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There's a House on Fire in Mule Canyon | R&R 4

When visiting rock art and ruin sites, be respectful.

This is most easily done by following the Leave No Trace principles; leaving the place exactly as you found it and taking with you only photographs and memories. In case that is not clear enough for some reason, here are examples of respectful behaviors:

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Just as I was nodding off after a peaceful day of hiking Road Canyon, I realized that it was Friday night - a fact that was interesting only in that it meant that the following day was Saturday. Now, bear with me because I'm going to spend entirely too much time making this point. You see, Saturday itself wasn't all that interesting, rather, it was the fact that it was a weekend. And even the fact that it was a weekend wasn't very interesting, except for the fact that I'd planned to hike the South Fork of Mule Canyon - in search of the plentiful ruins there, including the popular "House on Fire." Of course, like the weekend, the notability of the South Fork of Mule Canyon wouldn't normally keep me up at night, except for the fact that the trailhead is less than half a mile from the highway. And therein lies the rub: I'd planned a popular trailhead, near the highway, on a weekend.


It was a situation I could have easily avoided by rearranging my itinerary in any number of ways. None of my other trails were nearly as accessible or popular, and any of them - with the exception of The Citadel - could have been executed on a Saturday morning with little risk of seeing another human.

There was only one solution that I could see, and that was to set my alarm so early that I could complete the entire 11-mile hike by noon, in the hopes that I'd only run into throngs of people as I was returning.

Of course, I'd planned for the hike to take most of the day, so I wasn't sure what I'd do after lunch, but I could deal with that when the time came, and if I was somehow able to pull it off.

It was a bit dark out when my alarm went off.

Less than fully rested - and not all that happy to be climbing out of the tent at 4:30am - I set about my usual morning chores of eating donettes (more enjoyable) and putting away the tent (less enjoyable). With sunrise at 6:00am, and what I estimated to be one hour between my camp site and the trailhead, I pulled out at 5:02am, making my way east on Poison Springs Road towards the pavement of UT-261 and ultimately UT-95.

As I raced east, I was chased by the morning sun.

Halfway to the trailhead, I had to stop to capture the Belt of Venus over (I think) Moss Back Butte and Tables of the Sun to my west.

Note: Visiting Mule Canyon (and Cedar Mesa in general) requires a pass, even for day use/hiking. For more information, check out BLM Utah Cedar Mesa Permits and Passes Information.

Naturally I'd forgotten to take into account the making of my lunch prior to embarking on my impossible conquest of the South Fork of Mule Canyon, so it wasn't 6:15am that I actually got onto the trail. Still, I was the only one parked at the trailhead, so that was a plus.

Almost immediately I was greeted by water in the usually dry wash. Luckily the trail itself was generally dry.

As I mentioned, there are a series of ruins and rock art along the 11-mile route, and the first of these is the House on Fire about a mile into the trek. This one is best visited - at least this time of year - around noon, in order to capture the reflected light that sets the ceiling ablaze, which is part of why I hoped to be back here in just a few hours. Still, if I've learned one thing over the years, it is that it's always better to take photos when you can; you never really know what the conditions will be like later or even if some other opportunity will change your plans/route altogether!

And so, I stopped for a few minutes to capture the House (not) on Fire.

Still pretty impressive.

It was nearly another mile from the House on Fire to the second ruin. Nestled into a long, shallow, curving alcove, it was a small structure with two walls, a window, and a striking, water-stained sandstone cliff towering overhead.

It took a bit of scrambling reach the ruins, but once I did, they were quite enjoyable.

Like the alcove at House on Fire, the sandstone was flaking from water intrusion and salt deposits.

By now, the sun had risen off the horizon and given my generally westerly direction, was illuminating the canyon in front of me - without blinding me in the process - a brilliant orange. I continued as quickly as I could, knowing that every minute counted in my race against time.

Water cascaded down the canyon walls, giving a small glimpse into the creation of the water stains that decorate the usually-dry surfaces.

Before long I arrived at the third major set of ruins. One of the larger sites, I scrambled up the steep slickrock to the bench just below the ruins before reaching an unassailable overhang that prevented entry to the actual site.

Occupying two adjacent alcoves, I can only imagine what treasures lay out of sight and out of reach of those of us who don't pack 40-foot ladders in our day packs.

The most interesting detail was a set of wooden stairs set into the outer wall of one of the alcoves.

Below the ruin, I spotted this pottery shard - which I left as it lay - partially buried in the rubble.

As I spotted the next ruin, even moving as quickly as I was, it was already nearing 8:00am. This was both good and bad news - good in that I was a little more than halfway through the 5.5-mile "out" portion of the trail, bad in that it meant that the masses were likely waking up and wondering what they'd eat for breakfast before heading my direction.

I see you up there, and you look interesting!

Just past more distinctive vertical black streaks down the sandstone walls, I once again scaled a steep section of slickrock slope to the shelf just below the ruins. Unlike the third ruins, a small pine offered a single point of access up the final cliff face, allowing access to the collapsing kiva and its cracked tower granary above.

Giving tree.

A circular kiva lined by timbers. All the wood is partially burnt, though it's impossible to tell if the fire was an accident or more modern vandalism.

A mini-museum of pottery shards. I suppose this is better than taking the shards home, but please people, leave them where they lay.

After retracing my steps to the wash, I headed upstream. As with the other canyons I'd visited, the South Fork of Mule Canyon was flush with water - pools more than four feet deep contained thousands of gallons and portions of the creek trickled between pools, spilling over usually-dry falls.

Many of the pools were so large that I found myself looking for fish. Of course, as these are seasonal, there were none to be found.

Colorful rocks carving out their own personal hideaway.

The manzanita was loving the extra water and was getting ready to show off.

