On my trip Out West, August 28, 2016 was the day I started exploring the Canyons of the Ancients. As a reminder, this is a very large, fairly new, National Monument managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
This was the day I was going to learn if my bushwhacking skills from Ohio transferred to the desert Southwest.
I headed for the Painted Hand Pueblo, which you can locate here.
While that was a bit of what I wanted to explore, it was only a small bit. I wanted to bushwhack (or, as I like to say for the desert Southwest, sagewhack) through the canyons just to see what I could see. Here is my topo map of the area.
[Click to enlarge.]
To orient you, Painted Hand Pueblo is that pink dot in the middle left. The light blue line is the official trail that leads to/from it.
But was that what I was going to do? Heck, no. I planned on going down into Hovenweep Canyon and then up onto the ridge to its east.
Instead of parking at the Painted Hand lot (driving over another of those one-lane/rocky/sandy roads) I headed to the south end of Road 4531, where there is a different parking lot to head over to the Cutthroat Castle Group Ruins. [The green line on the topo map is the foot trail to Cutthroat and the purple is the extremely high-clearance road there. And here I thought 4531 required high clearance.]
Anyways, I parked at that lot and headed east on 4531f. Here’s how that trail starts.
On the left you can see the rock mesa top that contains Painted Hand. Off in the distance you can see the trail, 4531f, as it heads through the valley of Hovenweep Canyon. Beyond that is the mesa/ridge top I was headed for.
As I headed past where the Painted Hand Pueblo was supposed to be, I tried to see if I could spot it.
Can you see it?
[Again, as always, to fully appreciate the pictures, make them larger by clicking on them, or right-clicking and following the link.]
Here’s the larger, zoomed view.
You ought to be able to see the Painted Hand Tower on the far left and other ruins on the far right. In between, if you are really good, you might be able to see the rubble of other ruins.
This next image is the Google satellite shot of the same area.
The Tower shows up quite nicely (as the circular feature on the left). The other ruins are hidden by their overhanging rocks (or are too small to show up).
I just continued on. I planned on visiting Painted Hand on my trip back. Instead, I planned to leave 4531f where the red line leaves the valley and heads up onto the mesa. The red line is not a trail; it just documents where I sagewhacked. You can see a pink dot along the way. I had read something that suggested that there was a ruin there and I wanted to look for it.
Well, look for it I did, but I never found anything. Maybe I looked in the wrong spot, or maybe I misinterpreted what I’d read about its location. Regardless, I continued up to the top of the mesa.
Near the top I got this stitched photo of where I’d come from, looking back down Hovenweep Canyon.
At the tip of that ridge on the far right you ought to be able to see the trail (4531f) I came down after leaving the parking lot. And then below that in the clear (sagebrush) valley you can see 4531f again. On the near right is the edge of the mesa. And on the left is the top of the mesa I was heading for.
If you look at the topo map again, you’ll see that the solid red line suddenly turns into so scattered red dots. That’s because I have no idea exactly where I was. I wandered around up there for a while, never finding a trail.
I was lost.
However, as I’ve pointed out before, I may have been lost but I wasn’t lost lost. I didn’t know specifically where I was, but I had a pretty good idea and I certainly knew how to refind myself. (Quite frankly, that’s sometimes part of the fun—and challenge—of bushwhacking.)
In the end, I just headed south and west until I came to the edge of a cliff. That kind of gave it away, and that’s where I’ve resumed the solid red line on the topo map. From there, I headed across the ridgetop and eventually hit the trail I knew was up there (the dark blue line).
It didn’t look like much.
But it was discernible.
That trail was on the topo map as a 4-Wheel-Drive track, but remember that that map was originally created by the USGS in 1974 (and field-checked in 1990, and published in 1994). The National Monument was created in 2000, so you know that road had been closed at least that long. So it wasn’t too surprising that vegetation had done its thing there.
