Cedar Mesa Part Two: Slickhorn Canyon

Miles down a lonely sand road, this remote canyon sits at the southern edge of Cedar Mesa, draining into the San Juan River. Unlike many of the canyons right off of the highway, not much of a trail exists down here, just small primitive ones.

Each trailhead on the mesa top comes with the opportunity for free and legal car camping, but travel to any sites within the canyons themselves, and a backcountry permit is required. Using the third trailhead as my basecamp, I tackled each fork of Slickhorn Canyon over a series of dayhikes.

First Fork

This first, main, fork is the easiest to follow and draws the most visitors. The beginning of the trail follows a shallow wash to the upper reaches of a pour off. Using cairns, the trail wraps southwest towards a slickrock bench, then descends 300 feet along a steep series of switchbacks into the sandy wash. 300 yards down the way, a side track climbs another cairn-marked slope towards the main attraction, Perfect Kiva.


Perfect Kiva, named for the nearly-perfect condition in which this 700 year old ruin was discovered in, complete with an undamaged roof. While discouraged, you are allowed to climb inside the kiva, but never walk across the roof. Also part of the site are storage bins, several rooms and a granary shown on the far right, the only piece visible from below.

The remaining mileage of the first fork keeps to level ground, and at the confluence of the first and second forks lies another small, hard to spot granary. Here, backpackers can also find a great campsite and a small stream (that may or may not be seasonal).


At the confluence of the first and second fork.


Second Fork


Just before dropping down the pour off, this small site can be reached by following the bench for about 300 yards. No other ruins can be found until the confluence of the second and first fork (see above).


Rock art nearby.

Third Fork

The third fork boasts two sites. The first, shown below, is a small ruin tucked beneath an overhang, about 1.5 miles from the trailhead. Pretty easy to spot. The second sits at the opposite end of the canyon near the first fork and includes a log kiva, a two-level granary and some more rock art. Hikers commonly loop the first and third forks, making for a twelve-plus mile excursion in all, including exploration of the ruins. 12

The road between the third and fourth forks: 1716

Fourth Fork (Trail Canyon)


Right off the bat you’ll come to this site beside the pour off. Access is made easy by a rockfall opposite the ruins.


I found this nearby…


…along with more rock art.


Descending into the depths of this fork involved a lot more climbing than the other three. Down river, it’s the deepest of the four canyons, reaching down to about 5,200 feet at its deepest point (compared to the 6,000+ feet of elevation along the mesa top). Every time I thought the climb was over, the canyon had more in store for me.

I continually find myself underestimating these canyons. Though the mileage never logs much, due to the difficult wayfinding it takes far longer to climb in and out than I expect. In the case of this fourth fork, there were sporadic cairns to follow, and sometimes enough of a primitive trail, but oftentimes, I found myself seeking my own way.


Big Ledge Ruins. From below, I thought it was just wind erosion, but it looked much too uniform. I found a way up, and sure enough, this was human made.



Not often do I see wood and mud used in construction. I can’t imaging lugging juniper logs up two-hundred vertical feet. It was hard enough with just a Camelbak.


A reminder to always stay off the cryptobiotic soil. Otherwise, these wouldn’t be here.


And finally, Lookout Canyon at the end of Point Lookout Road. I couldn’t spot it, but there’s supposed to be another ruin on the opposite aspect of the canyon.1

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