A Most Beautiful Failure
By Matt Marine, with Dale Brech, Scott Duecker, Bill Wittke and Mike and Angel Lineberger
During last fall’s 50th birthday camping adventure I had one of the most beautiful failures of my life - not making it to the Pueblo Canyon Indian ruins. Although disappointed, I also found a lot to be grateful for during my misadventure.
This was my second attempt at reaching the ruins. My first was in the spring of 2014 when we failed even more miserably than today. During that trip, we hit rain, snow and thundershowers. We made it less than ½ a mile from our Jeeps before heavy rain and lightning made us turn back.
Now, as I stood at the trail head and looked up at the sun shining on the mountain, I knew we were not going to be bothered by weather this time. We would, however, be bothered by technology, lack of adequate leg muscles and lung capacity. All of which combined to keep the ruins elusive. At least for me.
The Pueblo Canyon ruins are perhaps some of the best known, hard to reach ruins in the area. There are multiple ruins along a high cliff face on the side of a narrow canyon. I had read stories about how difficult these were to reach, but thought I had a way to beat the odds. The directions I'd found were not clear and I believed, mistakenly, that they began from the Devil’s Chasm trail head, which included about a mile and a half hike up a road that many people choose to walk, not drive.
I like to drive when I can, so instead of a 7 mile, 2500 foot elevation gain hike, I thought we only had a 4 mile, 1500 elevation gain hike. This was confirmed by some GPS coordinates I received for the ruins, mistakingly locating them on the southern side of the canyon.
All these revelations would come later and everyone was in high spirits as we began our hike up the old mining road. Joining me on this adventure was my trusty Cat-dog Cammie, Scott, Dale, Bill, Mike and my sister Angel. We began our hike at about 9 am and it was much warmer than any of us expected it to be in November. It would only be considered hot if you were climbing a seemingly never ending steep incline.
So it was hot.
The view from the parking area is quite intimidating - steep mountains with unclimbable vertical rockfaces leading into a narrow canyon. But I had a good feeling about today's adventure and headed off in good spirits.
It didn’t take us long to pass the wilderness boundary, House Rock and finally Petroglyph Rock. I knew this section of the trail well since we’d done it on our Cold Spring adventure a year earlier. We looked across the canyon and sighted Cooper Forks ruins in the distance. I mentally added that to my to do list. But first, there was Pueblo Canyon to conquer.
We took the right fork at Petroglyph Rock and climbed into new territory. The trail become harder to follow at this point, but I had my GPS and had previously marked a bunch of breadcrumbs (waypoints) along the alleged route. We climbed and climbed, then climbed some more. The trail seemed to follow an old road to a point, then it disappeared, becoming more of a game trail than hiking trail.
The views into the canyon and down to Cherry Creek were gorgeous. Ribbons of colorful trees lined the canyons where water flowed. Red and orange colored rock walls reached for the sky. The hills were covered in a thick green carpet of small trees and bushes. Beautiful, but difficult.
After climbing up a sharp switchback, we came to a Y-intersection. We had climbed over 1,000 feet in elevation in just over one mile and we were all tired. But the ruins were not that far away. At least that’s what my GPS said. We surveyed our choices. The left fork looked more traveled, but the right seemed to make more sense. I took a look at my GPS coordinates and found the next waypoint was to the left, so we went left. After no more than 100 yards of steep climbing, we came to what looked like a dead end. Once again I went to my GPS. It showed we were very close to the next Waypoint.
We hunted and hunted for a way to continue, Scott taking one possible trail, Dale another and me on a third. We kept in contact via hand held radios. We continued searching for any outlets that made sense, but after about 30 minutes, we concluded there was not one.
Our only option was to return to the Y-intersection and take the other trail. We climbed back down the trail and took the other direction. Within a few hundred yards it was clear that this was the correct route. It was also clear that many people had been fooled by the incorrect Waypoint and had made the same mistake.
Unbeknownst to me, this would become the norm for the rest of the hike. After the Y-intersection the trail deteriorated even more. Although not climbing straight up, it traversed the side of the canyon and went up and down in short climbs and dips. These were very steep and overgrown. It was not easy. My legs were beginning to get wobbly and even Cat-dog was looking tired.
When we came to an overlook, Dale, who was leading the way, yelled, “Look at the ruins across the canyon!”
“Awesome. I wonder if they are also part of the Pueblo Canyon ruins?” Someone else said.
“It’s odd. Usually cliff dwellings are on the south face in order to get the winter sun…”
- Dale, just moments before Scott looked across to the south face cliff, where the ruins shone in a brilliant glow from the sun.
Ruins across the canyon? I wondered why all the information I’d read on these ruins didn’t mention any ruins on the opposite side of the canyon. I got out my GPS. The GPS coordinates for the ruins located them on the south side of the canyon, not far from where we were standing. When I reached Dale and saw the extensive ruins he was looking at, I got a sick feeling in my stomach.
I swallowed hard before speaking. “Those are the Pueblo Canyon ruins,” I said, finally understanding the truth.
Angel turned to me. “What?”
The GPS coordinates I had for the ruins placed them on the south side of the canyon. But they were wrong. The Pueblo Canyon ruins were actually on the north side of the canyon.
