Ancestral Puebloan Cliff Dwellings and Ruins
Of all of the Ancestral Puebloan dwellings dotting San Juan County, and the Four Corners area at large, none catches the attention quite as much as cliff dwellings. Built with stone and adobe mortar into the sides of mesas, mountains, and caves, these structures were used as protection as well as to store grains and seeds for later use.
During the time of the Pueblo people (approximately before 700–1300 CE), it’s approximated that San Juan County was more populated than it is today. For this reason, there are hundreds upon hundreds of ruins and cliff dwellings in the area, which is also collectively part of the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway.
Outside of Natural Bridges National Monument, there are several popular cliff dwellings to visit in the Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch area, and along Comb Ridge and Butler Wash, which includes the picturesque House on Fire. Another historic and well-preserved site to the south along the San Juan River is River House Ruin.
The Four Corners region offers a well-preserved window into the past and an accessible anthropology experience for all. Hiking to cliff dwellings puts you in the footsteps of past lives. Your mind will wonder at just how the Puebloan people built these structures high on cliffs and what their day-to-day life was like. Plus, the drives and hikes to each of these dwellings will take you to remote, stunning terrain that’s not your typical “bucket list” spot, but is totally worth the trip and time.
Who is Going to Love It
Adventure-seekers and time travelers. Those who love to go explore something new, let their mind wonder, and question the ways of the ancients. Many hikes are suitable for the whole family, where a small distance of walking is rewarded with spectacular views and near-hidden dwellings.
Bears Ears Ruins
Cliff dwellings are accessible year-round, depending on weather. San Juan County’s deserts can get extremely hot during the summer, so it’s best to visit during the early morning or late evening, or during spring and fall.
The ruins are artifacts and should be treated with respect. Don’t climb throughout them unless it’s specified that you can, leave what you find, and don’t carve on the walls or rocks. Always "Respect and Protect." Some destinations require a day use permit from the Bureau of Land Management. Dogs are allowed in most areas, and signs will designate if they must be kept on
In addition to the GPS coordinates below, detailed maps to some hard-to-find cliff dwellings can be found at area visitors centers.
Mule Canyon Ruins
(Parking 37.540177, -109.742857)
House on Fire
(37.542504, -109.730760; Parking 37.537314, -109.732772)
Within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, the House on Fire ruin is one of the region's most popular cliff dwellings that's right along Highway 95 between Blanding and Natural Bridges in the South Fork of Mule Canyon. It's a one-quarter mile drive on well-maintained native-surface road. It's called House on Fire because at certain times of days the lighting makes it looks like there's a glow to it, with smoke and flames coming out of it. It's really popular with photographers. It's short hike, 3 miles round trip with little elevation so it's good for the whole family.
Time your trip to House on Fire by arriving to the trailhead with enough time to hike the 1.5 miles and hit the ruin approximately late morning, depending on the season. You’ll never forget this magical place lit ablaze with sunlight reflecting off red-orange rock. You’ll also remember the mystery and the wonderment you feel gazing upon ancient structures, pictographs, and petroglyphs.
The Mule Canyon/House on Fire trailhead requires a $2.00 per person permit at trailhead if not purchased in advance at Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Beginning in March 2018, advance reservations for overnight trips in the Bears Ears area may be obtained on recreation.gov or the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Please visit the BLM Cedar Mesa Permits webpage for more information.
Butler Wash — .5 mile hike to "cliff dwelling" overlook
Cave Towers Site — .5 mile Rough road access, .25 mile hike
(Parking 37.528938, -109.733040)
River House Ruin
Salvation Knoll Historic Site — a short but steep hike
(Parking 37.564787, -109.818655)
Arch Canyon Ruins — 2.75 miles native surface road; expect to hike last .25 mile
(Parking 37.546072, -109.668667)
Note: According to The Salt Lake Tribune, "[Shash Jaa] includes two tiny satellite units that protect Doll House and Moon House ruins. Located in Dark Canyon and Cedar Mesa respectively, these famous sites were already subject to access restrictions prior to the national monument designation." Visitors should note that both Doll House and Moon House are difficult to reach and that extensive planning, preparedness and prior permit from the BLM are required to visit.
Other Nearby Ruins
Three-Kiva Ruin — drive 9 miles off pavement on a gravel road. Sections of the road are very steep and slippery when wet. It is also subject to frequent wash-outs and crosses the stream many times as it goes through the bottom of Montezuma canyon. If there has been bad weather, travel the road with caution.
(route: CR 146/446, then 7.25 miles on CR 146; parking 37.565095, -109.252037)
Bradford Ruin — additional 2.37 miles beyond Three-Kiva Ruin
(Parking 37.585967, -109.269137)
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum
See the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery and relics in southeastern Utah, including an excavated and restored kiva.
Hovenweep National Monument
Drive a blend of paved and improved dirt roads to visit these 700-year-old and older archaeological sites, but fascinating hikes uncover the true expanse and tranquility of this ancient civilization.
Natural Bridges National Monument
The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon at Natural Bridges National Monument. Enjoy from above or hike in. Stay the night for pristine dark skies.
*Always double-check coordinates before setting out.