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False Kive, Canyonlands National Park
False Kiva, Canyonlands National Park

False Kiva - Canyonlands National Park

False Kiva, a compositionally perfect place and a photographers dream. It is an alcove in a cliff face in the canyon wall, looking out at the magnificent buttes of the Island in the Sky district in Canyonlands National Park.

A kiva is a room used by modern Puebloans for religious rituals by modern Hopi and most other Pueblo peoples, today kivas are square-walled and underground, and are used for spiritual ceremonies. Similar subterranean rooms are found among ruins in the American Southwest, indicating ritual or cultural use by the ancient peoples of the region including the Ancient Pueblo Peoples.   Those used by the ancient Anasazi were usually round, and generally believed to have been used for religious and other communal purposes.

False Kiva, a photomerge of two 32mm shots to maximize the background scenery while including a good portion of the cave

The site is called “False Kiva” because people falsely believed the main round structure is a kiva or ceremonial room. While located in a naturally occurring cave, the name False Kiva arises from the uncertainty around the circle of stones' origins and purpose, not whether it is really an authentic kiva. These structures were common shelters for ancestral 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 presences of the storage cists indicate that foods were stored there.

False Kiva 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.” This archaeological site is not on the official maps. If you care to visit stop by the park visitors center and ask and they will show you photos of where to be careful on the trail so you have a better chance of finding it.

Once you discover where to park to find the trail, it is reasonably easy to find the trail that leads you to False Kiva. Hiking along the canyon top is not for the faint of heart nor infirm, but the destination is well worth the effort. The actual decent into the canyon is tricky and strenuous and coming back out is even worse. Take plenty of breaks and make sure of your footing. Halfway through your decent you can see up to your right the alcove in the canyon wall where you will need to get to. Exact coordinates for False Kiva are available on the internet, but GPS users should be aware that these exact directions could place hikers 500 feet directly above False Kiva. Sometimes technology doesn’t make things easier. There are many wrong trails in the area confounded by cairns that don’t belong so use all due caution. There is a good chance you won't meet a soul on the trail and at the ruins.

Upon arrival after catching your breath you will likely experienced an incredible feeling of timelessness, spirituality, and wonder. Life’s difficulty for the Anasazi is apparent as you take in the view with wonder. For safety’s sake, they lived in a cave high above the water, fuel and farm fields of the valley below. Clearly the Native Americans who built this as their home had intended that none except those who knew the exact path would be able to find their home. No doubt though, a home with a view.

False Kiva is a very challenging location to shoot, in the morning you have harsh shadows in the cave, in the afternoon the cave is lit well but you have lens flare to the west. Perhaps in the evening when the sun falls below the west ridge would provide good shadow for the cave and warm light in the valley for those who are proficient at HDR. To encompass the whole cave you need a super wide-angle lens which diminishes your scenery in the valley. A stormy day would be perfect if you are lucky enough to be there for one. I wish I had considered the early evening HDR option while there because now I must go back, and it tires me thinking about it. I would also like to return in thunderstorm season as I believe that would be best but much hotter and miserable and possibly dangerous. If I can make it on a stormy day, I’d like to shoot a series of vertical 32 to 40mm shots for a photo merge.

There is a debate in the process whether disclose the exact location of False Kiva as it enjoys a semi-protected status. While park rangers are required to disclose the location of this Class II archeological site, the site itself is not protected from vandalism. Since it is easily found on the internet visitation is increasing, as is vandalism. The park is weighing whether to Improve access so there are less lost hikers at the risk of further degradation to the site or to close the area to protect what archeological value that remains.  Local guides are available to take interested parties to the site, raising questions whether closely guarding the location of False Kiva is particularly effective.

This is one of the great places I will have to return to again and again until I get it just the way I like.


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