That particular picture was taken where the dark blue line and the light blue line diverge (and later re-merge). It was reassuring to notice that divergence because that let me know I really did know where I was!
Some of the vegetation did clear out as I continued.
Also, when I looked to the west, I noticed somebody familiar lying down on the job, trying to hide behind the trees.
The next thing I looked for from there was where that light blue trail headed back to the west. It was pretty obvious when I got there.
Obviously, that road was really closed.
From the topo map, you can see that it leads to near a cliff, so that was an opportunity to get me into a picture.
I really like that picture. Aside from me, it looks out across Hovenweep Canyon. The clear valley in the middle shows up clearly, and if you look just to the right of my left arm you can see 4531f leading down from the parking lot. The trail (or, I should say, suggestion of a trail) I was about to head down sits off to the right heading into the valley. I’ve marked my path on the topo map by adding red dots to the light blue path.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but as I processed the picture for this blog entry I realized that the Painted Hand Pueblo ought to be in that picture somewhere. And when I zoom this picture (and a few others I took), I found it. It’s in a little wash/crease coming down from the top about 2/3 of the way from the left side of the picture.
In the following composite picture, the top portion is just a cropped version of the picture I showed from near the beginning of the hike. The bottom portion is cropped and zoomed from the picture of me that spans across the canyon.
Keep in mind that the top portion was facing the Pueblo head-on, while in the bottom portion I was way off to the side (about a 60° angle from face-on, or about 30° from perpendicular), so it is naturally quite foreshortened. Look for the tower (1/3 from the left) to orient yourself. It was fun using my pictures to do this search.
As I headed down off the mesa, I was able to look back to my left to find the other 4 Wheel Drive path (in dark blue).
Again, it was a marvelous reassurance that I really did know where I was. At this point, I should mention that sagewhacking here was much easier than bushwhacking in Ohio. The trees are so sparse it is almost always easy to look out, get a good feel for the terrain, and then relate that to a topo map. In Ohio you can kind of do that in the winter when the leaves are off the trees, but even then it’s not this clear. So yes, my Ohio bushwhacking skills transferred, in spades.
When I got back down into the valley and rejoined 4531f, I looked up.
You’ll of course recognize that at the northern/eastern portion of Painted Hand Pueblo. I have to admit that, at the time, I didn’t. Oh, I recognized it as a ruin but at that point I was looking for the Tower and didn’t see it.
I headed up towards that ruin anyways. That also gave me a good look back behind me where I had just come from.
The two trails across the way (light blue and dark blue on the topo map) show up very nicely.
Continuing further up, I came across this rock with a potsherd sitting on it.
Of course, taking a potsherd from a National Monument is prohibited. However, I’d seen other cases of people finding potsherds and putting them up on rocks like this for a picture. I’m not sure of the propriety of that (it ruins the provenance of the piece; on the other hand, these canyons have been gone over by so many people even before it became a monument I suspect the provenances are already pretty ruined). However, I found it that way already and it was certainly worth a picture.
I headed over to the Painted Hand Tower. This is pretty much what most people take a picture of. (If you Google it, you’ll find zillions. OK, I’m exaggerating: half a zillion.)
From what I understand, the actual painted hand is underneath that overhang. I think this is it (but am not completely sure).
It may have lost a lot of its shape over the years.
The Painted Hand Pueblo is more than just a Tower. There were plenty of ruins and rubble all around, as in this picture.
A lot of them just haven’t survived the weather over 800 years or so.
Unsurprisingly, Sleeping Ute Mountain is visible from Painted Hand Pueblo.
From here, I ascended about 15 feet (along the official trail) to the edge and headed back (with rain threatening) to my car in the parking lot. Here’s the other side of the Tower as I passed by it.
Overall, this exploration hike took me about 4 hours and it was a load of fun. Ruins, exploration, map-reading skills, terrain. It pretty much had everything.
I ended the evening back at my campsite, and with the weather, the Sleeping Ute was showing off again at sunset.