Set back into an alcove on a bench, only my pre-trip research enabled my discovery of the next set of ruins. Like the rest, this first required a trek to the uppermost Cedar Mesa sandstone layer - a longer and longer climb as I progressed up the canyon - before the final push up a steep, slippery crack to the ruins and a special treat!

The final, 30-foot ascent.

To the east, a small granary.

To the west, ruins built right to the edge of the cliff!

This site turned out to be more extensive than most of the others, the upper level overlooking a second level of ruins below, and each level containing petroglyph panels and mortero.

Unfinished concentric circles.

Forked thumb.

Fading sheep.

There were several of these deep morteros along the upper ledge, all positioned to allow a view of the canyon while grinding.

it was about this point that I began to get a little anxious about the time.

To the kiva ruin there'd been a reasonably clear - if slightly fading - trail, but beyond that I struggled to follow a well-defined path. Likely this was due to a combination of the early spring flow, which was quite obviously well above the level of the trail - given the detritus piled up against the tree trunks - and the fact that there's always an inverse ratio between the length of a trail and number of people who are willing to continue to any given point.

Unfortunately for me, that meant that my pace slowed dramatically, as I had to pick my way through underbrush and weave my way back and forth across the wet-and-muddy wash. Still, the lure of the next two ruins were enough that I never seriously considered turning back - even if it meant that I'd miss the late morning light at the House on Fire.

Eventually, I peeled out of the main canyon in favor of a half-mile detour up a tributary wash. Here, any semblance of a trail was but a figment of one's imagination, and it was only by following my GPS that I eventually found my way to the base of a nearly vertical wall and one of the most unusual ruins I've ever seen.

The multi-level Wall Ruin.

By completely filling the ledges on which it is built, the Wall Ruin is well-camouflaged into the sheer sandstone wall.

Unlike most ruins that are built into reasonably large alcoves, Wall Ruin is built on narrow ledges and amongst fantastic mosaics of tafoni. Posts protrude from the structures - and sandstone wall itself - once the support structure for an elaborate series of scaffolding and ladders that allowed inhabitants access to each of the levels.

Wooden supports and intricate tafoni.

Today, with the scaffolding gone, only the lower level is accessible, an only via a reasonably tall crack climb. Having gotten this far, I unloaded most of my camera gear and scooted my way up.

Nature's ladder to the lowest door. Remember, up is easier than down.

This was a very interesting door panel; I've never seen one that had ripples.

Though only the lowest level was accessible, it was amazing to see how far the rooms of the ruin extended into the wall. Apparently, there are a series of passageways that lead even deeper, but - as we all should - I refrained from entering the inner rooms, as doing so can accelerate their deterioration. Please - if you visit - do the same.

Stone steps led from the outer balcony to the outermost room. (left) | Doors from the outer room led even further into the sandstone. (right)

As I emerged from the side canyon, it was 10:45am. Having covered nearly five miles from the mouth of the canyon, I'd decided that I needed a little more than an hour - as I wouldn't be stopping to investigate ruins on the way back - to cover the four miles back to House on Fire, which I wanted to reach by noon.

That was all well and good, except for the fact that the final ruin - one I knew I couldn't reach, but that was interesting even from the wash below - was another third of a mile away.

I wouldn't say I was jogging - there were way too many branches and bushes to dodge - but I certainly wasn't dawdling. And then, I spotted it!

Nestled in a large alcove, this inaccessible ruin marked the end of my route!

Closer. (Well, not really. Just more zoom.)

This ruin - known as Doorway Ruin - is intriguing for the wooden slats that still hang in its door. These weren't the primary method of closure - a more typical stone is also visible through the opening - but perhaps they provided additional shade in the heat of the afternoon sun, or allowed for airflow as a breeze drafted through the canyon. Whatever their purpose, I found myself glad that this site was inaccessible, as surely the temptation to touch the slats would be too much for most to resist.

A final glance.

I only spent a few minutes below the Doorway Ruin, but nonetheless I was sure that I'd blown my chance at catching the reflected light of House on Fire. Too stubborn to admit defeat, I pulled the second sandwich from my pack - I'd eaten the first as breakfast as I embarked on this crazy adventure - and consumed it in rapid fashion as stumbled my way down the overgrown wash.

Despite my rush, I couldn't help but pause a couple times to admire the rockwork of Mule Canyon.

The amount of water continued to amaze.

I saw only two pairs of hikers in the 62 minutes that it took me to cover the distance between the Doorway and House on Fire. Stopping for a couple minutes each time - to share greetings and marvel at the beauty of our surroundings - both pairs volunteered their displeasure at the crowds they'd encountered - and left behind - at the House on Fire.

I braced myself for the worst, glad that I'd modified my schedule to avoid the mayhem.

And then, I arrived. And I was the only one there.

House on Fire.

I don't know if I missed the best time of day or if the plethora of people showed up to early, but somehow my timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Smiling as I snapped a few shots, I realized that my good fortune now presented a new problem - what the heck was I going to do with the rest of my Saturday? And with that, my smile grew even larger - because there's no better problem to have when you find yourself in the canyons of Cedar Mesa.



The Whole Story


    JOHN D MORAN June 5, 2023

    Spectacular! Thanks for sharing.

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 5, 2023

      Thanks John, was a fun canyon to hike and I definitely got lucky that both the timing and lighting worked out!

  2. Lapsley Hope
    Lapsley Hope June 6, 2023


    • turbodb
      turbodb June 6, 2023

      Thanks Lapsley!

  3. Skyhiker
    Skyhiker June 6, 2023

    Amazing shot of the House of Fire. Sounds like I can walk it from the pavement, if necessary, so something for me to keep in mind for southeast Utah. Great you got it to yourself, despite the accessibility.

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