At this point I was exhausted. I had climbed over 1400 feet in total elevation gain and fought my way through the branches and brambles on the steep mountainside. Although we were less than a quarter of a mile (as the crow flies) across the canyon from the ruins, you needed to be a crow to cross the canyon. To get to the ruins, we would have to find the apex of the canyon to cross to the other side. I looked up the canyon. I couldn't see the canyon’s apex.
I checked the topo map on my GPS and did a quick calculation. We had another 1.5 miles (one way) of hiking to get to the ruins. Although there was not a great deal of total elevation gain, all the little dips and climbs would make the going extremely tough.
Everyone took stock of their situation. I was tired and although I might have been able to make it, I knew I would get sick from overdoing it. I reluctantly told everyone I was done. Mike, Angel and Bill agreed and were done also.
Scott and Dale did not give up as easily. They really wanted to make it to the ruins. Scott had made the Devil’s Chasm hike the year before and thought he was ready for the challenge. Dale was one of the biggest supporters of this adventure and I think our defeat earlier in the year left a bad taste in his mouth. They both wanted to give it a go.
The division made sense. Both Dale and Scott had yet to reach the young age of 40. The rest of us were all over 50, with me being the youngest. So I gave Scott my GPS so he could record the track and the under 40 crowd set off to find the ruins.
The old-timers decided to rest our weary bones before heading back down. We kept in contact with Scott and Dale with our FRS radios. We spotted them as they emerged from the foilage when they found another lookout. It had taken them almost 20 minutes to hike ¼ of a mile in the rough terrain. We called them on the radio and wished them luck before they disappeared in the thick underbrush and trees again.
Defeated and exhausted, the rest of us began the long trek back to the Jeeps. By now we had been hiking for about four hours. Wobbly legs, steep inclines and loose rock are not a great combination and it was slow going for the first ½ mile.
“Bear!” the radio crackled to life, surprising us.
“What?” I called back, not sure I’d heard right.
“We … saw … a bear!” Scott called out, his breathing coming in quick gasps.
“You guys okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” his voice came back through the static. “We heard some crashing sounds in the brush. It saw us and ran away. We only caught a glimpse of it through the trees.”
“Be careful.” Being confronted by a bear is never a good thing. Being confronted on the side of this canyon was even more dangerous.
“We will,” came his reply.
I put the radio back in my pocket and continued to climb down the mountain. It was about then that I noticed Cat-dog wasn’t heading off to sniff around during our rest stops as she usually does. My back was hurting and at one relatively smooth section of the trail, I decided to lie down for a few minutes and give my back a rest. Cammie did the same. She curled up and started to take a nap right there in the middle of the trail! I have never seen her so tired before. Poor pup, but we didn’t have time to nap. We had to get back to the Jeeps and make it to the campsite before dark.
Once we reached Petroglyph Rock, the going was much easier and we began making better time. We took our last rest near the Wilderness boundary and Cammie promptly went to sleep in the shade of a tree. Although I felt bad about waking her up, I knew she would sleep better in the back seat of the Jeep, which wasn’t too far away.
We were able to contact Scott and Dale one more time via radio when they reached the ruins, but our calls after that went unanswered. I began to get another sick feeling in my stomach. I couldn't help but fear they had a closer encounter with the bear they'd seen earlier or taken a tumble off the cliff.
We got back to the Jeeps. I gave Cammie a long drink of water while I polished off a full bottle of Gatoraide. She quickly climbed in the back seat and fell asleep before I pulled out of my parking spot.
Although I had failed to make it to the ruins, I wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was a beautiful experience - one that I will never forget. But I was completely exhausted and all I wanted to do was have dinner and go to bed.
We made camp less than an hour later as darkness settled into the canyon. I was getting very worried about Scott and Dale. If they had gotten into trouble, there was nothing we could do until morning. Going back up there in the dark was foolhardy. Besides, none of us could physically make the climb again. I turned to look at the now dark mountains looming above us.
If they were in trouble, they were on their own until the morning.
Click here for Part II - A Beautiful Success!
Pictures from the Trip
Looking up into the canyon
Taking a break at House Rock
Petroglyph Rock showing the way to Pueblo Canyon
Looking across the canyon at Petroglyph Rock
Dale, taking a break next to the cliff face
Dale climbing up a section of the trail with some nice trees
Cat-dog ready to continue on the way up
Cat-dog surveying the canyon below
Mike and Cat-dog climbing up a steep section of the trail
Bill along the trail
Cat-dog loved the view
Our first view of the ruins across the canyon
Pueblo Canyon Ruins
Pueblo Canyon Ruins
Pueblo Canyon Ruins
Pueblo Canyon Ruins
Scott and Dale at the second outlook
Taking a break along the trail on our way back
Three tired pups
One of the many breaks we took on the way back
Walking through the tall grass on our way home
The sun setting behind the cliffs
Sun going down
Cat-dog taking a catnap along the trail
One tired pup
"Take as long as you need, I'll just be napping here in the soft leaves."
Bigfoot print made from rocks
Aahhhh, finally a good place for a nice nap
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
No member comments yet.