Thanks to Cathy for this amazing story about her experience hiking Comb Ridge! This trip was supported by the COBS Staff Development Fund. Thanks to all the donors who contribute to the Staff Development Fund to provide opportunities to our staff to learn and grow outside of COBS. The new knowledge and skill they bring back to our programs benefits our students and staff, and helps COBS improve our programming.
Comb Ridge is an astoundingly dramatic geological feature: an 80-ish-mile long sandstone monocline that parades across southeast Utah and the northern Navajo Nation. The Comb’s eastern flank is a steepening slickrock ramp, and its jagged crest has an airy drop-off to the west. Over the past several decades, I’ve had many adventures on Comb Ridge north of the San Juan River. From slickrock Easter Egg hunts with packs of kids, to winter solstice quests for elusive pictographs, to search missions for Moki Step routes over the ridge carved by Ancestral Puebloans, I’ve spent many wonderful days on the Comb.
North of the San Juan River, Comb Ridge is mostly public land, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. South of the River it’s part of the Navajo Nation, and like many recreationalists, I have never explored this reach of the Comb.
A few years ago, I read David Robert’s 2006 book Sandstone Spine: the First Traverse of Comb Ridge and I was inspired. While I admire Robert’s accomplishment of completing the first traverse of the entire Comb with Vaughn Hadenfeldt and Greg Child, I feel that the northern part of Comb Ridge is well suited to dayhikes, because it is paralleled on each side by good dirt roads. But a backpack trip along the southern Comb Ridge, on the Navajo Nation, was very intriguing. I have backpacked on the Navajo Nation around Navajo Mountain (Naatsis’áán,) and I really loved the relative lack of recreationalists and the undisturbed Ancestral Puebloan sites.
I discussed this idea with my favorite adventure partner (my husband Ed Young,) and he was in. I would be trip leader, and this would be a great opportunity for me to further develop and practice some skills that I can apply while instructing for Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) in the canyons and beyond. I applied for financial support from COBS’ Staff Development Fund, and was awarded some funds. Yahooo!
I ordered USGS topographical maps, studied Sandstone Spine and the Utah Gazeteer, and poured over satellite imagery. We agreed on an itinerary: 7 days of walking with no resupply or water cache, starting at a road that crosses the Comb near Garnet Ridge. I downloaded a Navajo Nation Backcountry Permit application, and sent a cashier’s check to Window Rock. I prepared and dehydrated meals for a 7-day trip, knowing that lighter food would make it a little less onerous to carry so much water. My partner and I used our social network to find a shuttle driver willing to drop us off on the Navajo Nation, pick us up at the San Juan River, and store our vehicle in Bluff while we were out in the field. We had a plan.
We made the crux move out of the driveway at 7:30 a.m. on May 3, and drove to Bluff, Utah. Our shuttle driver, Bluff resident Jim Sayers, is a Caucasian man who has been married to a Navajo woman for 30 years. As we drove down to the reservation, Jim gave us many good tips on modern Navajo lifeways: “tires at a crossroads indicate that it’s somebody’s driveway,” and “many rural Navajo have seasonal houses, near summer or winter range for their cattle or sheep.” We used the Gazeteer and the Gaia GPS app to find our starting point, travelling on dirt roads that were new to all three of us. Jim drove away, and we walked across sand towards the Comb, shouldering heavy packs loaded with food for 7 days and water for 24 hours.
The flowers! This winter’s huge snows have carpeted the desert with so many familiar and unusual blooms: cliff rose, scorpion flower, lupine, larkspur, yucca, and so many others. I was constantly referring to Flowers of Cedar Mesa and Southeast Utah, and I learned/ re-learned a lot of botany.
Up on top of Comb Ridge, the wind kept the gnats down, and 100-mile 360-degree views placed us squarely in the middle of so many southwestern landmarks: Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain, Bear’s Ears, the Abajo Mountains, Lone Cone and the San Miguel Mountains, and Sleeping Ute Mountain. I know all these landmarks well, but had never seen these old friends in this particular arrangement.
