It’s not a well-traveled road in southeastern Utah, not far from the Arizona line, so chances are you haven’t seen two new, brick and stone signs close to the quiet town of Bluff that proudly say: “Bluff, Utah, established 650 A. D.”
And you assumed that the Mormons settled Utah! No, local history for this tiny town goes back more than a thousand years, thanks to native Americans who left behind quite a few structures to remind us. According to the town’s current residents, known locally as “Bluffoons,” Bluff is truly the center of the universe -- or at the least the center of some of the finest red rock wilderness on the planet.
Bluff is surrounded by public and state land for 40 miles to the north and west. South, across the San Juan River, sprawls the 17 million-acre Navajo Reservation. The night sky is so clear here that nearby Natural Bridges National Monument has been named a “night sky park” by the National Park Service.
About a thousand years ago, Puebloan peoples built a Chacoan style Great House at Bluff. Hopis say the large residence was situated there because of twin, sandstone alcoves across the San Juan River. When archaeologists investigated, they found ancient villages from the Basketmaker Indian era, and rock art above a sand dune close to town features petroglyphs from 1,400 years ago. In fact, Bluff and San Juan County, Utah have some of the finest Basketmaker petroglyphs found anywhere in the world.
As for the Mormons, when Brigham Young required a church outpost in the state’s extreme southeast corner, he sent a group of Mormon settlers, who arrived in 1879. Remnants of the town’s past were invaluable for those newcomers. The only large wagon train that traveled east in the 19th century, called the Hole in the Rock Expedition, made the arduous trek over what remained of Anasazi roads.
Mormon pioneers built beautiful two-story sandstone homes for their large polygamous families, all with outside entrances for each wife. But the San Juan River regularly flooded and wiped out family farms, so their descendants mostly moved north, to Blanding or Monticello.
To this day, Bluff has no stoplight, hardware store, liquor store, grocery store or bank. Only one restaurant is open year-round. Grade school enrollment declines yearly, the town has no sewer system and the town’s closest hospital and its five ambulances serve a 5,000 square-mile area.
Though a few thousand people probably lived in Bluff 10 centuries ago, now there are just 200 residents. They’re a curious mix of locals, retirees, urban transplants, desert rats, river runners and several physicians. They appreciate that Bluff is probably farther from a major metropolitan area or interstate highway than anywhere else in the Southwest.
Vince Wilcox, who retired to Bluff with his wife, Martha Rice, first came to know the area 52 years ago, when he worked as a volunteer with the Episcopal Mission. He went on to work at the Smithsonian Institution but never forgot the place. “Bluff always stayed in my mind as a symbol of the beauty and charm of the West,” he says.
Perry Pahlmeyer, who came from Durango, Colo. built a new house in Bluff, because for him “Bluff is a place of serenity, simplicity, spaciousness and sanctuary.” His wife, Leah, adds, “The land seems to strip away all the distractions of modern life.”
Lynell Schalk from Oregon explains, “It’s the lack of people and the spectacular landscape that draws me here.” Despite the town’s small size, or perhaps because of it, she adds, “we take care of each other.”
Bluff residents also care for the landscape. Historic houses have been preserved, a trail has been created that parallels the San Juan River, and local artist Joe Pachak has worked with students to create outdoor sculptures around the town. There is also a strong conservation ethic: The Bluff Landowners Coalition successfully campaigned for closing adjacent BLM lands to all-terrain vehicles in order to protect archaeological sites, and a farm east of town adopted conservation easements to forever block the development of a golf course.
When you look up at Bluff’s 300 feet-tall red and beige sandstone cliffs that illustrate the Jurassic Age, or at its 160-million-year-old ancient sand dunes, you begin to realize why the town’s road signs harken back to a “founding” some 1,300 years ago. This is a place where natural history stays alive.
Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado.