What is Ruin Park:
Out in the middle of nowhere, four hours away from any civilization (Moab or Monticello, Utah), is a little-known place called Ruin Park. It’s a gorgeous area in the high desert that is just five miles south of the Canyonlands National Park-Needles District border. Ruin park really should have been included within the borders of its more well-known neighbor. Everywhere in this valley is evidence of a mysterious, ancient people known as the Anasazi (or the Ancient Ones). Of all of the stunning places all around the world to visit and see, this is still my favorite place to go. Discovering ancient ruins and going arrowhead hunting, you will feel like you have just stepped out of the world and into history.
As you drive into the park, look at the line of Juniper trees. To your left, you will be able to see Tower Ruin peeking through the tops of the trees.
Driving a bit further down the road, you will be able to see Farmhouse ruin, out in the open on the right. At these more prominent ruins of the park, there are roads that will take you right up to the ruin itself. Here, you can stop and walk among these fascinating pieces of history that have survived for more than 1000 years.
In the Farmhouse ruin, if you look closely, you can still see the fingerprints in between the rocks from the Anasazi who packed in the mortar to keep the rocks in place. There are informational signs near the better-known ruins that tell of how the Anasazi lived in this valley.
These people were farmers who grew squash and corn to survive, and it’s not hard to see the durability of this people as you look out at this very dry, desert valley.
A Brief History of the Anasazi Indians:
The Anasazi are still a mystery to us. Living in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, we know that they lived in the area from the years of about 200 A.D. to 1300 A.D. After this time period, they vanished without archeological evidence to tell us why. There are many theories on why they disappeared, ranging from there being a great drought and they migrated away, to war amongst themselves… there is even a theory that involves cannibalism. No one has been able to find a definitive reason for their disappearance. Ruins, tools, pottery, and weapons left abandoned by a mysterious civilization has left us to our imaginations on who they were and how they lived.
Finding pieces of History:
More than just the two big ruins already mentioned, there are so many more ruins scattered throughout this area. All it takes to find them is to pick a direction and walk. The abundance of these ruins allows me to guarantee that you will find at least one ruin, if not multiple, on your walk through the park. It is theorized that they spent their winters down in this area because they built a lot of their ruins along the southern sides of cliffs and rocks where they would get the most sun.
They also built several of their dwellings down in the valleys too, often with a few clumped together in the same area. You can find ruins on top of hills and rocks, with a good view of the valley. They are thought to be “look-out” buildings. You will also come across circles of stones, with the center of it more sunk in. These are believed to be their “Kivas” or their places of gathering and worship. As you discover one ruin after another, it is fascinating to imagine what life must have been like for these people.
Looking at these sites and between sites, you can find other, smaller pieces of history that will really make you feel like you are “Indiana Jones” and fulfill your inner archeologist. In these areas, broken pieces of ancient pottery used by these people are abundant. You will find several different kinds of pottery, including painted pottery with beautiful designs painted on them, to the textured kind with such incredible detail that you will wonder how they were able to make these pieces of art.
Once in a very great while, if you are looking in exactly the right place, you may even come upon an intact pot. As captivating as these pieces of pottery are, broken or whole, do not take any pottery that you find.
It is against the law to take these alluring pieces of history as they are considered part of a “historical site”. Just admire them where you find them and leave them for someone else to discover. The same goes for other tools that you may find, including grinding stones, matates (both used to grind their grains and corn into flour), and hammer-heads.
These are more rare finds, but again, if you find one, just leave it for the sake of all future explorers’ enjoyment of this place. Just as fair warning, they have conducted raids before of people suspected of taking these types of items and have confiscated their entire collection of artifacts, legally obtained, or otherwise. So please be considerate of preserving the history of these sites. You never know what historians may be able to discover in the future about these people.
Don’t fret though. There are pieces of history that you are allowed to take home with you. This is the part that really takes time and practice because if you know what to look for, you can find arrowheads.
It does take a lot of patience to find these small artifacts, but oh is it worth it! Every time that I have found one of these antiquities, I am captivated by the thought of wondering what the story of this piece is. Made out of many different colors of flint, with some of these pieces, you can just tell that some Anasazi put a lot of time and effort making this beautiful weapon.
Was it their pride and joy? Did they show it off to their friends? Did they collect and trade beautiful arrowheads like some people collect and trade baseball cards? I have no idea, but it’s fun to speculate. I always think about how the last human being to touch these artifacts before I found it was probably the Anasazi who shot it out into the desert while he (or she) was hunting.
