Comb Ridge: Rocks standing up
Less than 10 miles west of Bluff lies the geological marvel known as Comb Ridge.
Stretching more than 80 miles from south to north, this feature is a jagged monocline created approximately 65 million years ago when underground tectonic plates shifted to raise a sandstone rim almost 20 degrees in pitch.
The formation runs northeasterly from Kayenta, AZ to the Abajo Mountains near Blanding, and takes its name from the jagged series of seriated outcroppings that resemble a rooster’s comb.
To Navajo people, Comb Ridge is known as Tse’ K’a’a’n, or Rocks Standing Up, and figures prominently in many origin legends.
Often referred to as Big Snake, it is believed to be the home of the wind, where breezes go to sleep at night. The stone rim rises more than 700 feet above its eastern edge and is accessible from a rough, but drivable, dirt road called Butler Wash.
This road stretches from Highway 163 northward to Highway 95 just south of Blanding. Looking east from the top of the ridge you can see a large swath of the Four Corners.
Southwest of the ridgeline one sees the wonders of Monument Valley nearly 1,200 feet below.
Comb Ridge’s rugged crest reveals sand dunes petrified over eons. This formidable outcropping has always been an impediment to travel.
Difficulty notwithstanding, trails dating to the Ancient Puebloan culture have been identified along its rugged spine. Additionally, one of the greatest challenges to early Euro-American settlers was cutting wagon roads through the stone barrier.
At the southern end of the ridge, between Bluff and Mexican Hat, is the dramatic roadway called San Juan Hill. This pathway was used by early pioneers to overcome the sandstone wall and enter Bluff’s scenic river valley.
Prehistoric sites dot the Comb Ridge landscape, with prominent archaeological features such as the Wolfman Panel, Monarch Cave, Split Level Ruin, and other attractions available to hikers.
Some are located within easy walking distance from Butler Wash Road, while others take considerably more effort to reach.
Due to the area’s dry and arid climate, nearly all the sites are remarkably well preserved. Permits from the BLM are required for overnight backpacking and camping and much of Comb Ridge is found within the truncated Bears Ears National Monument.
One of the most dramatic and graphic of all Anasazi rock art scenes is referred to as the Procession Panel, so named for three lines of tiny human figures which seem to be marching toward a large central circle.
Parking just east of Butler Wash, today’s explorers can make the 2.8-mile round-trip by negotiating the smooth rock surface that rises 510 feet in elevation from the arroyo floor.
The rock art panel and panoramic views both north and south are stunning and well worth the effort.
More than 30 miles north of old San Juan Hill is another passage cut through the Comb. West of Blanding on Hwy 95 is a man-made gap allowing access to Natural Bridges National Monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Another passable dirt drive, found at the bottom of the ridge, leads southward along Comb Wash.
Whether your interest is geology, archaeology, photography, or just great scenery, the natural phenomena called Comb Ridge is an attraction that fascinates the first-time visitor and those of us fortunate enough to be its neighbor.