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Experience the ancient secrets and pristine artifacts of Utah's Moon House before it's too late

It was a balmy March morning, and I was speeding down a glorious stretch of Utah highway alongside soaring red-rock cliffs and the churning Colorado River.

I cruised through frenetic Moab, heading south past the tidy Mormon hamlets of Monticello and Blanding toward a remote canyon on Cedar Mesa that holds one of the country's least known but most tantalizing treasures.

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I'd been dreaming of Moon House since learning of it on a trip to southeast Utah a few years ago. Images of the ancient, nearly pristine Anasazi compound, with its 49 buildings and cosmic artwork, loomed in my mind like some American El Dorado.

And then there was the shroud of secrecy hanging over it all.

A secret no longer

Facebook pages dedicated to Southwestern archaeology chide posters who reveal too much, and stories abound of locals deliberately obscuring the route. The Internet, of course, has rendered all of that moot.

The walls are made of a kind of mud stucco called jacal, smoothed over with sticks and branches. This artwork is thought to depict a young child.
The walls are made of a kind of mud stucco called jacal, smoothed over with sticks and branches. This artwork is thought to depict a young child. (David Kelly)

For its part, the Bureau of Land Management issues just 20 permits a day for the site. And there are calls for federal action to designate Cedar Mesa, home to one of the largest concentrations of pre-Columbian ruins in the U.S., a national monument or national conservation area, restricting access even further.

But I still had time to experience it in the wild. So after spending the night in Bluff, I rented a Jeep for the rugged last leg of the trip.

Motoring along Highway 163, I cut across the Valley of the Gods, a wondrous collection of crimson spires, and ascended a twisting road to Cedar Mesa. From there, I turned onto a narrow dirt path that devolved into broad, uneven slabs of sandstone. After eight miles of peaks and plunges, I bounced to the edge of McLoyd Canyon, where I found myself alone.

I stepped unsteadily into the bright desert and followed a steep 11/2- mile trail to the canyon floor before heading straight up the other side. A great fortress-like building abruptly appeared near the top, a huge snake painted above it.

I moved closer, spying a small doorway in the 90-foot-long wall. I crawled through, emerging inside a cool, dark hallway with window-like openings on top.

The walls, maybe 6 feet high, were like nothing I'd seen in other ruins. They weren't mortared stone but sticks smoothed over with mud, forming a kind of plaster. The fingerprints of those who worked it centuries ago were still visible. A white banner with dots and triangles was painted across the wall.

Five other doors led into separate, empty rooms.

I illuminated the largest with a flashlight. There was another white banner, but this one held the image of a full moon on one wall and a crescent moon on the other. The preservation was stunning. Some scientists believe the Anasazi were depicting a solar eclipse.

A full moon depicted on the wall of the largest room inside Moon House gives the site its name.
A full moon depicted on the wall of the largest room inside Moon House gives the site its name. (David Kelly)

Another room had rounded peepholes in the wall that allowed surveillance of both sides of the canyon.

I sat inside the hall considering the vanished world around me. Humans inhabited Cedar Mesa for more than 10,000 years. They chronicled their lives in petroglyphs, farmed this arid desert and worshiped in kivas.

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I imagined ghostly figures filing in and out carrying grain or crafting pottery. Sometimes in that spooky silence, I thought I could hear their voices.

I shook off the reverie and ducked outside to inspect rows of homes, granaries and kivas lining the cliff edge.

Then I spotted a perfectly preserved set of toddler footprints in plaster. I traced the outline with my finger.

That's when I realized the magic of Moon House — a wilderness without fences where a 21st century man could reach across the centuries to touch the tracks of an ancient child.

But what was Moon House, anyway?

Exploring ruins

I asked renowned Southwestern archaeologist William Lipe, who mapped the site in 1974.

He said Moon House was probably a small community in the late 1240s and 1250s at a time of dramatic change. Constant raiding and perhaps the lure of new religious and social movements had sparked an exodus from Cedar Mesa to more secure areas in Mesa Verde and the Montezuma Valley of Colorado.

The landscape near Moon House on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah.
The landscape near Moon House on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. (David Kelly)

By 1260, the mesa was largely empty except for Moon House, converted to a defensive redoubt and grain depot for a few remaining farmers. Eight years later it too was empty, perhaps the last place on Cedar Mesa abandoned.

"People don't realize how fragile it is," Lipe said. "They can damage it by walking in the wrong place, leaning on the wrong wall. Some of the paint has already been eroded.

"Moon House needs to be taken care of. It's a national treasure."

