walk up Deer. It is very nice going: no brush to push through, just bare slickrock sandstone and some very sandy-gravelly soil, but too unhospitable for plants to take root due to frequent flash floods.

Water drainage patterns left behind in sand, Deer Canyon.

Water drainage patterns left behind in sand, Deer Canyon.

More frozen pools of water with autumn’s last leaves frozen in them. I find an ancient encampment with a few petroglyphs pecked into the rock face. Which I keep to myself.

Snow traces, Deer Canyon.

Snow traces, Deer Canyon.

Continuing up Deer Canyon, it is super easy walking. No brush; the canyon floor is almost all slickrock sandstone.

The nick point about a mile and a half up Deer Canyon.

The nick point about a mile and a half up Deer Canyon.

I finally come to a nick point, a geologic pinch-off point beyond which I can go no further. Unless I want to swim through icy water; it’s that deep. It’s my signal to turn around and enjoy the walk back down to White Canyon, noticing more details in the canyon walls along the way.

Narrow leaf yucca, Deer Canyon.

Narrow leaf yucca, Deer Canyon.

Then it’s back out the mouth of Deer Canyon, back into White Canyon. Heading west or downstream once more.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, from below in White Canyon.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, from below in White Canyon. The only part of the site visible from below.

And soon to the object of my desire: Horsecollar Ruin. The fascinating remains of an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cliff dwelling on a ledge above the stream bottom.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, room blocks.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, room blocks.

I scramble up the steep slickrock sandstone slope to the base of the cliff, then walk along it onto the ledge where the small cliff dwelling remains are.

Horsecollar Ruin granary ruins, with their horse collar shaped doors.

Horsecollar Ruin granary ruins, with their horse collar shaped doors.

From below, the only visible part of the site are a few room blocks at the north end of the site. While hiking below on the Loop Trail, if you miss seeing that structure you miss the entire thing. At the Visitor Center they can give you detailed instructions on how to not miss it.

I walk through the site once more, trying to notice details I’d missed the other times I’d been there.

Structures at Horsecollar Ruin south end.

Structures at Horsecollar Ruin’s south end.

The site features two differently styled kivas, which are semi-subterranean ceremonial chambers. There is a square kiva with most of the original roof intact, which is the style of the Kayenta branch of the Ancient Ones in what is today’s northern Arizona.

The square kiva at Horsecollar Ruin.

The square kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. A ladder in the center opening was used to enter the chamber.

The other kiva on the site is round, said to be of influence by the Mesa Verde people in what is now southwest Colorado.

The round kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. Note small ground level passageway for air to enter when a fire is burning.

The round kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. Note small ground level passageway for air to enter when a fire was burning.

Finally it was time to descend from the ledge, back down to the trail down the canyon. To Kachina Bridge, the youngest of the three in the park, and so the most massive in terms of its bulk. Lots more Cedar Mesa sandstone to be eroded away compared to Sipapu Bridge and Owachomo Bridge.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

At Kachina Bridge, the North Loop Trail (about 5.5 miles total) leaves White Canyon’s bottom. Up, up for 400 feet of elevation gain in just 0.7 mile. Crossing the Loop Drive road at the Kachina parking lot, it was just two miles across the mesa top to where I’d started.

Manzanita shrub in the afternoon sun.

Manzanita shrub in the afternoon sun, its leaves turned to catch the maximum amount of sunlight.

A very satisfying early winter hike when there wasn’t much color. I certainly did enjoy seeing details I might not have ordinarily noticed.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone on Mesa Top Trail, Natural Bridges.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone on Mesa Top Trail, Natural Bridges.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg