On Black Friday, I rode mountain bikes with John and hiked to some ruins on Horse Bench, above the lower end of Nine Mile Canyon. The Horse Bench road was closed in 2011 through an agreement with the BLM, Bill Barrett Corp., and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Somehow the BLM was able to circumvent the normal procedure for closing roads and the public lost access without any input or chance to object. Luckily, the official closure order only prohibits the public from driving motorized vehicles on the roads.
We met in Wellington at 7AM and, since he’d already been driving for two hours that morning, John threw his bike onto the rack on the Jeep and hopped in with me. During the drive we saw a bighorn sheep at the mouth of Cottonwood Canyon, in almost the exact same spot I’d seen my first bighorn in Nine Mile last year. We parked at the first of two gates along the road, saddled up, and were riding down the road before 9:00. The first few miles were graded, hard-packed dirt, which made for fast riding. The road became rockier and more loose as we progressed. Just beyond the second gate I saw ATV tracks on the road, but the tracks didn’t go past the gate. Hmm, odd.
As we neared the first the first cluster of ruins it became easier to leave the bikes and hike the remaining distance. We got to the butte with the ruins on it and found the top to be inaccessible. In the satellite imagery it had looked doable, but we hiked around the entire butte and found it surrounded entirely by cliffs. In one spot there was a rope dangling down from the top, but it was a cheap hardware store rope and I didn’t trust it to hold my weight. We found a nearby vantage point where we could look at the ruins from a distance, but I was disappointed not to see them up close. Returning to our bikes, John found that his had a flat tire so he swapped in a new tube and we were on our way again. While heading back to the Horse Bench road we saw a couple of UTVs driving on it.
We rode farther down Horse Bench and again abandoned our mountain bikes and hiked toward another group of ruins. Again we found that the satellite imagery was misleading as we encountered another butte that appeared to be surrounded by cliffs. At the point where the cliffs were the shortest we found a crack that had some potential for climbing. At the top, however, was a constructed wall about five feet high that protects the top of the butte. I was amazed at the amount of work that went into building a defensible fortress. After trying for some time to climb up the crack facing forward, I figured out that I could climb up it more easily with my back to the wall, and I made it to the top. John wasn’t comfortable making the climb and waited below, but he helped shuttle my camera to the top using some nylon webbing. Atop the butte were three dry-laid masonry structures. I noticed no habitation debris or any other signs that the butte had been occupied, other than the circular rock walls themselves. After a brief rest and some lunch, we hiked back to where we’d left our bikes.
It was after 2PM when we returned to the road. We mulled whether to continue east to one last point of interest, but that would have taken us farther away from the Jeep. With the late hour and many miles still left to ride, we decided to turn around and head back. Again, there were more fresh ATV/UTV/motorcycle tracks on the road. Apparently the traffic was coming in from the landing strip near Sand Wash. I’m amazed that the BLM went to the effort requiring two gates on the west side of Horse Bench, but left the door wide open to traffic from the east. We made one last stop near the head of South Frank’s Canyon and hiked to a corral that John had seen in Google Earth. The corral had two sections: one with very sturdy construction made from juniper and pinyon pine trunks, and another with pole-and-rail construction that I would guess is newer. There wasn’t as much refuse as I would have expected to find–just a handful of cans and a few bottles.
We continued to grind almost entirely uphill as the sun went down, and got back to the Jeep at about a quarter past five. It was definitely the right call not to visit the last set of ruins, but that leaves open the possibility of another trip to the area.
Photo Gallery: Horse Bench