Site Visitation and Sustainability in Southeast Utah

By Allison Aakre, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Shanna Diederichs, Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants, and Donald C. Irwin, Manti-La Sal National Forest


Cliff dwellings and canyons of Southeast Utah

The landscape of Southeast Utah, with its deep canyons, mesas, and mountains, is unsurpassed in its beauty and remoteness.  The spectacular “cliff dwellings” hidden in this landscape are popular hiking destinations that currently receive thousands of visitors each year. The arid environment and rugged landscape have combined to preserve these sites in conditions that provide for a visceral experience of past human life. These fragile ancestral sites are threatened by human impacts that can erode, damage, and disturb cultural deposits, as well as destroy buildings that have stood for hundreds of years, altering the experience of these backcountry places forever. Unwittingly, visitors can also damage the living connection of modern Pueblos and Tribes historically and culturally connected to these places, including sites on the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

How important are these sites and to who?

Today, these places are valued not only for their scientific potential by archaeologists, but as drivers of recreational tourism, as well as places of cultural significance by modern Native American Tribes.  Let’s take a closer look at these key groups.


“Cliff dwellings” have always been popular destinations in the Southwest, but for at least a century, visitors were few and limited to locals and archaeology enthusiasts. What used to be of interest to a limited number of people who “discovered” the hidden ruins of Southeast Utah, is now a global phenomenon.  Visitors travel from all over the country and world to experience the archaeology and landscape of Southeast Utah.

Public interest and visitation to archaeological sites has increased exponentially since 2015.  This is the product of several factors including the designation and subsequent reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument, economic forces that emphasize these places as tourist destinations, or, more insidious, places that can be mined for artifacts for profit.  The dramatic growthof recreation, the explosion of technology, social media, and sharing of locations on the internet have dramatically increased access to sites, and reached new visitors from distant places unfamiliar with the area.  Even the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to a sharp increase visitation after the “lockdown”.  The increase in visitation has resulted in many impacts to these fragile sites that we so love to visit. 


Archaeologist recording a site on a precarious ledge.

Archaeologists, or proto-archaeologists, began in the late 1800s to explore these places, partly driven by collectors and museums “back east”.  In 1906, the damage to these fragile places prompted the creation of the first national park dedicated to archaeology at Mesa Verde, as well as the passing of the Antiquities Act. Archaeologists, then and now, see potential information in every material detail of these sites; they date the wood and organic materials, map the buildings and features, analyze the pottery designs, place stone tools into typologies, and even identify ancient pollen left behind by the inhabitants. The archaeological goal is to reconstruct the specific history of a place within its natural and cultural landscape and context.  A key to these studies is the spatial context of artifacts and cultural features.  Where things are found and their relationship to other things is a critical component in reconstructing the past.


Today, many Native American Tribes and Pueblos still have strong living connections to this landscape.  They view it as a spiritual place, a sacred place of great significance to their cultural identity and survival. This cultural landscape extends well beyond Southeast Utah and the Four Corners area and includes archaeological sites, natural landscape features, plants, animals, and even minerals.

How delicate are these places?

 “Cliff dwelling” sites are rare and extremely sensitive to disturbance.  These dry protected spaces result in exceptional preservation and it is not uncommon for 800-year-old wooden beams to be present along with other perishable material, such as corn cobs.  The recent increase in visitors to southeast Utah has had a detrimental effect on these sites. Some of the noted effects include increased off-road vehicle traffic, unsanctioned camping and fire rings, trash, human waste, graffiti, piling of artifacts, artifact collecting, trail creation and erosion, and damage to delicate architecture.

Reports of site damage recently attracted the attention of the World Monuments Fund, which works with local communities to sustain their heritage and acts as an advocate for endangered sites around the world. Last year upon nomination by Friends of Cedar Mesa, southeast Utah was placed on the World Monuments “Watch List” in recognition of increased visitor impacts. The World Monuments Fund, Butler Conservation Fund, and Friends of Cedar Mesa have launched a $1 million project to preserve the cultural sites of southeast Utah – in partnership with multiple land management jurisdictions, including the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

As an initial step in this multi-year preservation project, Woods Canyon Archaeological Consultants and Friends of Cedar Mesa worked to assess the condition of 96 structures, 10 rock art and historic inscription panels, and the exposed and buried cultural deposits at four “cliff dwelling” sites on the Manti-La Sal National Forest. After a season of systematic documentation, the project revealed acute, and in some cases severe, damage by recent visitors.

