Where was I? Oh right, I'd just completed an 11-mile hike before lunch in order to avoid the weekend crowds that never developed - at least, as far as I could tell. Still, I was left - in one of the most beautiful places in our country - with half a day to explore; the only thing standing in my way was figuring out where to go!
Ultimately, I only seriously considered two options. The first - having just hiked the South Fork of Mule Canyon - was to hike the North Fork. I had almost no info on it except for the trailhead, but at less than a mile away, it would have been an easy choice. In the end though, my second option won out - a half-hour drive to Natural Bridges National Monument in the hopes of finding a single pictograph hidden amongst the folds of White Canyon.
I've been wanting to see this pictograph for quite some time - ever since I'd read Randy's trip report from nearly 15 years earlier. Randy's always really good about giving a few hints while never revealing specific locations, so I'd done a bit of research in order to discover several rock art and ruin sites along the base of the canyon. The only problem was, I had no idea if any of them were the White Man.
Randy's photo that captured piqued my interest.
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:
- Do not collect any objects - historical, geological, or botanical. Doing so is a federal offense.
- Do not touch or trace rock art or make your own - petroglyphs (etchings), pictographs (paintings) or signatures. Oils from the skin can accelerate erosion.
- Do not rearrange items, such as by creating piles of pot fragments or other artifacts.
- Do not touch or enter any the walls or roofs of any structures - some may look sturdy but all are potentially delicate and unstable.
- Do not use ropes or other non-permanent climbing aids to enter archaeological sites.
- Do not post GPS coordinates or geo-tagged images to the internet or social media. GPS points often lead uneducated visitors to sensitive sites.
- If camping is permitted, then camp a reasonable distance away from archeological sites, and do not build fires in the vicinity.
- Keep pets leashed at all times, and well away from any archeological sites. In many regions, such as Grand Gulch, all pets are prohibited.
- Stay on established trails and do not build cairns. Cairns can increase impacts (usage) of sensitive sites and are a form of vandalism, which is illegal.
- Do not leave litter, even organic items, as these can attract wildlife, who can damage ruins by burrowing or nest-building. Pack out your poop.
- Report acts of vandalism to the BLM or other management agency.
Having already eaten lunch, it was a simple matter of pulling into a spot at the trailhead and gathering up my equipment for the 600-foot descent down into the canyon.
Visiting a place like this always feels special.
I'd hiked up this route several years earlier with several friends, and I have to say that it was even more stunning on the way down. Part of that was probably anticipation of what I hoped to see, but I'm sure that it was mostly due to the fact that I wasn't huffing and puffing up ladders and switchbacks, as is the case on the "up" end of this trip. And oh, that fun would come this time as well.
Before long, I'd covered the six tenths of a mile to the bottom of the canyon, the view of Sipapu Bridge growing more dramatic with each step.
The green is coming, but it's not quite here yet!
Also growing more pronounced was the sound of rushing water. Of course, that shouldn't have surprised me - given all the water I'd seen in the other canyons I'd explored on this very trip - but as I reached the bottom, I realized that the situation here was significantly different. Here, there wasn't a muddy wash with puddles and pools of standing water. Nope, here, there was a rushing river.
I suddenly found myself wondering if the rock art I was looking for would even be accessible!
Pushing into White Canyon, it was immediately clear that I was one of the first - at least this season - to split from the main loop trail that connects three of the largest bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument. The trail here - if you could call it that - petered out quickly and it wasn't long before I figured out why: water.
I don't know if there's always some water here year-round, or if the wash is generally the trail, but on this particular afternoon, the trail ended abruptly as the canyon walls narrowed and the entire wash was submerged. I obviously had a decision to make - admit defeat and head back to the Tacoma, or push forward into the unknown depths and hope that they never got too deep.
With daytime temperatures in the mid-50s °F and nighttime lows in the high-20s, the water was not warm. Following the river upstream, I soon realized that the lack of trail and the constant crossings were going to make this little excursion take quite a bit longer than I'd envisioned.
