Exploring Mule Canyon: House on Fire and the Cave Tower Ruins

Solitude and mystery beneath rust-colored cliffs
Cave Tower ruins in Cedar Mesa. Photo: Sonya Doctorian
Cave Tower ruins in Cedar Mesa. Photo: Sonya Doctorian

Driving the up the dusty, terracotta-colored road toward Mule Canyon in Cedar Mesa, you get a sense that this is a special place, though you might not be able to put a finger on why. (Though this article might help you: Ghosts of Cedar Mesa)

As you walk into the rugged canyon, following the footsteps of Ancient Puebloans who ruled this area and scramble up slickrock it starts to become clear. 

The sweet, peppery scent of juniper hangs in the air, and all is silent, except for the hollow knock of a distant woodpecker. Overhead, hawks and golden eagles glide quietly, and the occasional jackrabbit and lizard scurry into the scrub. Gazing up at the high cliff walls, you spy the dusty ruins of a vanished civilization.

This is a hypnotic place, quiet and calm, where a person can dwell in solitude and really absorb the beauty of the landscape and the creatures that call it home.

When most people speak of Mule Canyon, they reference the South Fork. But the seldom-visited North Fork is also a great destination for hikers seeking seclusion. While the Native American ruins in the North Fork are not as well-restored as those in the south, you will find one well-preserved site perched under a protective overhang high above the wash. Because there’s no great way to access this ruin, you should bring binoculars to get a closer look.

South Fork of Mule Canyon

This 4.3-mile hike is mostly level, up a shallow canyon. It passes eight sites of ruins of varying intricacy and size. At just under a mile, you see the first major site: the famous House on Fire. This well-preserved ruin consists of five granaries built into Cedar Mesa sandstone. The overhang that forms the ceiling has a unique, streaked pattern that resembles flames at certain times of the day.

Pro tip: To get the iconic photograph of the “flames,” visit around 10 or 11 a.m. (depending on the time of the year), when the sun hits the bottom of the canyon and bounces off the canyon walls. By noon, light hits the wall directly and washes it out.

As you take in the view, imagine how the ancient Puebloans lived here between 700 and 2,500 years ago. The granaries perched high in the cliffs stored corn, a main source of food. The Puebloans also ground Indian ricegrass into meal to make bread, and they ate abundant prickly pears. The ever-present yucca was invaluable, as its leaves were spun into fiber and woven into baskets, sandals, and bags. The Native Americans used the root of the yucca for soap, and they roasted and ate the base of the plant.

The pinyon pines that you weave around and duck under to reach the ruins were a key source of building material, fuel, and food. When burned, the wood created the high temperatures needed for firing pottery, while pine bark served as roofing and padding, and pinon nuts provided much-needed vitamins and protein.

Before you continue up the canyon, stop and check out the rock art located beneath an overhanging boulder in the wash below the House on Fire. (Most people walk right past it!)

Know Before You Go

The land in and around Bears Ears National Monument is very remote and often undeveloped. Take time to visit an information center and read our travel advisory. Learn more

– Summers here are hot. Wear a hat and sunscreen and drink plenty of water.

– During the winter be prepared for cold and snowy weather.

– Camping is free in dispersed sites on all BLM land, but camping is not allowed in or near any ruin.

– Dogs are allowed.

– Don’t touch any petroglyph, pictograph, ruin, or structure.

– Much of the hiking involves scrambling on rock or primitive trails, so good footwear is a must.

– Some dirt roads become impassable after rain, so always check conditions before you go.

– Photographers should bring a polarizing filter for deeper skies and better reds in the cliffs.

  

The majority of hikers visit the House of Fire and head back to the car, but there are several more ruins worth seeing. While some sit right off the trail, others require binoculars to see or you have to climb 200 or so feet to reach them. Toward the end of the canyon sits the spectacular Wall Ruin, which has several intact rooms built into small caves in the pock-marked cliff. Some of the roofs still showcase the original roof timbers. Also, there are a few permanent springs nearby, so this is a good resting spot if you’re hiking with children or your dog.

Directions
Take Utah state Route 95 to the junction with County Road 263/Texas Flat Road. This junction lies halfway between Blanding and Natural Bridges National Monument near Highway 95 mile marker 102. Travel north on 263, and you'll immediately see the kiosk to pay for your backcountry permit to hike to House on Fire. The permit costs $2 per person for the day or $5 per person for the week. There is a sign for Mule Canyon Indian Ruins, but this is not the trailhead. Rather, it’s a BLM exhibit with a kiva, interpretive signing, and a pit toilet. From the kiosk, continue traveling approximately 0.3 miles to the parking area on the right. (The trailhead is on the left.)

Cave Tower Ruins

Cave Tower Ruins (also called Cave Canyon Ruins or Mule Canyon Ruins) are located down a small spur road that is off S.R. 95 at about mile marker 102.5. The short dirt road ends and becomes the parking area, and a trail to the east heads to the ruins. After walking 100 yards, you’ll see the remains of the few towers still standing in all of Cedar Mesa.

With no obvious villages or dwellings nearby, the reason for these towers is unclear. At Cave Canyon, there is a water source that possibly had some bearing on the location. The Mule Canyon Ruin is a mile north and would be within sight — were these towers defensive or serve as lookout posts? Fortunately, we don’t have to know their original purpose to appreciate them.

Contributor: RootsRated

RootsRated is a media platform that connects users with the best outdoor experiences, hand-picked by local outdoor retailers and their networks of local experts. We are NOT another website full of crowd-sourced trail reviews. Read more RootsRated stories about Utah.

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