Only a small amount of recent site damage is purposeful. The study found no evidence of recent looting, a destructive practice that used to be common at archaeological sites in southeast Utah. The assessment did find instances of recent pecked, incised, and charcoal graffiti.  Sites with little or no documented graffiti prior to 2000 were generally left untouched, but sites with graffiti dating prior to about 2000 continued to attract new graffiti. In fact, the more historic signatures and later 20th century graffiti at a given site the more graffiti was added in the last 20 years. This pattern demonstrates that visitors are taking behavioral ques about the ethics of leaving their signature at a site from previous visitors.

Based on the study, artifact displacement and collection are also patterns of behavior at these sites. Comparison of artifact tallies taken as recently 2011 and the World Monuments Condition Assessments tallies in 2019 show that painted pottery sherds, stone tools, and perishable textiles have all been collected from the surface of sites in recent years. Likewise, the piling of interesting artifacts along trails appears to be a cumulative practice with new visitors mimicking the behavior and adding items to the collection.

Surprisingly, the study found that the most pervasive and destructive recent damage results from people simply exploring these sites on foot. Visitors continue to seek out hidden locations, such as back rooms, on sites, often following faint diversion trails left by previous visitors. Fragile architectural elements, such as wooden door lintels, adobe door jambs, intact floors, and plastered walls have all been damaged by visitors climbing into and through buildings.  Evidence showed signs of people standing on intact roofs, climbing through doorways and holes in the masonry to access back rooms, stepping and climbing over unstable walls, and walking down slopes of loose cultural fill and rubble. Visitor exploration and traffic has left some structures critically unstable and sections likely to collapse in the next 3-5 years. Needless to say, the more adventurous of these activities pose severe threats to visitor safety and all these behaviors destroy fragile ancient materials.  Standing on an 800-year-old roof is not a safe activity.

Even well-intentioned visitors adhering to formal trails have left an indelible mark on these sites. Areas of heavy foot traffic have lost up to 20 cm of fill over the last two decades, undermining walls, damaging midden deposits, and exposing intact floors. This phenomenon is likely caused by the pulverization of sediments by foot traffic along the trails, which are then prone to wind and water erosion. No longer can we depend on the site etiquette message of “Leave Only Footprints”. Given the sheer number of visitors to backcountry sites, every footprint adds to the cumulative effect visitors have on these places.

The impacts identified by the World Monuments Condition Assessment study may seem incremental and insubstantial, but they have the potential to affect the very integrity of these ancient sites. Cultural resource managers gauge the integrity of a place by its setting, materials, design, location, workmanship, feeling, and association. Current trends in visitor behavior will compromise these elements of integrity. Ongoing artifact collection removes materials from their intended location and disrupts their location and context.  Graffiti, trails, roads, and campsites can mar a site setting. The incessant deterioration and eventual collapse of the architecture will destroy our sense of the sites design, the workmanship of the builders, and even feeling of that space. Even more tragic is the potential loss of a site’s association with descendant communities. When material aspects of a “cliff dwelling” are destroyed, so are the tangible elements that allow Native populations to recognize their culture, practices, and history in that place.

Visiting with Respect

Intentionally and unintentionally visitors are causing irreversible damage to “cliff dwellings” in the Manti-La Sal National Forest and other jurisdictions in Southeast Utah.  Most of the damage is cumulative, resulting from patterns of mimicked behavior. If the integrity of these ancient sites is to be preserved past the next generation, visitor behavior must change. Collectively, we will have to recognize that impacts from tourism are not natural or inevitable.  Unfortunately, visitation can rise rapidly and accelerated damage may occur.  We must develop a new ethos around archaeological tourism, one that recognizes that every action, indeed every footstep, changes the signature of the past and the future we inherit. Archaeologists and resource managers are not excluded from this and we understand that even our visits, when documenting or monitoring cultural resources, are adding to the effects.  We take great care to leave everything in place, avoid stepping where we do not need to, and only visit when necessary.  To help visitors understand the how and why to “Visit with Respect,” Friends of Cedar Mesa has developed a suite of videos and tips, which we encourage visitors to learn before visiting this fragile area.   

Now it is your turn. Before visiting a site ask yourself:

Do you need to explore every corner of the site?

We know that these sites are incredibly important to affiliated cultures, protected by law, and extremely delicate. Unnecessary foot traffic through sites can both disrespect and damage delicate natural and cultural resources. The only way to minimize damage is to stay on designated trails, stay off vegetation and middens, and out of intact architecture.  

Do you need to lean on that fragile structure to get the perfect selfie?

Please, stay out of structures!

