Sam Cook column: Clambering our way back in time

On the trail of early civilization in the Utah backcountry.

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Sam Cook

BEARS EARS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Utah — The trail was somewhat obscure, even from the beginning. Small cairns — little pyramids of stacked rocks — marked the path in places, but the sandstone rocks were often not obvious against the red sand path.

For a time, the three of us went astray over exposed bedrock before turning back and relocating the actual trail.

We were on our way to Moon House, an expansive array of cliff dwellings tucked alongside a canyon here in Southeast Utah. Only 20 visitors per day are allowed to visit these ruins, and our friends Steve and Nancy Piragis of Ely had secured our permit a few months earlier from Bears Ears National Monument.

This hike into history — and several others — followed a week of whitewater rafting on the Green and Colorado Rivers in mid-April. By now, we were getting accustomed to sand in our shoes and sleeping bags and — well, almost everything.

The trail grew more challenging as it switchbacked down into McCloyd Canyon. At some points, it seemed sensible to crab along exposed rock on all fours, grabbing trees for handholds. Then it got dicey. Or, as the trail guide says, “... follow the cairns down a precipitous, rocky route, curve around to the right side of a slickrock amphitheater, and slide down the lip of an overhung ledge.”


Well, OK, then.

I was a little out of my comfort zone. Any misstep would have sent a hiker tumbling down into the canyon. But up ahead, a young mom and about a 6-year-old boy had already made the descent. That little guy was fearless, and his mom could barely keep up with him.

We forged on. A climb and clamber up slickrock on the far side of the canyon led us to a high ledge and the ancient dwellings. They date to the 1200s A.D. and consist of many rooms.

We had seen small cliffside granaries on hikes along the Green River, but nothing on this scale. Ancestral Puebloans had once lived here, tending crops on the surrounding plains, getting water from a stream that flowed through the canyon.

Peering into those cool, dark rooms where people once had lived, I felt the same way I do when sitting in a canoe gazing up at rock paintings in the canoe country close to home. Humbled. Reverent. A bit in awe. Full of respect for people who lived so close to the land, so in tune with the natural rhythms of a place, so long ago.

What would it have been like to raise kids on the side of this cliff, I wondered. Pete, one of our lead guides on the raft trip, had told us that the children of these early cliff-dwellers “first learned to crawl, then to climb, then to walk.”

We moved about the rooms mostly in silence, trying to imagine living there — and making a living — 800 years ago.

The experience brought the brief span of a human lifetime into sharp perspective. Better not squander a single day.


Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at .

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Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the News Tribune. Reach him at or find his Facebook page at
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