I have to admit, not worrying about getting my shoes wet after the first crossing was liberating. In and out of the water, my shoes alternated between the cleanest and dirtiest they've been in a long time.
Despite the difficulty of hiking, it was hard not to love this place.
It took me nearly an hour to cover the distance between Sipapu Bridge and the bend in the canyon where I hoped to find the first ruin site. I decided that continuing past it - at the speed I was going, and already a bit after 3:00pm - was not in the cards on this particular trip. It was a decision I made out loud as I trudged through the mud and sand - perhaps an indication that I'm going a little bonkers. In doing so, I'm sure I mumbled - though I'm not sure it matters when there's no one around to hear - that it sure would be nice if this site was the White Man site!
And then, through the trees, jackpot!
With a little bit of determination, and mostly a lot of luck, there it was.
Looking back through Randy's trip report upon my return, I smiled at the hints I recognized only after visiting the site. He's a sneaky guy that Randy - I sure hope to meet him one day!
At any rate, as I thrashed my way through underbrush to reach the alcove containing the White Man, I noticed that there were several ruins not too far away. And, if there's one thing I excel at, it's delayed gratification. Well, that or I have the attention span of a squirrel. Whatever the reason, before continuing to that which I'd initially set out to find, I detoured to check out the ruins.
Big Boulder ruin.
A panel above Big Boulder sported both pictographs and petroglyphs!
Lightning bolts and a concentric diamond.
Studio room. Prime location. And with no windows, plenty of privacy.
There were several groups of deep morteros.
As it would happen, there were actually two small groups of ruins, and after checking out the first, I mustered up enough willpower and distraction to investigate the second. There, two of the structures sported small, deep holes that looked almost like storage cisterns - for water, perhaps.
At first I thought this might be a chimney or vent for the sunken room, but there was no connection between the two structures.
One of the holes had a crude screen "X" that wouldn't have kept out much of anything.
I really liked this door shape, and this ruin even had a small foyer/entryway once inside!
A few handprints on the wall. Modern - if I had to guess - based on their size and composition (mud rather than pigment).
Room with a door.
After building up my anticipation by putting off the White Man as long as I could, it was finally time. There are actually a few pictographs on the panel that contains the anthropomorphic figure, and while I didn't find the "Capital C with Teeth" or the "Bold T" as intriguing as the White Man, I must admit that I wondered exactly what the artist had against an alphabet he didn't even know. I mean, seriously, those are some scary letters.
And then - of course - I did my best to replicate the shot that'd brought me here in the first place. You know, Imitation and flattery and all that.
Knowing that I'd only scratched the surface of what Natural Bridges - and even White Canyon - has to offer, there was no question that further exploration would have to wait for a future trip. Perhaps something in the fall - after things had a chance to dry out - or at the very least, on a year where the snowpack hadn't broken a record last set in 1952!
For now, it was time to head home.
Going with the flow.
My spirits high, the sloshing through the river was much more enjoyable on my return trip, and I even had a nice chuckle as plunged into the rushing water as two hikers pondered that very first river crossing I'd contemplated a few hours earlier.
"It's up above your knees in places, but a lot of fun," I said with a smile as I slipped off my shoes to empty out the few small twigs and branches that had settled out of the water as I'd crossed, before continuing on my way.
Back up we go!
Climbing the ladders, switchbacks, and stairs, I was halfway up the side of the canyon when I spotted the hikers making their way up behind me. Given their timing, they must have labored over the decision for a full ten minutes before saving their shoes and turning back - likely the same decision I'd have made given the time of day.
Arriving at the trailhead, I quickly shed my wet pants and shoes - shorts and flip-flops a much more comfortable garb in which to kick off my 20-hour drive home. It'd be the first time the Tacoma would make the long journey - since we'd began storing it in Las Vegas - in five months. And it was time for a little maintenance.
Bye-bye Bears Ears; until we meet again!