Most of us live and work in buildings not even 100 years old, designed by structural engineers, yet we still notice structural decay. An 800-year-old wall or roof was not built in the same way. Yes, it is remarkable that some of these structures have withstood the test of time and are still standing today, but most have been largely left alone until recent decades and are built with extremely fragile materials. Your touch can cause sudden structural decay or even collapse. The damage to these sites is often permanent. Land managers cannot simply repair and maintain every site. Doing so would require and immense investment of time and resources and would conflict with Tribal views that sites not be physically stabilized. The very few sites that are stabilized require careful consideration and consultation, not a task to be taken lightly.

Should you move that artifact?

Unfortunately, “collector piles” are a common occurrence in heavily visited sites. The most eye-catching artifacts, which can often be the most diagnostic, are taken away from their original location and piled up on a nearby rock. These collector piles become easy targets for causal and professional collectors, the more attractive artifacts often disappear into pockets.  Casual collection of even a single artifact by each visitor eventually leads to the loss of the very items that fascinate us and irreparably damage the site, its information potential, and the very experience that draw people to these places.  Fragile artifacts may become damaged simply through handling, rapidly destroying something that withstood hundreds of years.

Do you need to share every detail of your trip to both friends and strangers on social media?

Multiple collector’s piles and footprints within a site.

It is increasingly difficult to avoid social media and at this point, most people have a smartphone within reach and can broadcast their activity to thousands of followers in a split second. Simply taking a photo of a site and posting it to social media may seem relatively harmless, but unfortunately that has been one of the largest contributors to site damage in recent years. Remember, if either your phone’s location is turned on or your camera has access to your location, all photos will be embedded with locational information that anyone can extract. Even if you were to be hyper-vigilant about embedded locational data, if any prominent landforms are visible in your photo, you have just revealed sensitive site location information. Every photo shared on social media may intrigue and draw new visitors to the area and help to expand the number of sites being visited.  One of the best protections a site can have is obscurity. The less people know about them, the safer they are from visitor impacts. While the temptation is strong to gloat about your adventures on social media platforms, some things are best kept secret.  

Are you visiting the site with respect?

If you are wondering if you are visiting a site with respect, reflect on your behavior. Are you acting with a sense of reverence like you would in your grandmother’s house, in a place of worship, or in a cemetery?  Are you engaged in bad behavior simply because this place isn’t a place of your ancestors? Are you assuming that land managers will repair the fallen walls after you’re gone? The destructive behaviors diminish these places for all of us. The loss of silence and solitude due to motorized vehicles and crowds accessing these places, damaging buildings that have stood for hundreds of years, removing artifacts, looting, leaving food scraps or human waste, or camping in a site irreversibly damage the sites integrity, ruin other visitor experiences, and may diminish or destroy important Tribal connections that are essential to maintaining cultural traditions and living connections to Ancestral lands.

Sure, some of these statements and guidelines sound extreme. A good-hearted person can visit a site without causing irreparable damage, right? Unfortunately, with the surge in popularity of archaeological tourism, the harsh reality is that even well-behaved visitors are cumulatively contributing to irreversible resource damage. The ‘Leave Only Footprints’ mantra is no longer good enough. If we don’t change the way we visit these sites managers will have no choice but to limit our access to them.

So, how do we move from the “Disneyland” experience where these ancient places are simply there to gratify our need for an experience to truly evolving new ways of recognizing and interacting with this important cultural landscape?

Sign asking visitors to stay off a kiva roof.

What we really need is a Paradigm Shift. Instead of viewing cultural sites as places of enjoyment, the public must recognize them as extremely fragile ancient spaces important to Native Americans. The professional archaeology community must continue to acknowledge the value of these places beyond their contribution to science. Land managers face the biggest challenge in this new paradigm, they must find a balance between the fact that people value visiting backcountry sites with the reality that there is no ‘policing’ public behavior out of this destructive cycle. The Manti-La Sal National Forest is breaking new ground on all these fronts by embracing co-management with Native Tribes and incorporating indigenous perspectives and interpretation into their planning processes with the goal of providing a sustainable quality visitor experience while respecting Tribal connections.

How can you be a part of this new paradigm?

Most of the people who visit these sites care deeply about them. It can be difficult to acknowledge that even a brief visit can cause such damage, both seen and unseen. By limiting visits to sites, viewing them from a distance, consider visiting only sites that have been prepared or hardened for public visitation, and visiting museums where artifacts are safely curated, you can reduce your impact and help to preserve these sites into the future.

For more information on Visiting with Respect, visit the following links: