Two years ago, Bears Ears was thrust into the national spotlight when it finally, after years of lobbying by local people, was recognized as a national monument.
The region’s beauty, a painted landscape of geological marvels, is in a class of its own but, combined with its cultural remains, over 100,000 sites of ancient habitation and art, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is considered by many to be among the country’s most important natural regions. Although the monument was controversially reduced in 2017 to 16 percent of the original size established by President Obama the year before, protections remain for some of its most intriguing canyons, ridges, waterways, and ruins. Our ten picks for the park’s most incredible experiences offer something for nature lovers and history buffs of all stripes, from a leisurely drive through scenic Indian Creek to multi-day cycling and rafting trips.
Drive the Indian Creek Scenic Byway and Visit Newspaper Rock
To call the road that connects The Needles section of Canyonlands National Park to the Indian Creek area of Bears Ears National Monument a “scenic byway” is laughable. America’s scenic byways are pleasant highways through mountains and forests, pretty but often somewhat forgettable, and trust us, this is one drive you won’t soon forget. Lined with flat-top buttes bathed in shifting patterns of light, dotted with colossal sandstone castles erupting from the rolling desert below, the 40-mile long State Route 211 is an excellent introduction to Bears Ears’ ancient landscape. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, a rock wall adorned with one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world, some of which are a mind-blowing 2,000 years old.
Hike the Comb Ridge and Its Many Ancient Ruins
Forty years before President Obama designated Bears Ears a National Monument, Comb Ridge, a 120-mile long “monocline,” or bend in the sandstone, was recognized as a National Natural Landmark. The unique shape of the ridge has resulted in a landscape riddled with box canyons and sheltered ravines replete with freshwater springs, a life-sustaining combination for the ancient peoples who once lived in the region. Today the Comb Ridge is thick with the easily accessible archaeological remains of Bears Ears’ ancestral tribes, including the Monarch Cave Ruins (also known as the Hidden Pool Ruins) tucked away down an easy 1.6 mile trail and the Split Level Ruins (Long Fingers) and their notable petroglyphs, a quick two-mile round-trip walk from Highway 163.
INSIDER TIPIf even a one to two-mile hike seems daunting in this hot, arid, high-elevation environment, several other ruins along Highway 163 and the Comb Ridge actually require less effort to see. Point your air-conditioned vehicle towards the petroglyphs of Sand Island and the Wolfman Panel or the Lower Butler Wash ruins. While it’s illegal to remove any artifacts from an archaeological site, a pitstop at the Twin Rocks Trading Post will dazzle you with modern Native American art that you can call your own.
Take a Cycling Trip
A mountain bike is the key to unlocking hundreds of miles of solitude and jaw-dropping beauty at Bears Ears. Miles of bike-friendly trails and beginner-appropriate twin-track service roads wind their way through the monument’s sandstone canyons. Bike enthusiasts with their own gear will find plenty of options for devising both day rides and overnight bikepacking trips to their liking but even those that left their wheels at home have several opportunities to see the sights from the saddle on guided multi-day excursions like Rim Tour’s 55-mile, 3 day/2 night ride for all skill levels which comes complete with gear and “gourmet” backcountry meals.
INSIDER TIPAlthough it’s a road and not a single-track trail, moderately experienced bikers going it on their own should head for the Peavine Corridor Road, an 11.5-mile route lined by sheer cliffs, peek-a-boo arches, and stately ruins.
Experience Legendary Hollywood Scenery
Like its more famous neighbor Monument Valley, over the years the towering rock formations of the Valley of the Gods has appeared in their fair share of commercials, movies, and TV shows, including two episodes of the BBC cult favorite, Dr. Who. While the valley is technically no longer part of the Bears Ears—it ended up on the wrong side of the new boundary line when the monument was reduced in 2017—it’s still as spectacular off-camera as it is on. There are no designated hiking trails in the Valley of the Gods but trekking across the landscape is allowed and, without much vegetation to block your view, it’s nearly impossible to get lost as you work your way towards the red sandstone behemoths at its edges. Mountain biking is also permitted here but, if you prefer to view the valley on four wheels instead of two, drive the scenic 17-mile long Valley of the Gods Road, a dirt track that is passable by most cars in dry weather (though high clearance vehicles are recommended).
