By MacKenzie Ryan
You scour the Southwest for less-talked-about ideas—Edward Abbey would have lost his mind if he knew how many people ran around the desert and wrote about it.
Cedar Mesa was like the Nebraska of the Anasazi to Mesa Verde’s Chicago. Nobody writes about Nebraska. Perfect. Cliff dwellings, canyons so stocked with cottonwoods it’s like a jungle. Far from the minivans at Arches. So remote, Road Runner could trick Wiley Coyote into running off a cliff there.
The editor agrees: “Make it a two-day trip. Get the GPS data, photos of the ruins, and a thorough route description.”
Along highways 191 and 163, civilization forms a J around Cedar Mesa, a two-thousand-foot plateau with canyons accessing Grand Gulch. Blanding (population 3, 375) to the northeast, Bluff (population 258) to the southeast and Mexican Hat (population 31) to the south form are outposts.
In Bluff, you have an appointment with a guide for beta. At 5pm on a Wednesday, your waterproof topographical map of the Grand Gulch unwraps across his table.
Scratching his Gene Wilder hair, he remarks, “That loop sounds like a nice route if you had at least three days. It can be slow-going.”
The map says taking Toadie Canyon, a barely traveled tributary, into Grand Gulch and up through Kane Gulch makes an angular C-shape, like Pac Man’s mouth with an overbite. He agrees that is a doable two days. You can lock your hardtail to a post at the ranger station near the Kane Gulch trailhead and close the loop.
The next morning you leave Bluff.
One of the few consistent fresh water sources in Wiley Coyote Land, the San slithers back onto itself nearly to the point of swallowing its own tail at Goosenecks, south of highway 163, before mating with the Colorado and Escalante to make Lake Powell farther west.
You turn north on 261.
Red desert forever, sun uninterrupted save for the cold shadows cast by spires, rock fins, buttes, dancing across the flatland south of Cedar Mesa called Valley of the Gods.
The prescient word is punctuate. Monolithic towers punctuate the landscape. A phrase from guidebooks, no doubt.
Punctuations are strange marks applied to indicate a certain tone. The pinnacles, towers, and buttes here must be symbols that haven’t been invented yet or, more disturbing, have been forgotten.
Setting Hen Butte. The Seven Sailors. Castle Butte. Lady in a Tub. Rooster Butte. Battleship Rock. The English names don’t really do them justice either.
The Navajo believe its pinnacles contain the spirit of warriors, frozen in stone. You can pray to them for protection.
It is easy to understand how things so looming—bigger than a man-made skyscraper, starker than a mountain that builds elevation slowly from its flanks—could be so convincingly mythological.
Lonely giants fixed in pose on a firm bed of rusty sand for 250 million years. When the dinosaurs roamed, white caps tossed above the warriors’ heads; the wake of its crashing waves lapping over Cedar Mesa. The water left like an angry girlfriend in a country music song, and some time later, the Colorado Plateau rose with vengeance to thrust the silent guardians into the wind.
You climb at 5mph up gravelly hairpin turns next to near-vertical rock. The Moki Dugway.
On the mesatop, cows chew curd in a slow, clockwise rhythm. Stooped over with a craned neck, one clamps her teeth down the leaves of whatever tough, waxy, desert shrub that seems to pull back.
You drive the rolling pavement to a dirt road near the entrance of Toadie Canyon.
The Way In zigzags three hundred feet down what on a rainy day might be a waterfall. The debris-splattered canyon floor looks hit by a hurricane. Boulders the size of a Mac truck, broken trees, opaque, green puddles—it’s a beautiful mess. Orange walls, ranging from peach to downright psychedelic highlighter, are stained with black manganese and striped like a tabby cat. Some of the black is strained, as if from a brush going dry and need of a new dip of paint.
The cairns sit on top of a cracked boulders that requires lifting your body up to squeeze through a three-foot-wide gap. The pack comes off and then back on so you can get under the right side the Mac truck, over another boulder, like an obstacle course until there a pathway tracing the side of a sandpit wash.
Tall grass lines the bank of the dry streambed and you pass through it like a stalking cougar. Not thirty feet above you across the wash, a cliff dwelling is camouflaged in a west-facing bend. Maybe three rooms, it seems like a quiet country ranch.
Something you read indicated the Ancestral Puebloans farmed beans and corn here. That seems right. The opposite of the cow-dung and juniper-dotted mesatop, this is nearly tropical. Puddles, sighing cottonwoods, head-high grasses swaying in the wind, buzzing insects, butterflies.
Toadie, the overgrown garden, finally meets Grand Gulch. The afternoon backlights the canyon walls; the orange like a flame.
The camera clicks away.
The tent twenty feet above wash, finally you sleep, the overly-exhausted-straight-to-REM sleep. Who knows how long.
Your eyes open at the sound of rocks cracking. Like boulders playing bumper cars.
Standing up in the shadowy dawn, you feel like you know what it’s like to live in a bathtub, having a front row seat to see the stuff carried down the drain. The wash below brims with fast-moving water. The drowned high grass is like kelp.
It doesn’t take a flash flood for things to get inconvenient or dangerous. And there is a certain discomfort in know you did everything you were supposed to—check weather, sleep high—and things still go wrong.
Soon you are sending muddy splashes up to your thighs with each step, teetering on rocks that cross the wash, slipping, getting up hurriedly as if to save yourself from embarrassment from onlookers.
You scramble up the crying canyon entrance, hooded, fearful, bent—not sure if the pack might heave you backward from being too upright, or the tread on your boots gives out.
Two mornings later in Kane Gulch, you are photographing the granaries and dwellings built into the wall of a tawny, canyon alcove. Junction Ruin has three levels, the top to hide in when someone invades; the other two have living rooms with smoke-blackened ceilings, smoothed stones for grinding corn, and kivas.
A half-mile down, Turkey Pen Ruin is next—named for a dried-up jacal that someone thought was evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans keeping domesticated turkeys—and there the rain returns.
Hunkered down under the canyon wall, twenty feet from the ruin, you wait and zip your raincoats so the is camera tight against your sternum. Maybe it will be a short spell, like some of the others you’ve been under the past few days. Maybe forty-five minutes go by and you see that this is not going to stop, but maybe, just maybe you can make it down to the end of Toadie.
The trail weaves from island to island and the farther south you go, the more water there seems to be and the faster it seems to move. What was now knee-deep at the arch is now thigh-deep (credit lewis). The islands have steeper and steeper entrances to the streambed. You lift each leg laboriously and place it surely ahead of you.
Toadie Canyon is a football field south.
Here, the current pulls the carpet out from under you. Feet-first on your back you are floating in a muddy river, berm after berm, flailing your arms. The roots, gnarled like zombie fingers, line the riverbank. You roll, grab and reel yourself in to shore. And start the hike out again.
From Salt Lake City, take I-15 S and US-6 to UT-24 W. Take I-70 W to exit 149. Follow UT-24 W and UT-95 S. Last available water is at the Natural Bridges National Monument. Merge onto UT-261 S and follow to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station.
Permits are available at Kane Gulch Ranger Station, 8am to noon, or by calling the Cedar Mesa Permit Office at (435) 587-1510. Reserve in advance, three months to two days ahead of start of overnight trip.
Desert Rose Inn & Cabins
701 Main Street, Bluff, UT
 According to the Population Finder at Census.gov. Statistics are from 2010 Census data.