Well after nightfall on a recent Friday, I steered my sedan through a barren patch of desert in southeastern Utah. Outside the windows, juniper, pinon and sage jerked in the wind. No headlights lit the road except for my tenuous beams, a feeble match for the sea of darkness.
I’d just inched up a mess of nerve-fraying switchbacks on Highway 261, where I’d peered past an unguarded edge into a vertiginous gulf of night below. Now the frozen mud ruts of a county road scraped the bottom of my car, and quite honestly, I didn’t know precisely where I was. At that moment, I questioned the wisdom of my weekend mission: camping and finding ruins on Utah’s Cedar Mesa. It was 11 p.m., about 20 degrees and very windy — hardly ideal weather for camping.
“Do you want to just pull over soon and set up our tents?” asked Amanda, one of my two travel companions. I veered left onto a small, flat spot and she bounded out of the car, disappearing into the darkness. A few moments later, she returned, arms beckoning.
“It’s perfect!” she called.
It was. Despite the howling cold, the sky was clear and stars spilled across it, competing in grandeur only with the rising moon, the shape of a peach stone. Amanda, Ryan and I set up our tents in the flat sand, and before drifting off, I watched the moon cast juniper shadows on the surface of the tent, turning the dome into a glowing web of branches.
At least twice a year, I return to this 70-mile-long plateau. In a forgotten corner of Utah between the towns of Blanding and Bluff, Cedar Mesa is a riddle of canyons, moss-draped oases and sandstone spires. Despite the area’s desolate beauty, travelers routinely overlook it in favor of better-known national park sites such as Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde and Chaco. They’re missing out.
Cedar Mesa, which is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, harbors an array of colorful geological formations and hundreds of ruins from ancestral Puebloans, also commonly called the Anasazi, or “ancient enemy” in Navajo. Many sites have never been excavated, named or mapped, and few modern eyes have seen them. Although ruins in national parks can be larger and more elaborate, Cedar Mesa offers a rare slice of solitude and the thrill of discovery.
Discovering these ruins, however, requires an investment of time and patience, because they’re all tucked in canyons reachable only on foot. Unlike the National Park Service, the BLM provides few signs, only rough roads and no paved trails. But Cedar Mesa’s wildness is what preserves it. It’s also a large part of its appeal, and the reason it perennially lures me from my Colorado home, a half-day’s drive away.
FOLLOW YOUR SENSES
The next morning, I woke to wind against my tent and the slanted light of the desert, a tepid bath in the 23-degree air. We drank tea in our hats and down coats before poking around the juniper forest to figure out where we were. Nearby, we found a stake marking a trail, which we surmised was the fourth fork of Slickhorn Canyon.
We set off along the path of aging footprints armed with a ragged, dated guidebook, even though we knew that Cedar Mesa defies guides and maps. It’s a place you must discover with your senses, not with your nose in some dusty pages.