After getting sunrise at Mesa Arch, the next shot on my list was False Kiva. I decided to try for that one later the same day as Mesa Arch. Like Mesa Arch, False Kiva is also located in Canyonlands National Park. The location of False Kiva is not on the map or listed in the park's literature because the Park Service doesn't want a lot of people going there. The reason is that False Kiva is an archeological site.
Why is it called False Kiva? A kiva is an underground or partly underground chamber used by Puebloan Indians for religious ceremonies. Why is it called “False”? This particular site is a circle of stacked rocks inside a natural alcove in the side of a cliff. It looks like it may have been used for ceremonial purposes but it is not underground.
I was a little nervous about hiking there by myself because the trail is not well marked and there is a little bit of cliff scrambling to get up to the alcove. It would be a bad place to get injured. My safety measure was that my wife stayed near the trailhead in car and would get help if I didn't return by dark. I decided to go in the late afternoon because I had read that the alcove would be fully lit at that time of day. I brought my Canon 35mm, f1.4, my Rokinon 14mm, a tripod, 3 liters of water, some trail mix and a flashlight just in case.
The trail is easy to spot as there is a fence of woven wood on the South side of Upheaval Dome road where the trail begins. Below is a view from the trail looking back towards the road. The ground here was covered by little sand towers created by the rain.
Sand piles made by the rain
For about a half mile, the trail is pretty flat, sloping down only gently. For a while, it crosses and parallels a stream bed. In that section, I spotted movement on the ground ahead and to my left – a baby rattlesnake - I could hear the rattles. I quickly pulled out my camera and flipped it to video. I didn't have a longer lens, so I made do with the 35 mm that was already on the camera. As the snake crawled away, I tried to get closer but it disappeared into the brush.
After that, the trail descends more quickly and is less well marked, requiring some scrambling through rock and brush. After a little while, the vista opens ahead and the trail is unmistakable.
Canyonlands vista ahead
After getting down a fairly steep and rocky slope, the trail follows the edge of a cliff with a gorgeous vista below. The alcove is to the right and behind me at this point, part way up a cliff face.
Green River overlook from False Kiva trail
Scramble up the last slope to False Kiva
I was sweating and struggling to get up the last rocky slope. I was feeling the heat of the afternoon sun and the weight of my pack almost tipping me backwards down the slope. The sand and rocks were loose, making me backslide a little. As a result, I was breathing hard when I reached the floor of the alcove. To my startled surprise, there was another photographer standing behind his tripod aiming in my general direction. "Sorry to get into your frame", I exclaimed, but he just said, "It's okay, I was just finishing".
He then pointed to his right and said, "There's an easier trail off to the side. You came up the cliff face. If you followed the trail you were on a little longer, you would have found the way up". Following his gaze, I saw that the trail I had been on, which seemed to stop at a small gnarled tree, actually continued beyond to a switchback that lead to the floor of the alcove.
I set up my tripod and began looking for my shot. The other photographer moved on.
The 14 mm was too wide
35mm made a better frame
I decided to try the small aperture sunburst technique that I had used that morning at Mesa Arch. To get this shot, I had to make a composite with the same shot except that I blocked the sun with my hat to get the foreground without lens flares.
Sunburst at False Kiva
The hike back was harder than I anticipated. Even though it was mid October, it was still hot on that South facing rock. That plus the altitude and steepness of the slope getting back up to the plateau required stopping for breath a number of times. I used all three liters of water that I had brought during the hike and I drank another liter and a half when I got back to the car.
As you can see, it is a beautiful scene. It tells a story of an ancient people and a harshly beautiful country. It is almost surreal. Like others have reported, I felt the sacredness of the place. I did not get close to the circle of rocks. To do so would have seemed disrespectful to the people who held their religious ceremonies here. Also a little spooky. Though I would like to come back to get night shots of the Milky Way from False Kiva, I would be reluctant to spend the night there alone. Then again, I would be more nervous hiking up the steep slope on the edge of a cliff and finding my way out to the trail in the dark. I hope to try it this Summer with my friend, Will. I will post those shots when it happens.