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Comb Ridge

Hiking to Procession Panel on Comb Ridge

The Procession Panel is a well-known Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) petroglyph located just below the summit of Comb Ridge. Access is from San Juan County road #230 which runs the length of Butler Wash connecting UT 163 in the south to UT 95 in the north. The trailhead is about 7 miles north of UT 163 or 14 miles south of UT 95.

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The petroglyph panel is on the east side of Comb Ridge where vast expanses of bare rock ascend to the ridgeline. The sloped rock face is laced with small canyons, providing a myriad of places used by the ancients. There are a number of well-known Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites across all of the eastern side of Comb Ridge. The cliff-dwelling natives have left some remarkable rock art and building remains that hold our attention a thousand years later.

The Procession Panel is named for the long line of figures that are carefully carved into the rock face. There are more than 190 individuals joined into a line across the cliff. This panel was discovered by hikers in 1992. It’s surprising that it remained hidden for so long as it’s very close to one of the only areas where it was possible to ascend and descend the sheer west wall of Comb Ridge.

Section of Procession Panel pictographs
The line of marching figures can be seen above the other pictographs on the wall. It’s likely that the line of figures was placed first with the others coming much later.

Directions to Procession Panel

The parking area for the Procession Panel is west of the Butler Wash Road 6.6 miles north from UT 163 or 14.4 miles south from UT 95. There are no signs marking the area so you need to pay attention. If you are paying attention the turn should be obvious. It’s just a short distance from the road to the parking area.

One of the biggest challenges in hiking Comb Ridge is the crossing of Butler Wash. In many places, the bottom of the wash is broad, fairly flat, and, after any sort of rain, slick and muddy. In many places, both sides of the wash have cliff-like dirt walls. These red walls are 20 – 30 feet high and are often vertical. The walls seem to be little more than compacted sand that crumbled easily so that there is no way to climb straight up. Consequently, you have to find a section where there is some sort of ramp or break that you can climb. Most Comb Ridge Ruins see enough foot traffic that there are hiker-made paths to follow.

Crossing Butler Wash

To begin the look for a trail away from the parking area which should lead to a reasonable place to scramble down to the Wash bottom. As you descend into the wash you’re immediately surrounded by a dense thicket of Tamarisk. This large invasive woody shrub grows to about 30 feet tall and is found everywhere in Butler Wash. Unfortunately, this plant is an aggressive invader and quickly displaces the willows and other native plants. It grows thick and tall and makes it a real challenge to cross Butler Wash.

Note: In recent years there have been significant successes in using bio-control insects to eliminate the Tamarisk in the Southwest. I don’t know what the current status is of Tamarisk in Butler Wash. Conditions may be far different than those described above.

After navigating a course to the other side of the wash you’ll scramble out onto the bare rock of Comb Ridge. It’s a pretty dramatic difference between the lush vegetation of the wash and the bare rock you climb onto. Hiking Tip – Bring a bright colored scarf or other material to tie to a sage near where you exit

wWash. As you return it all looks the same and it’s much easier to retrace your path back across Butler Wash than to return in a different place.

Hiking Up Bare Rock

You should have come out near a draw and start heading west/southwest up it. It’s easy hiking heading up the draw. As you climb it becomes obvious that the draw heads toward a notch at the top of the ridge which is significantly lower than the ridge top on both sides. As you climb, bare rock layers split off heading upward from the bottom. The Procession Panel is on the sheer rock walls facing south, which puts them on the right as you climb.

To get to the cliff walls can head diagonally upward on the right following the rock ledges or a cairn marked trail that climbs upward from the draw. Rather than begin heading up the side of the draw you can stay in the bottom. This provides an easy hike to the edge of Comb Ridge but from there it’s a pretty good climb up to the panel. If you want more specific trail instructions most of the guide books discuss Procession Panel

Looking toward Comb Wash from the top of Comb Ridge
The top of Comb Ridge is a short distance from the Procession Panel and it provides great views of Comb Wash and Cedar Mesa. It’s a sheer cliff straight down from here to the bottom. Somehow the Ancestral Puebloans scaled the cliffs below to cross Comb Ridge here. There’s still remains of hand and toe holds on the cliffs below.

The Top Of Comb Ridge

The Procession Panel hike is a great way to also get to the top of Comb Ridge. If you head up the drainage bottom you’ll reach a rock approach that covers the last few hundred yards to the top. This huge unbroken section of rock provides a wonderful approach to the ridge. Gazing out from Comb Ridge looking toward Cedar Mesa is quite a sight. It’s a marvel that the Ancients found ways to climb the vertical wall that disappears straight down.

Climbing up cliffs and ledges
The Procession Panel stretches along the sheer red cliff wall. If you are climbing up from the bottom of the drainage you need to pick your path up through these small cliffs and ledges.

To get to the Procession Panel from here you have to head north up the steep hillside. Find a path and scramble up the steep walls heading directly toward a sheer cliff face where the pictographs are. This section is closer to climbing than hiking. As you approach you can tell the pictographs will be on the prominent red wall directly ahead.

Viewing the Procession Panel

hiker inspecting the Procession Panel petroglyphs
This photo gives a good view of the marching figures. Click to full size and you will see the line stretching across the cliffside above the hiker. You can even see the line going around the corner to the right above his head. The hiker also provides scale so you can better judge the size of the pictographs. .

There are several types of petroglyphs here but the most interesting are the figures marching in line. On the right, heading west there is a long single-file line of figures. They all faced to the west until reaching an unusual figure that appears to have a bird on its head. At that point, the figures on the left are facing to the east and heading toward the “bird head” figure. Thus it seems that this person is the nexus of the Procession.

Close up photo of one group of petroglyph figures
This group of figures are all similar in appearance and bearing. One interpretation of this panel is that the figures represent actual people. In that case, it’s likely that this group would be a family.

The group facing east begins from a large circle scraped in the rock. There are two lines of figures heading into the circle. One group enters from the west and would form a straight line with the group heading toward “bird head” if they did not intersect the circle. The other group enters the circle from below. This all gives the impression of this being some sort of gathering place where people traveled distances to come together. Within the lines of figures, there is a great deal of individual variation some appear to be wearing headdresses while others are carrying things. In all, the name of the feature Procession Panel is a very apt description.

Photo of bird headed man pictograph st Procession Panel
The two sides of the line face each other and meet at a figure that has a bird on it’s head. To the right, all of the figures face the west while on the left they all face east.

These interesting pictographs were probably carved between 650 and 800 A.D. We will probably never know what message was intended in this rock art panel. However, the latest research suggests that it could be a depiction of actual people with each figure representing a single person. This explanation holds that the figures are broken into family groups and may be a far more literal drawing than previously believed. If you’re interested in learning more the paper Rock Art, Architecture, and Social Groups at the Basketmaker III–Pueblo I Transition: Evidence from the Procession Panel, Southeast Utah by Kellam Throgmorton was published in 2017 and lays out this interpretation of the panel.

Leaving Comb Ridge

To return you need to retrace your steps downhill back to Butler Wash. It should be easy to pick a route that will get you down. Hopefully, you’ll find the spot where you crossed the wash so you can return on the same path. Depending on your choice of paths, the hike is about 3-4 miles round trip. It’s mostly across bare rock with an elevation change of about 700 ft.

Procession Panel is a great hike that takes you to the top of Comb Ridge and offers an easy hike to a very interesting rock art area. It’s well worth the visit. You can hike to Procession Panel in just a couple of hours. To make it a day, the Wolfman Panel is nearby and you can easily visit both ruins in a day.