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Wandering the West Fork of Johns Canyon | R&R 2

Having thoroughly enjoyed my time at Cedar Point, I figured it'd take me about an hour to make my way north, up the Moki Dugway, and to my next destination along Johns Canyon; this time the West Fork. But, as had been the case earlier in the day, events conspired to distract me as I pulled up behind another stopped truck in the middle of UT-261.

At first I wasn't sure what was going on. Then, I was fumbling to get my zoom lens fitted to the camera.

Mama cow was putting up a good fight to protect her little calf.

I thought for sure that it'd only be a matter of minutes before this cowboy had his target in ropes, but after shooting a few hundred shots over the course of 15 minutes, I realized that it had to be a little nerve racking for both him and his skittery horse. Even if he had the job done in an hour, that'd be about a week faster than I'd have been able to do it. Plus, it probably didn't help to have an audience, so I moved on.

Heading up the Moki Dugway, the valley greening up for spring.

The real world step function between the top of Cedar Mesa and the Valley of Gods, the Moke Dugway was built in the 1950s to haul Uranium ore from the Happy Jack Mine on Cedar Mesa to a mill in Halchita, Utah, near Mexican Hat.

As I summited the series of switchbacks, I realized that I always seem to end up at the Moki as afternoon is turning to evening. I'll have to change that someday to see what it looks like in the morning. For now, I covered the last few miles of pavement - then a few more on dirt - before finding myself all alone in the middle of nowhere, a perfect camp site at the tip of the West Fork of Johns Canyon.

Note: Visiting Johns Canyon (and Cedar Mesa in general) requires a pass. For more information, check out BLM Utah Cedar Mesa Permits and Passes Information.

If you look closely, you'll see my prized parking spot. Maybe.

Here, let me zoom in a bit. There it is!

Nearing 6:00pm, and with sunset a little less than two hours away, it was decision time - head out for a five-mile roundtrip through the West Fork, or call it an evening and enjoy the evening light playing across the land.

Obviously - as someone with explorers' disease - there was no real choice. I grabbed the camera, a bit of water, my inReach, and a headlamp - since I knew there was a good chance of returning in the dark - and dove off the side of the canyon.

At least, it felt like diving off - the trail was pretty steep - as I followed the cairns that would lead me along the loop I hoped to accomplish.

I'm not generally a fan of cairns, but I did appreciate how someone mimicked the alternating sandstone layers of the surrounding canyon with this one.

As I made my way down the canyon wall, I ran into this survey marker, which I found... interesting. I'd have expected it along the rim or at the bottom.

After dropping a little more than 300- of the 550-feet between the trailhead and the apex of my loop, the remaining 250 feet would come as I wound my way along the sandstone bottom of the canyon, enjoying the steps as I gazed upwards, my eyes peeled for the ruins I hoped to find.

Cascading passage.

Woolly Locoweed - one of the few wildflowers in bloom on this trip.

I spotted my first ruins - high up on the canyon wall - a mile or so into the canyon.

Not long after spotting the eroding wall to my east, I headed west. While this might seem unintuitive, I had it on good authority that there were a few ruins - on a couple of different levels - 200 feet above me near the western rim of the canyon. I couldn't see them, and it was nearing sunset, but hey, it's just climbing nearly vertical walls and walking along narrow ledges, right?

After a few minutes of picking my way upward, I ran into my first granary of the trip.

Only the door - seemingly to me the most fragile part - remains of this specimen.

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:

click to expand

With relatively little to offer, I didn't spend much time at the lower level, instead beginning my search for a way to access the upper level of these ruins. Eventually - a few hundred feet away - I found the ladder.

Nature's ladder.

The granary wasn't any more notable than those below it, though it did have a door stashed nearby.

On the ground, some of the mortar used to fortify the walls. I was surprised to see how much fiber (a strengthening agent) it contained.

The upper granary had grand views down the canyon. A half mile downstream, a big pour-off marked the point where the west fork joins the wider main branch of the canyon.

Happy to have found the first major ruin site, I retraced my steps to the canyon floor just as the last of the sunlight inched its way up the last few feet of canyon wall above me. Without a doubt, I was not on borrowed time as far as light was concerned.

The light situation didn't bother me all that much. My prior research suggested that the second set of ruins was near the top of the canyon rim and - essentially, given that I was making a large loop - on my way back to camp. Still, it's better to have a bit of light for photos, so I hoped I'd find the ruins reasonably quicky.

To my surprise, I hiked for only a few minutes before spotting a granary much lower on the canyon wall than I was expecting. Turns out, this wasn't the second ruin site I was looking for but rather a third site that I'd had no idea existed!

Square-walled granary.

Inside the granary, some of the wooden roof supports still lay on the floor.

Nearby, a round structure - perhaps a small kiva - was in much disrepair.

This site had a few petroglyphs as well.


After spending a few minutes at this unexpected discovery, I continued to climb toward the mouth of the tributary canyon in which I now found myself, skirting steep dry falls and working my way along sandstone ledges - an activity I'd find myself repeating over and over in the coming days. Eventually reaching the uppermost bench, I doubled back towards the main canyon in search of the ruins.

Sandstone funnel.

It wasn't long before I came to a series of granaries - ten or so in all - that lined this level of the canyon. Clearly less visited than the first set, an audible "wow" may have escaped my mouth when I encountered the first one.

The first granary I came to was immaculate.

Tight-fitting door.

Decorative construction with small and large stones alternating in the muddy mortar.

Granary two need a bit of wall work, but its door was still in place.

