Just a few miles west of Bluff is Comb Ridge, a steep ridge running 80 miles in a north/south direction from Kayenta, Arizona to the foothills of the Abajo Mountains near Blanding, Utah. Tilted at almost 20 degrees and over one mile wide, the name comes from the jagged appearance of the ridge which is similar in shape to a rooster’s comb.
This natural marvel is a classic example of what geologists call a monocline, or a step-like bend of the earth’s rock layers in one direction. This blunt rock extension occurred nearly 65 million years ago, when tectonic plates buried deep under the earth’s surface slipped, leaving a rugged scar across once smooth stone.
Parts of the Comb are now protected and form the major part of the Shash Jaa Unit of Bears Ears National Monument.
Archaeological surveys of the Ridge have revealed more of the formation’s ancient secrets, from Ice Age camps and 800-year-old Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, to historic artifacts of Anglo settlers, and strange lanes carved into the earth across miles of desert. These are Ancestral Puebloan roads and “Anasazi roads” are believed to connect places of significance.
In 1880, Mormon pioneers on the last leg of their grueling Hole-in-the-Rock trek crossed the structure before settling Bluff. Knowing Comb Ridge was a formidable obstacle, they traveled south along the Comb to the San Juan River. There they built another dugway up the face of Comb Ridge naming it “San Juan Hill”.
Ancestral Puebloans once found refuge in the Comb’s alcoves. Vacationers wishing to explore the rich archeological aspects of the Comb can discover traces of the ancient Ancestral Puebloan culture via ruins and rock art on the canvas of cave walls. Each cleft in Comb Ridge indicates a small canyon created by flash floods that can be accessed from behind the ancient stretch of rock formation.
As you drive west from Bluff on Highway 163, you will cross the Ridge. Two, parallel gravel roads run north/south on either side of Comb Ridge: Comb Wash (County Road 235) to the west of Comb Ridge and Butler Wash (County Road 230) to the east. The roads link to Highway 95 on the north.
Butler Wash has entrances to numerous, short, box canyons which contain rock art and ruins. North of Highway 95 are the Butler Wash Ruins overlook. This is a cliff dwelling built and occupied by Ancestral Puebloans around 1200. Parts of the site have been stabilized and reconstructed. Round trip hiking distance is about 1 mile. Parking and a restroom are available.
We recommend booking a guide when exploring Comb Ridge and Butler Wash. Bluff is home to well-known guides that can give you with an unforgettable experience, and provide valuable insights about Ancestral Puebloans and the land that the novice visitor might miss.
Comb Ridge dwelling remains and rock art are extremely fragile and are of important cultural significance. To preserve this important landscape for future generations, visitors should refrain from touching rock art or moving artifacts. Before you go, check out the Visit with Respect tips offered by our guest blogger, Erica Tucker.
Fees: A permit is required from the Bureau of Land Management for hiking for day use and overnight backpacking in Butler Wash. Day use permits (except for Moon House) are available at self-pay locations at trailheads.
Camping: Just south of Highway 95 on Butler Wash is the Comb Wash Campground which features dispersed camping and pit toilets. No water is available. Dispersed camping is also allowed along Comb Wash and Butler Wash. You must stay on previously disturbed areas within 150 feet of designated routes and should not drive off road to create a new campsite. Please do not camp inside ruins. Plan on bringing your own water and to pack out your trash and waste.