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Adventure and Healing with the Anasazi

Written by  Roger Moody
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Get Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine on the App Storedownload_nowA cool breeze lifted itself up from the deep canyons that stretched out below us as our casual group of adventurers arrived at our first destination just beyond the southernmost borders of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. The notion was simple, drive Land Cruisers (and a Jeep for good measure) on a backcountry route skirting along the southeastern edge of Canyonlands, in search of indigenous sites left behind by the Anasazi.

The Anasazi, sometimes referred to as the Ancestral Puebloan (though referred to here as the Anasazi for simplicity sake) inhabited the American Southwest from as early as 6500 B.C. to as late as 1600 A.D. Primarily found in the areas the group was exploring are a variety of Basketmaker and Pueblo Era sites which would be characterized by cliff dwellings, pottery sherds, rock art, arrowheads, stone tools, and other lithic scatter. As the group exited the vehicles after a few hours of dusty, dry, rocky, and barren backcountry roads each set off to find a spot along the rim to experience the view stretching out beyond us.  We had arrived.

Adventure and Healing with the Anasazi Toyota Land Cruiser Magazine


Our group of adventurers was diverse; a doctoral student, lawyer, teacher, bioengineer, technology law enforcement, 5 year old kid, traffic controller, and freshman college student. Although each of us came from varied backgrounds, we all came to this adventure with a shared commitment to see and experience as many Anasazi sites we could possibly see while we worked our way along the edge of the park and over to the Dark Canyon Wilderness Area and Cedar Mesa.

Once each person had taken some time with the view that stretched out before us, each individual vehicle and its occupants found their piece of ground and began settling in for the night. Sleeping arrangements of tarps on the ground, inside trucks, ground tents, and of course the requisite roof top tents were used. Beers were consumed; food was cooked using a variety of methods, including a slab of tri-tip cooked on the fire using two weenie roasters. As the sun set over the canyon just mere feet from camp, we enjoyed spirited conversation, banter, and solving the riddles of the universe, which seemed much closer as the canopy of stars came out to greet us.

Adventure and Healing with the Anasazi Utah

The sun rose early and along with it came the desert heat. I was able to break slumber early enough to catch some of the early sun stretching out across the canyon below us.  Attempting to be quiet, the low rattle of zip-zip-zip in small increments as I exited my sleeping bag permeated the silence. I was greeted by some of the local ground squirrels, ravens, and small songbirds, one of which greeted me (or at least the morning sun) with quite the auditory display. I wondered if they were as happy to be there as I was. The crew prepared to drive an additional couple of hours into the Beef Basin area just south of the Needles District of Canyonlands.

Beef Basin is aptly named as wide-open grassy areas fed by a variety of natural springs have led ranchers to run cattle in the basin for many years. All throughout the basin are a variety of Anasazi ruins, granaries, and other structures. It is believed that the indigenous utilized the same natural springs to provide water for basic subsistence and for the irrigation of crops farmed in the area.

Once in Beef Basin, the plan was to hike to a set of two story ruins that were roughly a mile from the end of one of the spur roads out of Beef Basin. In the desert however, things are rarely the same as you once remembered them. On a large scale, things remain generally the same as you can easily recall a particular rock formation or vast landscape, though on the contrary there are ‘roads’ with turnouts and two tracks that can all but vanish with flash floods that are so common in the desert. This was no exception as I had a difficult time remembering where to park multiple vehicles on a narrow, sandy two-track in 98-degree dry desert heat where the metal mules won’t block the road.

Adventure and Healing with the Anasazi Toyota Magazine

We began the hot slog to the ruins. Loading up with water beforehand and drinking along the way did little to alleviate the thick sand of the washes getting into shoes, working their way into socks and grinding on our feet. Beef Basin’s dry desert heat that mid June day took it out of us, and after realizing we were much further than a mile or so, some questioned the sanity of our adventure. “We are very close,” I tell them, “it will be worth it.” We came around a small bend and from below we were able to view the ruins, making the march worth it. Some chose to scramble up to see the ruins up close, some began the endurance race of getting back to the cars, and since I had previously been to the ruins I chose to see what I might find in one of the random washes below. Tucked under a large rock outcropping just out of the main wash were a small wall, faint pictographs, and a few potsherds revealing more about the history of the place.

Looking for some respite from Beef Basin’s heat, we went straight for the high country of Dark Canyon Wilderness Area and the Bear’s Ears. The Bear’s Ears are two large mesas of similar size that when viewed from a distance look to be two large bear ears. Early maps of SE Utah have the Bear’s Ears labeled in one way or another, indicative of the prominence in the area. The Bear’s Ears are also important in Navajo (Dine’) culture as they are viewed as a place of healing and a place of power. As Robert S. McPherson stated in his book, “Sacred Land, Sacred View”,  “Stories associated with this landmark capture the importance of power, prayers, and protection and serve as a mnemonic device in the landscape to ward against treachery, deceit, and cunning”(McPherson, 1992). As we are all in need of healing in one way or another, we made camp on a paradisiacal grassy meadow just below the Bear’s Ears, complete with deer, elk, cows, and solitude.

Adventure and Healing with the Anasazi Toyota Land Cruiser Magazine

The final set of ruins that the group collectively chose to see was that of the Dollhouse Ruin. From camp it required driving a solid hour or more of slow going high clearance 4wd roads. The Dollhouse is a unique set of ruins as it has (up until the last 6-10 years) been kept in a ‘cult’ type status. Those who knew the way were sworn to secrecy; people would take you there but not tell you how to get there, etc. As we turned off the main dirt road to a rutted-out two track, we knew we were close. Up above the Dollhouse is another set of ruins built up on the canyon rim. It has all collapsed though the foundations are all very visible. It was mentioned that potsherds can often be found near ruins, and eyes turned to the ground in search of discovery. Cleverly disguised sandstone flakes that look like potsherds stumped a few of us, though we found a plethora of greyware, black on white, corrugated pottery, and even some sort of handle along with stone chert flakes that appeared to have been flint knapped. As Colby, our youngest explorer began to discover some potsherds of his own, he and his father shared some bonding time together in search of evidence of the indigenous.

The final night was spent in a canopy of pines on cots and tarps under the stars. Satisfaction filled the air.  We were in the right place. The morning came and we laboriously worked our way through breakfast, coffee, packing, and cleaning. We bid farewell to the Bear’s Ears and made for home…healed and feeling the power of backcountry adventure.

Author’s Note:

You don’t need a heavily modified vehicle to do this route. This entire route only required a high clearance vehicle and competent drivers.

Keep it simple. In my vehicle, we camped out under the stars every night, with a tent nearby as a backup if we had to set it up.

Bring less ‘stuff’.

All artifacts were placed back in their respective locations after handling.


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