For our entertainment today, we rode along an All American Road, a state scenic backway, visited an archaeological state museum, and even walked inside a real slot canyon. It doesn’t take much to make us happy in a scenic place like Utah! First we headed out on Highway 12, which runs south out of Torrey, and has been designated as a state scenic highway, a national scenic byway, and an All American Road. We passed some small ranches with irrigated pastures, and then entered the Dixie National Forest. As we rode through the forest, we also were climbing up Boulder Mountain, past stands of ponderosa pine. As we continued to climb toward the mountain’s summit at 9600 feet, the pines thinned out and there were more aspen and fir. After reaching the summit, we passed some alpine meadows and more fir. All very pretty!
At the hamlet of Boulder, we visited Utah’s Anasazi State Park and Museum. Even though we’d learned a lot about the ancestral Puebloan culture at Hoveneep, The Anasazi Cultural Center in Colorado, and at Mesa Verde, this museum added even more to our knowledge base. The people who lived in the Boulder area were not the same as those from Mesa Verde and Hovenweep, but were also ancestors to the modern Pueblo groups. The museum preserves and protects one of the largest Ancestral Puebloan ruins west of the Colorado River. Archaeological research here has discovered more than 100 structures that were occupied from about 1160 CE to about 1235 CE by a population of around 200 people. The actual "dig" is known as the Coombs Site and is located directly behind the museum itself. The museum displays hundreds of the thousands of artifacts that have been found here. The Coombs Site is unique in that it existed along the border between the ancestral Puebloans and the Fremont culture (as in Capitol Reef area). The Ancestral Puebloans lived mostly to the east and south while the Fremonts lived mostly west and north. The artifacts and architecture found at the Coombs Site show evidence of the type of cultural blending that would be typical of a prehistoric “melting pot.” Archaeologists can date their occupation so accurately because of dendrochronology, analyzing tree rings in the timbers used in the pueblos. These Puebloans were hunters and gatherers, but they also planted corn, squash, and beans. They created pottery and traded with other Indian groups in the Four Corners region. Archaeologists are not sure why they left the region, but it may have been due to climate changes and over hunting – maybe the same reasons the groups left Mesa Verde. This museum had the best replica of a pit dwelling that we’d seen so far, and we also viewed some of the excavated pueblo domestic rooms and those used for storage. Although the excavations were done beginning in 1958, the museum itself is fairly new, opening in 1996, so Mom and Dad, you probably did not get to see this excavation unless it was open to the public when you toured this area twenty years ago.
Heading east off Highway 12 is the Burr Trail, one of Utah’s scenic “backways” – it is a very narrow road with blacktop for 31 miles, and then it becomes a dirt road, hence its label as a backway. It cuts through some of the vast, extremely rural, rugged Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, established in 1996 as the BLM’s first national monument. We left the museum and headed out on this road, even after reading several prominent sign postings: “no services for the next 75 miles” and “extreme grades and sharp curves ahead.” We were glad we chose this “road less taken,” as the scenery was stunning! We found a small campground where we ate our picnic lunch near a creek bed, surrounded by cottonwood and other trees, but never far from the desert topography. At first we rode past mostly rounded white rock cliffs, somewhat similar to some we’d seen at Zion, Capitol Reef, and Johnson Canyon Road, but then the rocks became more pink and then reddish. We even saw more of the coral pink sand dunes – not as large as those near Zion, but definitely the same tint. The terrain became incredibly more rugged, but also incredibly beautiful. We descended through switchbacks into a narrow, deep canyon with red rock cliffs, and within that long canyon we discovered a small slot canyon heading out perpendicular to the larger canyon. We had wanted to find a slot canyon in which to hike so this was great fun for us – we’d had to skip the ones near the ranch where we stayed last week, because they were on dirt roads not accessible by two wheel drive vehicles. Inside the slot canyon, which turned out also to be a box canyon since it had no exit, Fred found the bones of a rodent and asked me if I could identify it since I’d had so much experience with owl pellet dissection at school. The vertebrae and hip bone I found were the size of a small vole, but it was not a species we’d ever found in our owl pellets. If anyone else had been with us, they’d probably have thought we were nuts, but we had a lot of fun there! After we ascended out of the canyon, we ended up in an extensive red desert that looked like it went on for miles, and since we knew the road would become gravel in a few more miles anyway, we finally turned around and retraced our trail back to highway 12. Although we could see thunderstorms in the distance, there were none in our area today, so that was great! We’ve been very lucky to skirt most of the rainstorms that have been in the region lately, and have been able to get to some extremely rural roadways to view scenery most tourists probably never see. During the 50 miles we traveled on the Burr Trail, we saw less than a dozen other vehicles. Tomorrow we head out again and travel to Moab; from there we will visit both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to see even more rocks – and we are not tired of them yet!