As I hiked up the canyon, I found smashed kivas along with storage bins and crumbled homes. Strange human-like figures were chiseled into rocky alcoves. I hopped to the canyon floor, crossed a stream and discovered grinding stones and more petroglyphs beneath an overhang.

As the ruins went on and on, I explored with childlike abandon, wondering whether another Moon House lay undiscovered around the next bend. A thrilling, if unlikely, proposition.

Hours later, I watched the waning sun cast shadows across the canyon. A golden eagle soared overhead, harassed by jabbering ravens.

Protective visitors

When I finally wandered back to Moon House, I found Ted Wood there.

He saw my notebook.

"Don't tell people how to get here," he said, half-joking.

Like others Wood, a photojournalist, feared more visitors would lead to more regulations, damage and perhaps closure of the site.

"There's still a mystery to the West, and that mystery feeds the imagination and the soul," he said. "A lot of that has already been lost. I don't want to lose this."

Neither does Rob Gay.

Gay first visited Moon House nearly a decade ago and was so smitten that he had the snake pictograph tattooed on his arm. Then he wrote "The Marauders," a fictional account of eco-saboteurs battling plans to make Moon House a national monument.

"Moon House was the first time in my exploration across the Southwest that I felt a real, genuine connection to the land and people who built these ruins," Gay told me when I reached him at his Arizona home.

The dialogue in his book illustrates the dilemma of trying to safeguard such sites.

"Places like this are best protected by their secrecy. …The more people know about a place, the more people treat it badly and steal … from it!" one character says.

"Yeah, secrecy has obviously worked great for it so far," the other retorts. "Almost no artifacts left, known mainly to pot hunters and anyone who can surf the ... Internet! Stop the bleeding and give it the protection it deserves!"

It was late afternoon when I climbed out of the canyon, a moderate 30-minute hike, and drove a rough but beautiful dirt road through the desert toward Bluff.

A warm wind blew fine red sand through the Jeep window as I passed sculpted rock towers glowing like rubies against the dying sun. Still, I felt oddly torn by my unfettered adventure.

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How long could unprotected sites such as Moon House endure?

And if the price of new restrictions is less mystery, what is the price of doing nothing?

I suspect the days of exploring ruins such as Moon House without ropes or guards are numbered. And that may be a good thing. But I'm glad I saw it when I did.

::

If you go

The best way to Moon House, Utah

From LAX, United, American and Southwest offer nonstop service to Denver, and United, American, Delta and Southwest offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $526. Southwest, American, United and Delta offer nonstop service to Phoenix, and American, Delta and United offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $201. United, American and Southwest offer nonstop service to Albuquerque, and Southwest, American, Delta and United offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $258. Blanding and Bluff are closest to Cedar Mesa. Both towns are accessible from the Denver, Phoenix and Albuquerque airports. You will need to drive four to seven hours to reach these towns after landing.

WHERE TO STAY

La Posada Pintada, 239 N. 7th E (Navajo Twins Drive), Bluff; (435) 459-2274, www.laposadapintada.com. A small, reasonably priced B&B with balconies overlooking the desert, plus a refrigerator, microwave and good Wi-Fi. I paid $100 a night for a queen room.

JEEP RENTAL

Four Corners Adventures, 2625 S. Highway 191, Bluff; (435) 672-2244, www.fourcornersadventures.com/tours.html, dallin@fourcornersadventures.com You might be able to reach Moon House in a two-wheel-drive vehicle, but I don't see how. High clearance is a must. A one-day Jeep rental cost me $173, and it was worth it. Dallin Tait, one of the managers, was extremely helpful and showed me alternative routes back from Moon House that added to the adventure.

PERMITS

Bureau of Land Management (www.lat.ms/1M7dFtG) allows just 20 people inside Moon House per day. Call the Cedar Mesa permit office at (435) 587-1510 between 8 a.m. and noon Mountain Time Mondays-Fridays to reserve permits. Walk-in permits for Moon House are available daily and must be obtained at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station during the high season (March 1-June 15 and Sept. 1-Oct. 31). During the low season (Nov. 1-Feb. 28 and June 16-Aug. 31), self-pay envelopes and registration forms are available at the trailheads. The fee is $2 per person. The round-trip hike from the parking area to the site is three miles and moderately difficult. Bring enough water in summer. Don't enter rooms, lean or sit on walls or eat in Moon House. Leave artifacts where they are.

TO LEARN MORE

"A Hiking Guide to Cedar Mesa," by Peter Francis Tassoni provides detailed directions.

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