Update: Due to ongoing careless stewardship of the location by visitors, the National Park Service has now permanently closed this location. Do not attempt to visit it. We are losing our wild places because a few spoil it for the many.
Earlier in January, I visited the False Kiva ruin in Canyonlands National Park and it was an extraordinary experience.
This location was made famous by Tom Till and has been long sought by photographers throughout the world. When my friend Jeremy and I visited, we received information via a single piece of paper by the National Park Service Desk. No photos or notes were taken. We needed to know the general location and the tenacity to actually locate it.
Added to this was the reality that we were visiting in the dead of winter as part of a much larger 10-day winter Utah trip. We were well-equipped, but the reality is that conditions could be dangerous if not careful.
We were able to pick up a faint trail though, and some of the directions we remembered started to match what we were seeing in the landscape. The last section, which I won’t describe here, was a little tougher to pick up where it was, but eventually we found the spot and that moment of “aha” was magical.
It Is Not A Kiva
The first thing to note is that False Kiva is a really bad name. It isn’t a kiva. It doesn’t even look like a kiva. Who added the kiva to this?
Wikipedia calls it a Stone Circle, which is a style specific to Northern Europe, especially the Island of Britain. That isn’t correct either – that isn’t what was happening here.
This is more of a Fremont-era pithouse. It would have had foliage over it to make it a home, albeit small. This may have been a seasonal stopover location. It wasn’t likely a permanent settlement. There is a natural seep in the rock in the area, providing good access to water.
One major issue with the location is that there is an un-excavated midden at False Kiva. Middens are historic “garbage dumps” that are extremely useful to archaeology. The National Park Service has a chained sign asking people to not step on or near the midden.
Unfortunately, we saw that the sign was down and there were clear footprints in the area as photographers rudely positioned themselves and their tripods where they shouldn’t. This should not need to be said – your photography is not worth damaging the area’s archaeology. Stop doing this.j
Jeremy and I did put the chain back up so the sign was posted as intended, but we have no idea some idiots will take it back down again. And this is very sad.
What Did The Fremont Think Of False Kiva?
The first thing to notice when visiting is just how incredible and beautiful it is. I have long wondered if the Ancestral Pueblo and Fremont cultures had an appreciation for the landscapes they lived in. They had been in the area for a long time when this was built. But I think in order to truly appreciate it, one would need to be familiar with the non-redrock part of the world to notice how unique it is.
It is well-established that these cultures migrated seasonally and with the Winter and Summer temperature swings in the area, it seems logically to me that this was a Spring and Autumn stopover. With that being said, I can see a Fremont exiting the door, looking West at the incredible landscape, and staring in awe. Some things are just human nature.
As always, thank you for reaching, and I hope you enjoy the images.
T.M. Schultze is a San Diego-based photographer, traveller, and writer. He writes, photographs, and draws things of the outdoors that have inspired humans for thousands of years. He co-authored the Photographer’s Guide to Joshua Tree Park which can be purchased here.