On this first day, we found the first Ancestral Puebloan pottery shard within the first 30 minutes of walking, and only one water source: a very shallow pool tucked up near the ridgeline. The coolest find was a sandy area below the ridge that had been used for hundreds years. It had no obvious draw (like a reliable water source) but within close proximity we found 2 arrowheads, several pot shards, an old hogan, a ruined corral, and a pull-tab style beer can. Hmm.
The next morning’s hike led us past an unusual, hidden seep spring coming out of the Wingate sandstone. My knowledge of geology was deepening: I know that the Wingate forms steep and solid cliffs (like the famed Indian Creek crack climbing area), a layer that is often difficult to travel through. And I know that the Navajo sandstone layer (usually on top of the Wingate and Kayenta layers) forms sweet slot canyons (like in Robbers Roost.) I was learning that the Wingate doesn’t hold much water, but springs often appear below the Wingate, on top of the Chinle layer (where many Navajo homes were dispersed, below Comb Ridge.) And Navajo sandstone forms potholes which can hold water for days or weeks after it rains.
As anticipated, the Ancestral Puebloan ruins, rock art and artifacts were abundant and amazing. Yes, we were in the vicinity of the famous Poncho House, which is the largest Ancestral Puebloan ruin in Utah, and it was gorgeous. And we utilized our amateur archeology skills to find so many more sites, including incredibly defensive dwellings that looked impossible to access, plentiful black on white and black on red pot shards, a rectangular stone fortress which we called “The Alamo,” and my favorite, a little cluster of ruins around twin sandstone spires on a dramatic point above Chinle Wash. I found what appeared to be a communication site on Comb Ridge in line with a ruin in Chinle Wash, and looked up further on the western horizon to see a cell phone tower. That made me appreciate the continuity of human experience! We designed the itinerary to allow for plenty of exploration time, and I feel like this time in a place so rich with archeology sharpened my senses and honed my skills.
The distinctive triangle of Mule Ear peak had been poking up in our northern viewshed for days. As we got closer, we decided to climb this landmark, which I have seen so many times while floating the San Juan River. I found the steep scramble to be rather exhilarating! It was a windy afternoon, and I realized that I haven’t spent much time with a lot of exposure under my feet in the past few years. It was a fantastic culmination of our trip, and a good reminder to get off the ground more often.
Our last night was delightfully stormy, and we sheltered overnight in a sweet overhang. We planned to meet Jim and our truck at around noon on May 9, and hoped that he found the Comb Wash road still passable after the rain. We were fortunate to hitchhike a ride across the river without a hitch, and started walking up the red dirt road. We met our driver, and made it to pavement just as the skies opened up with a dramatic rain.
No people and no human footprints. Except near Poncho House and the San Juan River, none. While this is not a wilderness – there are scattered roads and remote homes wherever it makes sense – it is certainly not the realm of recreationalists. We followed plenty of helpful user trails, but they were made by feral burrows, not hiking boots. There was ankle-deep mud, manure, spiky plants that tear skin, not much water, and challenging navigation. Also, astonishing silence and beauty. I found it an incredible honor and privilege to spend a week in this wild, untrampled place on earth. I was on my best behavior, maximizing my Leave no Trace practices to minimize my impact. We traveled and camped on durable surfaces, swept any footprints out of archeology sites, and touched as little as possible. I can’t recommend this trip to many – there are plenty of wonderful places in southeast Utah that are simpler to access and just as dramatic.
THANK YOU to COBS for supporting this memorable trip, a true learning experience in a unique location. And THANK YOU to the Navajo people who steward this land so well, and permitted me to spend a week on your part of Comb Ridge.
Comb Ridge is on the ancestral lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute), Diné, and Pueblo people. Visit native-land.ca to search the ancestral roots and treaty history of anywhere around North America and other parts of the world.