A Great Gathering: The Procession Panel in Bears Ears National Monument
Etched into a large sandstone wall on the eastern slope of Comb Ridge, the Procession Panel tells the story of a great gathering of more than a millennium ago. Here, intricate depictions of 179 human figures march in three distinct lines all converging at a central circle likely representing a great kiva. Images of ancients carrying baskets and holding ceremonial staffs, flute players, shaman, and hunters adorn the mysterious panel. Animals, including coyote, sheep, a horned serpent, and a five toed deer with a spear protruding its belly are also represented. There's even a depiction of a desert bighorn that appears to be rotating a wheel, strange considering Ancestral Puebloans didn't have wheels. Theories of what the panel represents vary, and while we'll likely never know exactly what the story constitutes, most agree that it was a commemoration of a ceremony or gathering of great importance. The panel has fascinated archaeologists ever since it was discovered in the early 1990s when a group of hikers discovered it while exploring Comb Ridge. Like most, dating the Procession Panel is a best guess, however archaeologists believe that it was crafted during the Basketmaker III Era (500 AD to 750 AD). Whenever it was created and whatever it was intended to represent, the Procession Panel is one of the area's great works of ancient art worthy of honor and respect by all who visit.
Trailhead elevation 4,648'
Don't miss the view from the top of Comb Ridge
Hiking to the Procession Panel
The trailhead can be found at coordinates 37.3511998, 109.6287606 along Rt 262/Lower Butler Wash Rd, six miles past the Wolfman Panel. The road runs parallel to Comb Ridge virtually the entire drive, which is best suited for high clearance vehicles. From the parking area, locate the trail marker in the west end of the lot.
The easy to follow trail winds through an area composed of cottonwood, willow, and tamarisk before crossing Butler Wash. Shortly after exiting the wash you'll find another trail marker at the start of the slickrock ascent up Comb Ridge.
From here on out you should expect near zero shade. The ascent up Comb Ridge begins fairly tame, but steepens along the way. Cairns mark the route and there should be little trouble route finding. Around 0.9 miles you'll reach a point where the trail drops down into a drainage in the ridge. You may notice some wear in the slickrock ahead and to the right of the cairn in the photo below. This is the route to take when descending.
After descending into the drainage the trail levels some and cairns become a bit more scarce, but route finding is not an issue. The trail begins to bend right and shortly thereafter where you'll encounter the trail's last trail marker, shown in the photo below.
Shortly after the marker, it's cairns the rest of the way. The trail then begins its second ascent, a 0.3 mile, 300' climb out of the drainage, beside the sandstone formation in the photo below. This is the steepest section of the hike.
At 1.4 miles you'll reach the panel, which is located around the corner of the formation in the photo above. The lengthy panel features a myriad of depictions, including more than 180 intricate human-like figures traveling from three directions, converging on what is likely a great kiva.
A close up photo showing the human-like figures walking toward the kiva.
Several of the anthropomorphic figures feature outstretched arms with long, claw-like fingers similar to a depiction found at the nearby Wolfman Panel. Others feature ornamental bird headdresses, carry staffs, or seem to be carrying packs on the back.
To the right of the kiva you'll find a hunt scene depicting two animals being speared with atlatls. Above the hunt scene you'll notice five figures which appear to be holding torches. Beside the scene there are two more atlatls.
Immediately to the right of the hunt scene you'll find what appears to be a a six toed male animal with a snake overhead.
To the right of this you'll find another large animal with a horned serpent beside it, what appears to be some sort of reptile above the animal, and the continuation of the one of the strings of human-like figures. A staff carrying human-like depiction can be found above the long line of people as well.
To the right of the images above you'll find depictions of what most consider human footprints.
Within 50' to the left of the main panel you'll find a number of sheep depictions, as well as a few human-like figures.
A close up of a few of the sheep depictions shows that there are much smaller sheep surrounding the larger animals. Between the sets of sheep you'll find another human-like figure with what appears to have a headdress.
There's a lot more to the panel than this and it's worth spending some time exploring at your own pace. The panel is best viewed early in the day before sunlight is cast on the panel. When you're done taking in the impressive panel, consider continuing on to the top of Comb Ridge for a great view of the surrounding area from high above. To get there, follow the steep slope to the left of the panel in the photo below.
The ascent up the slickrock will add another 0.2 miles and 180' in elevation gain to the hike, and is well worth the effort. You'll be greeted with excellent views of the Comb Ridge monocline in both directions and the Abajo Mountains to the north.
The mileage and elevation gain for the side hike is included in this article's hike stats. When you're done, return the way you came. A day use permit is required to park at the trailhead and can be obtained on recreation.gov.