Granary three.

Granary four. Nestled into a corner, the area in front of the granary was obviously used for fires; a thick layer of soot covering the sandstone.

Granary five. All locked up and still protecting its contents from the local vermin.

Granary six and seven. I've never seen so many doors. Heck, I don't know if I've ever seen a single door before!

Granary eight. The one with the threshold and rounded door.

Granary nine. Hanging out on a ledge.

With dwindling light - and a belly that was beginning to complain about the amount of time that'd passed since lunch - I continued around the bench, hoping to find the very first wall ruin I'd spotted from the wash nearly an hour earlier. Unfortunately, I now found myself above the wall, with no short path to the bench below.

I'd have to settle for an "above" shot of this wall - that once protected the alcove at the southern tip of the divide between the tributary and main canyon - to go with my earlier shot from "below."

With that, I picked up the pace - as much as one could, given the 16 miles I'd hiked on only five hours of sleep - as I pointed myself towards camp. I was tired, hungry, and 100% ready to do it again, right after a big dinner and ten hours of sleep.

After making burritos for dinner, I snapped a quick shot of the last light of day and the first stars of the night rising up over my camp on the edge of the West Fork.

It'd been a fantastic first day in Cedar Mesa, and I was even more excited for what I had planned in the days to come. In the end it was so much more hiking than I'd envisioned, and so much more enjoyable than I ever imagined...


The Whole Story


  1. Lapsley Hope
    Lapsley Hope May 25, 2023

    Really enjoying your report on this area. Two years ago I camped on Muley's Point, after ascending the Moki Dugway. Also camped for two days in the Valley of the Gods. Hoping to return, on an extended trip, later this year. I'll be sure to check out Johns Canyon.

    • turbodb
      turbodb May 26, 2023

      Thanks Lapsley! I really debated driving it to the top of Muley Point, but I just didn’t have enough time since I wanted to get the last hike in. Next time!

  2. L. Jay Mozdy
    L. Jay Mozdy May 26, 2023

    Amazing photographs of the horse and rider. You've really outdone yourself with this series.

  3. Anthony Williams
    Anthony Williams May 27, 2023

    Your puzzlement at the location of the survey marker you found stems from your
    imperfect knowledge of such markers. There are numerous types, but basically you
    could say that one type is at an arbitrary location, generally one with a good
    view in many directions or at the top of a peak. These are often used for triangulation.
    The other type marks a man-established location, e.g. a county or state boundary, a
    standard meridian, or the like.

    The first type generally will have a small triangle in the center, and in the center of
    the triangle a centerpunch. This is where the surveyer will place his instrument above
    monument and have the point of his plumb bob just above the centerpunch, thus making
    it possible to duplicate the location used by the original surveyor exactly.

    The other type is what you have illustrated here. Ever since George Washington was a
    surveyer, our lands have been divided into Sections (one square mile), and Sections
    gathered into 6x6 mile blocks called Townships. In a Township, the sections are
    numbered thus:

    06 05 04 03 02 01
    07 08 09 10 11 12
    18 17 16 15 14 13
    19 20 21 22 23 24
    30 29 28 27 26 25
    31 32 33 34 35 36

    Your marker shows the location of the SE corner of Sec. 31 and the adjoining SW corner of Sec. 32, of Township 39S, Range 18E. Below the horizontal line is "T40S, R18E" because that is the next Township to the south.

    If your system allowed sending images, I could have made this clearer, perhaps.

    • turbodb
      turbodb May 28, 2023

      Wow! Super cool, thanks for the lesson on survey markers - I’ve always known that there was more to them than I understood,, but I never really had the time to figure them out.

      Your explanation was great and made total sense, by the way. Please, if you find other bits of my stories that you can educate me on as well, don’t hesitate to do so!


  4. Bill Rambo
    Bill Rambo June 6, 2023

    I wonder when these were built, how long did it take them to build, and how long did they use them. One of these days, I will stand where you did to ponder those questions. Till then, continue the trails!!

    • turbodb
      turbodb June 6, 2023

      Hey Bill,

      In this area, archeologists have done a bunch of research into the time periods that occupation took place. Pinyon and Juniper logs were common building materials for ceiling beams and uprights, and these logs are ideal subjects for the science of tree ring dating called dendrochronology, an excellent method for determining site occupation. In 1974, 192 tree ring core samples were taken and 134 dates were obtained. These dates Indicate a 42 year span of beam cutting between 1226 arid 1268 AD. During these years there were three peak building periods: 1242-1244 AD, 1249-12S4 AD, and 1256-1265 AD. Evidence suggests that some beams were stockpiled for later use - and that others were reused over time.

      Cedar Mesa has probably always been a marginal environment for agriculture. With the limited estimated annual rainfall of 12-13 inches, any dry year would be devastating. During the late 1200's many of the living (habitation) areas were converted to storage. Archaeologists estimate that there was a conversion of habitation rooms to storage rooms of five to one. Two theories exist regarding conversion to storage. First, that people were storing up enough food to feed other residents of the canyon. Second, storage of surplus food was a buffer against increasingly poor harvests. While both theories are possible, there is evidence of increasing drought conditions in the late 1200's which may have led to abandonment of the mesa between 1270 and 1300.

      (Note: this is all info that I discovered when I was visiting another ruin in the area on a previous trip.)

      • Bill Rambo
        Bill Rambo June 7, 2023

        Great information. Something to know all this was going on almost 800 years ago. And the structures are still standing! Thanks for getting that information out for us all to read.

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