Lower Butler Wash Ruin & Petroglyphs

Round Trip Distance: 2.8 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 4282 - 4484 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 3 hrs.
Trailhead: Bluff Airport Rd.
Fee: none
Attractions: cliff dwelling, petroglyphs

Several cliff dwellings and petroglyphs sites can be found on the east side of Comb Ridge, near Bluff, Utah, in the section of Butler Wash between UT-163 and the San Juan River. This post is for the cliff dwelling that is closest to the San Juan River. Besides the petroglyphs that are found at the cliff dwelling there are more a short distance away as well as scores of petroglyphs all along the cliffs above the San Juan River. There is also an interesting and unique petroglyph of animal tracks that is in the middle of the trail before it enters the bottom of Butler Wash.

From Bluff travel west on UT-163 for 4 miles and turn left at the sign for the airport. After a few hundred feet turn right at an old well dry hole marker and continue on the 4wd road for 1.4 miles to a large expanse of slickrock near the rim of Butler Wash. Whether you actually need to use 4wd will depend upon you and your vehicle but there are some sandy spots and a few places where moderate ground clearance is needed to get over some rough protruding sandstone. There is plenty of room to park at the turnoff for those that need to hike or bike the 4WD road.

There isn't a trailhead sign but from the edge of the canyon you should be able to spot an old stock dugway that provides easy access to the main wash. Once you spot the ramp sloping into the canyon off in the distance it is relatively easy to plot your course to that point. From there it is just a matter of heading down the wash to the river.

Right around the quarter mile point the trail is shored up on the canyon side with a wall of dry stacked rocks. The trail has a sharp switchback as it crosses a sidewash at this point. As the trail begins straightening it passes over a patch of slickrock where a keen eye can pick out a man made animal trackway. You might also be able to spot another petroglyph on the same slab that some claim is a pig but is probably a fox, coyote or dog. (Pigs have curly tails and aren't indigenous to the Americas.) We actually put a circle of rocks around the images so people would stop walking on them.

Once the trail enters the wash it travels through a thick growth of brush. Shortly before we made this trip someone had taken a pair of trimmers to the russian olives and opened up the pathway very nicely.

Right before the 1 mile point from the trailhead there is an accessible alcove on the right with the remains of a cliff dwelling. There is also a good assortment of petroglyphs, a large boulder with metate's ground into its surface, and a few other interesting features that are worth examining. This is a semi family friendly hike so if you have any youngsters in tow be sure to instruct them not to touch the walls or petroglyphs. Across the canyon from the ruin is a shallow alcove with a small rubble pile. We only noticed a single shard of pottery but around the middle of that alcove there are some faint red painted hand pictographs.

Within another quarter mile down stream there are more petroglyphs on the west side of the wash that are worth taking the time to see.

On this image, for instance, you should be able to pick out the eyes and mouth and dangling jewelry.

It is only another tenth of a mile to reach the San Juan River.

Petroglyphs along the cliff appear to be at least 3 distinct styles that date over a very long period of time.

Most of the images that are lower on the cliff are very vivid and appear newer and of a singular style.

Higher up on the cliff the images are much fainter and appear quite a bit older. At the time the higher petroglyphs were created there may also have been more fill or another rock structure in front of the cliff. This image that looks like a duck with 2 atlatls, one that has what look like wings, protruding from its back upon which is standing an anthropomorphic image playing a flute with a katsina feather in its cap. The long rectangle above the flute might be a cloud with falling rain. Is this a 'rain bringer' motif or something else?

The two lobed circles representing the War Twins that can be seen just below.

Not sure what this represents but once I got the idea of an 'imp on the shoulder' stuck in my head I could think of nothing else.

Sun katsina where the dots within the body represent the sun's radiance. Patterson pg. 63

This might be a Thunder god with thunder emanating from its head.

These images are found on a section of cliff above the trail maybe halfway to the cliff dwelling. We included it because the snake can be seen with the end of a spiral emanating from its mouth. Whether it has a similar meaning to an ouroboros, or snake eating its tail, representing rebirth, immortality or eternity is something to wonder about.

It took 2 trips to get the photos for this post. On the first trip we didn't see any other hikers. The sun was setting before we finished taking photos of the panels above the San Juan River. On the second trip we saw 22 other people, most of which were part of a large group from Durango. A zoom lens will be needed to photograph all of the higher images above the river and if you don't step back and look up you might miss them entirely. Out of curiosity we tried hiking west along the river to the Kachina Panels just to discover that about halfway there the river bumps up against the cliff bringing the hope for a shortcut to an end. The Lower Butler Wash ruin by itself is worth the trip and all the other petroglyphs really top it off. If you would like to see them for yourself all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.