Last year in early March our office held a ‘Be in the Know’ training for our local businesses and land managers to get geared up and get everyone on the same page for the upcoming tourism season. At the training we met Louis Williams, a local resident who was in the process of opening a guiding business called, ‘Ancient Wayves River and Hiking Adventures‘. Louis let us know that Ancient Wayves was a Navajo owned/operated guiding company, geared towards providing unique experiences through cultural sharing and storytelling.
I talked with Louis for quite a while, and was so excited to be able to start helping to get the word out about his new guiding business. Unfortunately COVID hit Utah a week later and our county pretty much shut down to visitation for a couple months, and, as we all know, the world hasn’t been the same since.
Louis and I have kept in touch since then, and just last week I had the opportunity to go out with him on a guided hike to House on Fire– a well known archaeological site in Bears Ears National Monument. As someone who has probably been to House on Fire at least ten times on my own, it’s a WHOLE different experience when you go with a guide!
House on Fire, located along Hwy 95 between Blanding, UT and Natural Bridges National Monument, has become a very popular site likely due to it’s proximity to Hwy 95 and the fact that it doesn’t require a 4WD or high clearance vehicle to get to the trailhead. It’s also less than a 3 mile round-trip hike to the site, so I’m sure the short hike helps too!
House on Fire is a popular stop for photographers because at certain times of the day when the lighting is just right, the coloration and patterns of the rock above the structure look like flames and smoke are coming out of the top. (I’ve heard people recommend both morning and evening for photographs, but I think as long as you aren’t there in the middle of the day with half sunlight and half shade on the structure, you’ll be able to get a good photo!)
Louis and I met at the trailhead at 8:00am and I was a little surprised to see that there was only one other vehicle at the trailhead- a Sprinter van that appeared to have camped there the previous night. Before we started Louis let me know that in regards to COVID, it’s Anceint Wayves’ standard procedure to do a temperature check before heading out on guided hikes, so he got out his infrared thermometer and took my temperature, which luckily was fine, so we were good to go!
As we started down the trail, Louis immediately started telling me about the rock layers in the canyon and describing how they were formed. He was extremely knowledgeable about geology and as he described things to me it really painted a picture in my mind of what this area might have looked like millions of years ago.
As we continued walking, he began pointing out different plants and telling me about some of the traditional uses for them in Navajo culture & medicine. I will admit, I’ve never been a person who has made much of an effort to learn the names of plants, but it was really interesting to hear about the different uses for each plant, for example he mentioned how sage is used in Navajo sweat lodges. I know that in the future when I see any of these plants, I’m going to remember what he told me they were used for… I might not remember all the names of everything, but I think I’ll remember the uses for them! He also told me that in the Navajo culture, there are specific songs you sing when you harvest different types of things such as Pinon Nuts and Prickly Pear fruit, which I thought was really interesting.
It seemed like no time at all had passed by the time we reached House on Fire, and we were both surprised to see that when we arrived, there was no one else there! We both took some photos, and Louis talked about the structures and how they were constructed, what they might have looked like when they were originally built, what they might have been used for, (granaries for storage, kivas for ceremonies or gatherings, etc.) and theories of why the Ancestral Puebloans left the area.
Even though I’ve visited many archaeological sites over the 12 years I’ve lived here, I’m by no means anything close to an expert on archaeology, geology, history, etc. I always appreciate the cultural & historical significance and the craftsmanship & artistry of the structures, petroglyphs, pictographs, pottery, tools, etc., but I’ve never felt compelled to study it to the point that I can recognize the time periods such as Basketmaker I, II, III, Pueblo I, II, III, IV, V, etc. So it’s always interesting to have the opportunity to hear about it from someone who knows more than I do, and Louis is definitely that person!
We probably spent about 25-30 minutes at House on Fire and we had the site to ourselves the entire time, which I really didn’t think was possible these days! As soon as we started heading back toward the trailhead, we began running into people on their way in to the site. I’d say we passed 6-7 couples, families, or individuals in the short hike back to the trailhead. So if you want to beat the crowds, 8:00am on a weekday worked for us!
On the hike back, Louis pointed out countless other plants and even brought to my attention that there are a few different varieties of Prickly Pear cactus in the area. Years ago when we first moved to Monticello, I had a Prickly Pear flavored drink at an area restaurant, and ever since then I’ve been curious about harvesting the fruit myself, but have never done it. Louis had a lot of great tips for harvesting the fruit, such as to burn the spines off to avoid getting them in your hands or, worse yet, in your mouth! I’m going to give it a try this year… After hearing Louis’s tips I feel confident that I can do it! (So if you see me out hiking with tongs later this summer, that’s what I’m doing!)
Not too far down the trail, we made a quick stop on a side-trail and spotted a couple small pieces of purple glass, which led us not only into a discussion about how old purple glass became purple, (Manganese dioxide was used as a decolorizer in the glass making process, but when exposed to UV rays for prolonged periods, it turns purple or pinkish.) but also into a discussion about the protection of historic artifacts.
I think it’s much more well known that you are not allowed to take any prehistoric artifacts such as pottery sherds, points, etc., that you find at archaeological sites, but I think far fewer people know that historic artifacts, which are defined as items that are 50 years old or older, are also protected by federal law. Friends of Cedar Mesa have a great video about this in their ‘Visit With Respect’ video series:
As always, when we share information about visiting archaeological sites, we also like to share a video on archaeological site etiquette. In the excitement of visiting an archaeological site, it can be easy to forget how fragile these structures are and how easily they can be damaged by people. This video is a good reminder to always make sure to refrain from touching, leaning, standing or climbing on any structures, no matter how solid they look. The ‘Visit With Respect’ video series offers helpful tips on how to ensure that our amazing archaeological sites like House on Fire, can be enjoyed by future generations. If you’d like to view the rest of the videos in the series, please click HERE.
I had a wonderful morning visiting House on Fire with Louis and although I’ve been there many times on my own, this was definitely the most educational visit I’ve ever had! I’ve already shared some of the things I learned from Louis with my husband and son on our most recent outing over the weekend! (Thank you Louis, for helping me sound like I know what I’m talking about when I tell my 8.5 yr old son the things you taught me!)
I would definitely recommend a guided tour with Ancient Wayves to anyone who wants to learn more about the history, archaeology, geology, botany, and culture of Bears Ears National Monument and the surrounding region.
For more information on the wide range of guided trips that are available in San Juan County, be sure to check out the Guides & Outfitters page on our website. Some of the guided activities available include; hiking, backpacking, jeep tours, rafting & kayaking, ATV/OHV, bikepacking, climbing, canyoneering, photography, shuttle services, and more!
For more information or to request travel brochures, please call Utah’s Canyon Country at: 800-574-4386
Or e-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
COVID-19 Travel Restrictions, Updates, and Alerts for San Juan County, Utah can be found HERE