And don’t worry, because this area, in particular, is on BLM land (Bureau of Land Management), it is legal to take arrowheads found in Ruin Park. According to the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act,
“Nothing in subsection (d) of this section shall be deemed applicable to any person with respect to the removal of arrowheads located on the surface of the ground.” https://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/FHPL_ArchRsrcsProt.pdf.
In other words, don’t go digging for arrowheads, but any that you find on top of the ground is fair game. Now, in other protected areas such as National Monuments, State Parks, and National Parks, there is another law that supersedes this law, making it illegal to take them from these areas. So just be aware of the laws where you are looking for arrowheads, in case it is one of these protected areas.
More than just Anasazi History and Arrowhead hunting:
As captivating as the Old Ones are, there is a lot more to this area than just searching for pieces of their past. Canyonlands National Park is a certified “Dark Sky Park”, or a park where it is far enough away from the lights of civilization and the night sky is dark enough to see the Milky Way. Being so close to this park, Ruin Park enjoys the same benefits. It is so fun to sit out at night and to watch for shooting stars and see satellites orbiting the earth as you watch the Milky Way rise over the horizon.
Believe it or not, there is more history in this area than that of the Anasazi. Right when you are first entering the valley, off to the left near the cliffs, there is an old cowboy cabin from the early 1900’s. There is no sign that tells the story of this old, weathered building, but when you walk in to see an old makeshift wood stove, it’s definitely intriguing to wonder what made them settle there.
The last thing I think is worth mentioning is the wildlife. This may be the desert, but there are still plenty of creatures that flourish here. You will see lizards, some hares, and maybe some deer. At night, the bats and the nighthawks come out to feast on bugs. Don’t be surprised by the cattle you see grazing in the area.
The BLM allows one of the ranchers access for their cattle to graze. Other creatures that do live in this area that you should be aware of are rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, bears, and cougars. Don’t be alarmed by this list of animals though. In all of my family’s years of going (since the early 1970’s), we have only come across the rattlesnakes and scorpions a couple of times, and have only seen the footprints of the cougars and bears, not the creatures themselves.
Occasionally, you will hear a pack of coyotes howling off in the distance late at night, but they won’t bother you. It’s actually kind of fun to listen to them yipping and howling at each other. Just be smart about how you store your food in camp and you’ll be fine.
Getting to Ruin Park:
There are only 2 ways into this area. The first and more difficult way is over the very rough roads of Elephant Hill in Canyonlands National Park.
It is very scenic with some really cool places to stop along the way and hike (I love Devil’s Kitchen and the Chestler Park), but it does require a 4×4 with high clearance, such as a jeep (big trucks aren’t recommended as there are some tight corners and places to drive through). Just be aware, if you get stuck going over Elephant Hill, the towing fee is not uncommon to be $1000 or more to get you and your vehicle out. Also, as of 2017, you will also be required to have a day-use permit to go this way. All in all, I don’t recommend going this way unless you are an experienced off-road driver, and even then, plan on an extra day just to be able to stop at some of the awe-inspiring sites along the way.
The second, much easier way, is taking a dirt road just past Dugout Ranch that you pass on the way to Canyonlands National Park. It takes you up over the Abajo Mountains. I would still recommend bringing at least an all-wheel-drive vehicle, but you should be able to make it just fine in most trucks and SUVs. Because this road goes over the mountains, it is impassable during the winter. This road also becomes dangerous to try when it has been raining, as it turns the dirt into VERY slick mud. We have only tried this once and it was a very hair-raising trip where we were only able to stay on the road due to the skill of my very experienced father (see youtube video). In other words, the safest time to take this route into Ruin Park is when the roads are dry.
It’s about an 8-hour drive if you are coming from Salt Lake City area, so be sure that you stop in Moab, Utah for lunch at the Moab Brewery. It is my favorite place to eat in Moab and they make the best burgers that I have ever had! My mouth is watering even thinking about my favorite burger (the Moab burger with cheese and bacon). They also make excellent Fish ‘n Chips. Plus, If you’ve never been to Moab, I HIGHLY suggest that you plan on an few extra days to see some of the extraordinary things there.
