Sunday, May 31, 2020

House on Fire

House on Fire granary
2 miles round trip, 100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no parking fee

Carved into Cedar Mesa, an archaeological wonderland in Utah's Bears Ears National Monument, Mule Canyon holds a number of Ancestral Puebloan ruins including the House on Fire granary. Cedar Mesa was once a thriving community of Ancestral Puebloans, who built residences and storage space along the walls of the many canyons carved into the mesa. While the scale of individual ruins here are dwarfed by the cities built at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, the ruins of Cedar Mesa are a window into the everyday life of Ancestral Puebloans. This hike visits the House on Fire granary, a small set of storage structures in Mule Canyon. While the structures are small and not particularly impressive, their picturesque setting at the base of an overhanging cliff makes this a pleasant and easy hike to experience a slice of why Cedar Mesa is worth preserving. This area is not particularly developed for tourism, so signage is poor; it's important to know where you're going before heading out.

I hiked to House on Fire during a November road trip to the Utah Canyonlands with my mother. House on Fire is a bit removed from the standard tourist routes around Moab, making it a much quieter alternative than hiking near Arches or Canyonlands. From Moab, it's a bit of drive south along US Route 191 through Monticello to Blanding; after passing through the town of Blanding, we turned right onto Utah Route 95, which took us west through Butler Wash and across Comb Ridge to Cedar Mesa. After climbing onto Cedar Mesa, the road crosses Mule Canyon by a bridge; soon after this bridge and just past Milepost 101, an unmarked gravel road heads off to the right. We took this gravel road, following it briefly as it descended into Mule Canyon. The road crosses Mule Canyon on a raised ridge; this is the trailhead. We parked along the side of the road here and then descended down a path on the north side of the road that dropped us down to the floor of Mule Canyon.

The canyon was initially quite wide, its grassy floor surrounded on both sides by low sandstone walls. The grade was flat over the entire course of the hike except for brief uphills to reach the granary itself at the end and to return to the road. Juniper and pine dotted the canyon.

Mule Canyon
As we hiked through the canyon, the walls of the canyon narrowed, bringing the trail into the wash. The hike was extremely quiet: we saw no one else, our only companions being deer browsing in the canyon.

Deer in Mule Canyon
The trail was straightforward, simply following the twists and turns of the bottom of the canyon. A mile from the trailhead, the canyon made a sharp bend to the north at the foot of impressive sandstone cliffs on the north side of the trail. Looking up, we spotted the House on Fire granary at the base of the cliff.

House on Fire granary

The trail turned here and made its way up the slickrock to the granaries themselves. With just five grain storage compartments, this site is far from the scale of the most impressive cities and cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. The granaries do not even have roofs as they're built into the space beneath a rocky overhang. The sandstone patterns leading away from the entrances of these granaries, however, glow orange in afternoon lighting, appearing almost as streaks of fire emerging from the structures: hence the name.

This is an important archaeological site that can only be visited today because generations before us have not destroyed it; do not deface or alter or remove anything from this site.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries
Ancestral Puebloans built a civilization in the Four Corners region about a thousand years ago. Their key architectural achievements are at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon and Colorado's Mesa Verde, where their impressive masonry skills helped raise cities in the desert and on the sides of the cliffs. This culture was influential on Cedar Mesa: the masonry techniques used at the larger archaeological sites were also used here, although Cedar Mesa's sites mostly consist of smaller communities. There is a great density of former Puebloan communities on Cedar Mesa, many of which consisted of living quarters, kivas in which the Puebloan people held ceremonies, granaries for storing food, and middens that served as the rubbish heaps near these communities. At House on Fire, it's only possible to see granaries, but there are many more ruins both further down Mule Canyon and above the canyon rim on Cedar Mesa.

Cedar Mesa- along with the two hearts of the Ancestral Puebloan civilization at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon- were abandoned by their inhabitants around 800 years ago. The descendants of this civilization- the Pueblo natives of today- mainly live along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, with the Hopi and the Zuni being two of the last outposts of these people in the deserts of the Colorado Plateau. Changing climate or invaders might have been among the reason they left their Cedar Mesa homes; today, the landscape of southeast Utah is significant to the Ute, Navajo, and the Pueblos of the Hopi and the Zuni. Together, these tribes pushed the federal government to protect Cedar Mesa and the lands near the Bears Ears Buttes just west of Blanding. In 2016, President Barack Obama designated over a million acres of this landscape as Bears Ears National Monument, giving firmer federal protections to the House on Fire and thousands of other Ancestral Puebloan ruins on Cedar Mesa. After taking office, President Donald Trump's administration moved to shrink this national monument, ultimately reducing the preserved area down to about 200,000 acres. The new borders of this national monument still include House on Fire but now exclude many of the other canyons on Cedar Mesa that hold the region's archaeological treasure trove.

After retracing our steps to the trailhead, we drove just a little further west on Utah Highway 95 to the Mule Canyon ruins roadside exhibit. This Ancestral Puebloan settlement is on Cedar Mesa, just above where the House on Fire sits down below in Mule Canyon. The site consisted of a small set of apartments linked to a restored kiva; from here, there were views to the Abajo Mountains by Monticello.

Mule Canyon Ruin
On our way back to Blanding, we watched the sun set over the impressive sandstone wall of Comb Ridge, an impressive line of sandstone cliffs running just east of Cedar Mesa. Luckily, this natural feature is still protected by a national monument designation.

Comb Ridge
Comb Ridge
This is a short and easy hike to a nice Ancestral Puebloan site with no crowds. The signage is poor for reaching this trailhead, but anyone who does their homework can explore this corner of Cedar Mesa to check out this picturesque ruin. If you've been curious over the political fight over Bears Ears' future, here's a good place to start to learn about and explore this remarkable landscape.

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