False Kiva, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

It is not every day one gets a chance to feel like a modern day Indiana Jones attempting to locate a relatively unknown and hidden archaeological site!

There are few places in North America as deeply shrouded in mythicism and spirituality as the False Kiva. Located in the Island in the Sky district of the Canyonlands National Park, it is officially a Class II site, which means that the location may only be disclosed by the park rangers to the public when “visitors request the information by site name, photograph or description.” My fiancee Sarah and I have failed to reach it when visiting Canyonlands last year from New York City. There are many wrong trails in the area confounded by cairns that don’t belong; after wandering around for an hour, we could reach nothing but a 90 degree canyon edge right above the Kiva, descending which would be deadly. Having completed more research and being determined to reach the site this year, we had gone out of our way on our Grand Circle tour and set out on for it on April 20th.

"The False Kiva"


After starting out on what we thought was the right path, to our great frustration we wound up at the very same canyon edge half an hour later. Strong 30-40 mile/hour winds were blowing through the park, carrying lots of sand that went into our eyes, ears and equipment. Utilizing a large butte and its relationship to its surrounding landmarks, I scaled up a steep hill and saw a path in a pour-off on the other side that I was confident was the correct one. Retracing our steps in order to get on the other side of this hill and starting out from almost the very start led us to the another canyon edge that could not be descended…twice! Although our hopes had started to fade, our strength and determination could not be denied. It is then we were finally able to find the dried-up pour-off and descend it, leading to a trail that emptied into the canyon. Finding the correct trail took us approximately 2.5 hours. It is clear that the Native Americans who built this as their home had intended that noone except those who knew the exact path would be able to find their home. The most important lesson to be derived from this experience is that while one should never quit, an unsafe descent should NEVER be attempted because it is always incorrect.



“This site consists of three structures and eight storage cists (holes in the ground) in a large alcove in the Navajo sandstone. Access to the site is through the alcove west of the structures. Stay on the trail to minimize impacts from erosion and don’t walk on the cists (they are fragile).

The site is called “False Kiva” because people falsely believed the main round structure is a kiva or ceremonial room.  However, these big structures were fairly common shelters for ancenstral Puebloan people living in the area around A.D. 1200. Partial excavation and stabilization of the big structure in 1986 showed it was only used for daily activities like cooking and sleeping. The absence of a midden or garbage area indicates the site was only occupied for a short time, although the presence of the storage cists indicate that foods were stored there.

Since the site has become well-known, visitors have ground down the grinding surfaces, and knocked over the walls as they climbed on and into the structures. Visitors have also piled more rocks on top of the structures, trying to make them look larger. If these impacts continue, the site will be damaged beyond repair. Please leave the site as you found it.”

Technique: Throughout our afternoon visit, the alcove was mostly in the harsh sun. I made the decision to bracket exposures, and combined them manually. I never expected to use one of my few shots of the site in the shade as my main FK shot, but this is the best image I could achieve. It is a very challenging location to shoot; perhaps the best captures are achieved in the late afternoon leading up to the sunset, which was not an option available to us since we had to drive to Monument Valley. A wide angle lens is a must!


All images are ©2011 Alexander Filatov Photography. All rights reserved.

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