Monticello Field Office

Cedar Mesa: Things To Know Before You Go

Cedar Mesa offers the adventurous visitor a chance to test practiced outdoor recreation skills and Leave No Trace techniques in a rare primitive setting.  Except for a few sites along the US Highway 95 corridor, the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, and the Bullet and Fish and Owl trailheads, you will find no vault toilets or picnic tables.  There is limited seasonal drinking water available during business hours at the ranger station, but no trash receptacles.  Mesa top car camping is primitive and is often accessed along four wheel drive roads.  Hiking is on slickrock  canyon ledges and along wash bottoms and primitive foot paths.  There are no constructed trails or directional signs along the hiking routes. 

Owl CanyonExperience Level

Cedar Mesa is a very difficult place for a first time hiker or backpacker.  Remember, your party is only as strong as its weakest member.  Beginners may want to consider car camping on the mesa top and attempting a few shorter day hikes to become familiar with the area, or hiring a professional guide to see you safely through your trip.  You may also want to try a hike at Natural Bridges or Hovenweep National Monuments, where you will also find visitor centers, toilets, campgrounds, and constructed trails accessing beautiful canyons with ancient ruins.


The trails in the canyons and on the mesa tops are maintained mostly by hikers walking the same route repeatedly, thus allowing a barren path to develop.  It is best to stay on the most impacted route visible to avoid creating unnecessary "social trails".

Where the trail crosses slickrock, there are often cairns (small rock monuments) to point the way.  Please do not add or remove trail cairns.  Many routes into the canyon are not marked.  It is imperative that you obtain and carry a good quality map and be skilled in orienteering and map and compass reading. 

Floods can cause the trail to erode, vegetation to flatten and lie across the trail for miles, and spread much debris across the canyon floor which the trail crosses, making hiking tedious.  Encountering a flash flood is also a serious concern while hiking.  Know the weather forecast before going in the canyons.  Every year flash floods come through the canyons.  Trails and cairns can be wiped out by one good storm.  Volunteer trail crews help to rebuild badly damaged sections of the trail, but there is often a lag time between flood season and trail work. 

The dark crumbly looking soils next to the trails are actually living soil crusts called "cryptobiotic" soil.  They are made up of lichens, mosses, green algae, micro fungi, and cyanobacteria.  These organisms bind the soil together, making it resistant to wind and water erosion.  Walking on these crusts can destroy them; stay on the trail or try to walk only in washes or on rock when possible.  There are usually alternate routes to take in case of high water. 


Knowledge of basic first aid should be a minimum for any hiking party.  In case of emergencies, emergency radio communication and limited aid may be obtained from the rangers at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station when the station is open.  Cell phones usually do not work in the canyons nor in many locations on the mesa tops.  Extended search and rescue is provided by the San Juan County Volunteer Search and Rescue Team through the San Juan County Sheriff's Office.  Response time for the Search and Rescue Team could be as much as 24 hours, and will usually be conducted in daylight hours only.  The rescued party will be held financially responsible for any helicopter flights.  Contact the San Juan County Sheriff at (435) 587-2237.


There are no assigned campsites in the canyon systems of Cedar Mesa, or on the mesa tops at this time.  However, mesa top car camping is limited to well established campsites.  Some in canyon campsites are easily seen from the trail, while others are hidden, with side trails leading to them.  Slickrock camps are a good option.

Motorized vehicles and bicycles must stay on open designated roads.  In the desert it is best to use an established campsite and avoid impacting pristine, undisturbed areas.  Slickrock and non-vegetated ground, without the cryptobiotic crusts, are good choices.  Camp at least 200 feet from water sources to allow wildlife to visit these areas.

Camping and building fires is prohibited in any alcove, overhang, or archeological site.

No fires are allowed in any of the Cedar Mesa Canyons.  On the mesa top, campfires are permitted only in established campsites and campgrounds.  A metal fire pan will be used to protect the site from burn scars.  Pack out all ash and charcoal; do not dump or bury it.  Use only dead and down wood for fires and always burn wood down completely.  Leave no evidence of your fire.


Water conditions vary depending on the canyon and the time of year.  During any time of year, water conditions can vary from week to week.  Stop at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to check conditions before you hike.

Most springs are dry during the summer months.  You may need to pack all of your drinking water.  Recommended minimums are 1 gallon per person per day.  During and after heavy rains, springs can be covered by silt saturated flood water.  The most reliable springs in Grand Gulch are Todie Spring, Sheiks Spring, and Jailhouse Spring.

Use care to avoid polluting water sources.  Pets and pack stock must be closely monitored to prevent trampling and defecating in or near water sources.

Enjoying the Ruins and Rock Art

Ruin on Cedar MesaCedar Mesa and the adjacent canyons were once home to a remarkable prehistoric people.  But this fascinating record of the past is threatened.  The unintentional damage caused by visitors is slowly destroying the remnants of the ancient culture.  These resources are nonrenewable.  Before entering an archeological site, take a few moments to plan your "exploration strategy" to ensure that your visit results in a minimum impact.

A midden is a trash pile left by the original occupants of the site.  It is usually recognized by darkened soil and perhaps a slightly raised area in front of the site.  Do not walk through the midden.  This can destroy valuable archeological information and causes erosion which may undermine the walls of the structures above it.  If a trail has been built across a site, stay on it.  Please respect any area marked as closed to entry, or physically closed to entry.

Climbing on roofs and walls can destroy in a moment what has lasted for hundreds of years.  Do not lean on or climb on walls or roofs or enter any rooms.  Please respect all chain barriers.  Use extra care around plastered walls.  A bump with a backpack can easily break or chip the plaster.

When you see "thousands" of potsherds and other artifacts, leave them where they are.  If each visitor took just one, there would soon be none left.  Putting them into piles takes them out of context, exposes them to weather, and destroys clues needed by professional archeologists gathering information about the site.  Please do not reuse prehistoric grinding stones or surfaces.

Enjoy rock art by viewing, sketching, and photographing it.  Never chalk, trace, or otherwise touch rock art.  Any kind of direct contact causes these ancient figures to disintegrate.  Do not add your name or any other modern day rock art.  This is vandalism and is punishable by law.

Archeological and historical sites are protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906 and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979.  It is illegal to damage or disturb any site or to remove anything from the site.  Notify the Bureau of Land Management or the County Sheriff if you discover any illegal activity.

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