Regardless of which of the two ways you decide to go, make sure to stop at Newspaper Rock. This site is just off the main road on the way to Canyonlands National Park and is completely free. Newspaper Rock is one of the few areas where there is a large collection of petroglyphs or ancient writings. It is also one of the last places that has bathroom facilities to use before you’ll be forced to squat and do your business in the bushes.
If you are interested in going to Ruin Park, please contact me for more detailed directions (see below for contact information).
What to bring:
Again, this is the desert with no facilities whatsoever, so plan on bringing EVERYTHING that you need with you, including all of your water, drinking and otherwise. Though the road that goes over the Abajo Mountains is easier to get over, the roads are rough enough that I still wouldn’t try to bring your motorhome or trailer into this area. We have been able to get a pop-up trailer into this area, but otherwise, just plan on tent camping. For a more detailed list on what to bring on a trip like this, please see my “Isolated camping pack list“.
What to expect when you get there:
This area is BLM land so there are no set campgrounds. Just pick a spot on the side of one of the roads and set up camp. There are many places where you can set up camp that will give you a great view of the surrounding valley.
Be smart as to where you choose to put your fire ring. This is a desert and the trees and shrubs are already dry, so make sure that you put your fire ring in an open area of the red sand/dirt.
Even though this is a desert, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s always hot here. Ruin Park sits at 8,700 feet in elevation and it is usually several degrees cooler than places like Moab. There have been some years where we have gone and it snowed the whole time as we sat huddled in our tents to keep warm.
But it is a desert so don’t underestimate how hot and dry it can be either. With the sun reflecting off of the red dirt, even 75 degrees can feel hot. Know that there are really only two times of year when you can go and not be too hot or cold: late Spring and Fall.
There are pros and cons to going at the different times of the year. For Spring, the weather is usually cooler, the bugs haven’t all come out of hibernation, the spring desert flowers are out in full bloom, and you have the benefit of the spring run-off bringing up new arrowheads that were once buried.
We have gone to the same places in the park on arrowhead hunts over and over again, and we still find arrowheads due to the spring runoff. But, going in spring, you do risk getting snowed and rained on. Despite that risk, we like to go in the Spring to find the new arrowheads. We just try to shoot for late spring, in mid to late May, to avoid the inclement weather while still taking advantage of the nice temperatures. Just be aware, even with the perfect weather for hiking, it still gets pretty cold at night (high 30’s to 40’s) so be sure to bring your warmest pajamas to sleep in.
If you go during the fall, your risk of being hit with bad weather is much less, but you also have to deal with the plethora of bugs that are out and about. And whereas this is an area that isn’t well known, it is known enough that there are those that come out to go arrowhead hunting. So if you decide to go in the fall, you likely won’t find as many Arrowheads. But don’t worry, the ruins are there all year round to explore.
So if you are planning a trip to Ruin Park, just be sure not to underestimate mother nature. Watch the weather and bring temperature-appropriate clothing, but even if it’s forecasted to be absolutely perfect while you are there, bring a rain poncho and a warm coat, just in case. There have been many times when I’ve been saved a lot of discomfort by doing exactly that. There is very little cell phone service so there’s no way for you to check the weather for any changes. Just be prepared.
Here is a website where you can check the 7-day forecast:
Ruin Park is a unique place to visit. There are not very many places where people who aren’t historians and archaeologists by profession can wander among ruins and still discover evidence of an ancient people, and how they lived their lives. This is the only place that I know of where you can go arrowhead hunting and also see where they lived, find the pottery that they used to cook with, the tools that they used to make their clothes, and even jewelry that they used to wear. It’s not in some museum, cataloged and stored away where the public will never see it. It’s out in the open, waiting for someone like you to come along and discover it for yourself. And on top of all of that, it has a lot of gorgeous scenery for you to take in while you wander. It may take a little more effort and planning to get there, but once you are there, I promise you that it will be worth it!
Stay tuned for our map to Ruin Park and coordinates. Will also be offering maps of the best places to camp in the area.
Author: Breanna Groneman is a nurse who loves to go camping and travel. History fascinates her and she loves to travel to places steeped in it. She also loves exploring the stunning and unique places that nature has provided. Along with traveling, she loves to cook/bake! She has started her own Blog where she hopes to share her experiences traveling, and occasionally, how to cook/bake her favorite dishes. Visit her blog Gourmet Galavantess
If you would like more detailed information on how to get to Ruin Park, you can email Breanna at firstname.lastname@example.org