Remnants of the Puebluan Past: Cliff Dwellings

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Of all of the ancestral Pueblo dwellings dotting San Juan County, and the Four Corners area at large, none catches the attention quite as much as Cliff Dwellings. Built with adobe brick 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 then than it is today. For this reason, there are hundreds upon hundreds of ruins and cliff dwellings in the area. Outside of Natural Bridges National Monument, there are several popular cliff dwellings to visit in the Cedar Mesa/ 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.

What Makes it Great

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A well-preserved window into the past and an accessible anthropology experience for all make hiking to cliff dwellings great. Your mind will wonder at just how the Pueblo 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.

What You’ll Remember

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If you time your trip to House on Fire just right (generally 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.

Who is Going to Love It

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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.

GPS Coordinates, Parking, and Regulations

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GPS

Butler Wash
(37.522797100, -109.633673400)

House on Fire
(37.542504, -109.730760)

River House Ruin
(37.222791, -109.687882)

Detailed maps to some hard-to-find cliff dwellings can be found at area visitor’s centers.

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. 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 leash.

Difficulty: 1 - 2

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