Best Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah (Day 3)

The Citadel: With a 360-degree view of the horizon in all directions, who wouldn’t want to live here?

Stephanie Scott

This is day three of a six-day hike. Don't miss the other five adventures of Best Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah.

A bit tired after our long, full day in Sheik’s Canyon, photographer Stephanie Scott and I opted for a shorter hike on Day Three. We’d also planned to drive down to Bluff that evening and spend a night at Recapture Lodge (my favorite hostelry in Utah), take showers, visit a few friends of mine who live in God’s Country and eat a dinner cooked by a real chef in a real restaurant. Our timing was perfect, for the forecast called for afternoon thunderstorms. Rain’s not a problem for hiking on Cedar Mesa, but it can sure mess up driving to the roadheads from which the clever shortcuts deliver you into the canyons. Most of the surface soil on the mesa is a brownish-orange clay. An hour’s steady downpour turns the dirt roads into skating rinks on which not even a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle can stay in motion and on route. Several times, after a glorious sunset around a tranquil campfire, I’ve awakened to rain or sleet and had to bail at 3:00 AM to avoid getting stuck on an impassable mud track where I might have to wait two or three days for the road to dry out.

I thought that Stephanie and I could sneak into the Citadel before the rains came. Even with plenty of time for photography and contemplation, it’s only a four-hour hike round-trip from a certain bend of Road Canyon, some seven miles in on the Cigarette Springs road. Though a splendid ruin in its own right, the Citadel’s claim to glory is its natural setting, unmatched anywhere else on Cedar Mesa.

The Citadel's Past
I first discovered the site quite by accident in late October 1993, on the second day of a four-day solo jaunt into Road Canyon, during which I saw neither another soul nor a footprint not my own. I spotted the ruin from 500 feet below, and it took hours to suss out a ledge-crawling climb to get into the place. If it was known as the Citadel in 1993, I’d never heard of it (I called it Peninsula House in my book about the Anasazi, In Search of the Old Ones). Nineteen years ago, the place was still a well-guarded secret among the Cedar Mesa cognoscenti. Today, it’s on every devoted hiker’s tick list.

That evening in Bluff, I would chat with Vaughn Hadenfeldt, the founder-owner of Far Out Expeditions, the finest wilderness guide I’ve ever met and the person who knows Cedar Mesa better than anyone else alive. One of my best friends during the last eighteen years, Vaughn taught me more about the Snazi (as he nicknames the Old Ones) than anyone else, and we’ve shared many a discovery lark over the years. But that evening in Bluff, he was in a sour mood. “Took some clients out to the Citadel three days ago,” he said, swilling a Pabst Blue Ribbon. “There were forty-five people there. All the best sites are getting hammered.”

Yet on Day Three, Stephanie and I saw no one else on our way to and from the Citadel and during the hour we spent admiring its every feature. We hiked down a shallow side canyon of Road, then emerged on a slickrock promontory. Before us to the east sprang the sandstone isthmus, seeming to float in the sky. There’s only one approach: a sinuous gangplank that twists its way toward the layered caprock crest that terminates the peninsula.

As we walked the gangplank, I pointed out the low stone walls that twice run athwart it, each with a gap for doorway. “They’re not defensive,” I said. “I think they’re ceremonial gateways. You could pass through them only if the guys up on top signaled that it was okay. And when you did, you knew you were being admitted to a special place.”

Looking Up and Out
The cunning thing about the Citadel is that you can’t see the ruins until you stand twenty feet below them, on a bench on the south side of the summit cliffs. As the roomblock suddenly popped into sight, I watched Stephanie’s gaze. I’d counted on her involuntary gasp, and she came through on cue.

The Citadel, in one sense, is a modest site. There’s no rock art there. But the four big rooms, exquisitely masoned, range 36 feet from one end to the other, their front walls as flush as any plumb line could design them. The builders didn’t bother with roofs—instead they masoned the walls all the way up to the ceiling that guards the site, seven feet off the floor. And the mushroom caprock that crowns the roomblock gleams in a kaleidoscope of wavy, mottled orange and gray-green bands. Van Gogh would have painted it.

Stephanie wore out her camera shooting the place. Then we circled around back, climbed a chimney that still bore the hand-and-toeholds gouged out by the Snazi, and emerged on the summit, where a single piňon sprouted bravely from a crack. On the west edge, overlooking the approach gangplank, a low wall of stones stood in place. I lay prone and peered over the wall. “See,” I demonstrated, “you could hide here and watch anybody coming. Sort out the bad guys from the good. It’s a pretty defensive ruin, after all.”

What makes the Citadel unique is that it’s the only site on Cedar Mesa from which you have a full 360-degree view of the horizon in all directions. Who wouldn’t want to live here? Until, of course, you ran out of water. The nearest reliable source is the creekbed of Road Canyon, 500 feet below by the most devious of scrambles. And even the canyon runs dry in a bad month.

Still, how could I complain? Each visit to a place like the Citadel reconnects me to the awe-struck newcomer who first explored Cedar Mesa more than twenty years before. And to take someone else to the ruin for the first time never fails to zap me with vicarious joy.

While Stephanie tinkered with her lenses, I searched the ledges below the ruin for potsherds. When I first arrived here in 1993, they were scattered all over; now I found only four or five, pieces of grayware that blended into the assemblage of resident stones. The biggest change on Cedar Mesa, as it becomes more popular, is the disappearance of the potsherds. The same hikers who wouldn’t dream of scratching their names on a ruin wall (as Wetherill’s cowboy sleuths did time and again) can’t resist the urge to pocket a souvenir or two—despite the fact that such a deed is illegal, a violation of the Antiquities Act of 1906.  And it’s the pretty stuff—Mesa Verde black-on-white, Tusayan polychrome—that vanishes first.

Dark cumulus clouds were massing in the west, and the wind was picking up.  We got back to the car as the rain started down, and back to the asphalt highway just before the clay road turned to slick mud. We were halfway through our six days on Cedar Mesa, and whatever the temptations of the fleshpots of Bluff, we couldn’t wait to head back out the next morning.

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