Rock Climb in Indian Creek
Long before Bears Ears was designated a national monument, the climbing community was singing the praises of its imposing rock formations. Several routes of varying difficulty traverse the cliffs of Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin, Comb Ridge, and elsewhere within the boundaries of the park. Experienced climbers will find a worthwhile challenge on the Christmas Tree route at Indian Creek, a 140-ft climb rated 5.12+ which requires some advanced finger techniques. For more intermediate climbers, the Fuzzy Crockpot route along the spire of Eagle Plume Tower is rated a tough but not overly extreme A2+. Those traveling to Bears Ears with climbing experience but no gear can book a full day climbing trip in Indian Creek with experienced guides from Moab Cliffs and Canyons.
INSIDER TIPMost climbing in Bears Ears is done in spring and fall due to extreme temperatures, unpredictable flooding, and raptor nesting activity in the summer and winter.
Raft Down the San Juan River
One of the best ways to get a complete picture of Bears Ears is on a rafting trip down the mighty San Juan, one of the major tributaries of the Colorado River. The 84-mile long river rushes through the national monument at a moderate Class II clip, serene enough for beginners but still exciting enough for more advanced river rats. While you can raft the river solo (permits are available from the BLM office), you’ll gain a different kind of insight into the ancient landscape on a multi-day tour with a knowledgeable river guide. A handful of companies, including the nonprofit Grand Canyon Trust and the 60+-year old Wild Expeditions, offer trips from three to seven days in length.
INSIDER TIPIn April 2019, Wild Expeditions is opening a boutique resort property, the Bluff Dwellings Resort, in nearby Bluff, Utah. The property, which will have a full-service spa, pool, hot tub and a pizza cafe with a brick oven, makes a great jumping-off point for one of their river tours or any other Bears Ears adventure.
Visit the Mule Canyon Roadside Kiva and Butler Wash Ruins Overlook
You don’t have to stray far from the highway to see two of Bears Ears most impressive ancient ruins. The Mule Canyon Ruin, located right on Highway 95, has a beautifully restored 700-year-old kiva, a 12-room pueblo and a mysterious two-story tower which was lovingly reconstructed in the 1970s. Ten miles down the road, around mile marker 111, is the dramatic Butler Wash Ruins cliff dwelling. An easy half-mile walk down a well-maintained trail ends at a perfectly placed overlook with an excellent view of the 800-year-old pueblo, one best seen in the morning hours when the light is just right for photos.
INSIDER TIPFrom the Mule Canyon Ruin there is a direct line of sight to another, much larger ancient site, the Cave Tower Ruins, located about a mile to the south. 4WD vehicles can reach the ruins via a small unlocked-but-gated spur road but if your car isn’t up to snuff, the walk down the road is short and easy.
Some of the world’s best canyoneering, a multifaceted sport that requires hiking, climbing, rappelling, swimming and all sorts of other uber-athletic abilities, is found in Utah. And while you need to be fit with nerves of steel for any canyoneering adventure, at Bears Ears’ Fry Canyon you can get your feet wet (literally) without committing to a multi-day excursion. The two to four-hour expedition, which requires rappelling in one section and a long swim in another, is considered an “introductory” canyon and can be explored without a guide, as long as you’re confident in your abilities. If you’d rather be under the watchful eye of an expert, try North Wash Outfitters’ five hour trip to the Black Hole, a stunning water-filled slot canyon.
Backpack Through Grand Gulch
Grand Gulch, part of the Cedar Mesa section of Bears Ears, is so densely packed with ancient dwellings and rock art that it’s sometimes called the “Outdoor Museum.” A winding 52-mile route, Grand Gulch and its side canyons (Todie Canyon, Bullet Canyon, and others) are best seen on a multi-day backpacking trip, though even a single overnight offers a much better opportunity to explore the ruins, some of which are as much as 1200 years old. You can start your journey from any one of multiple trailheads off of State Route 261 but the most impressive way in is through the high cliffs of Kane Gulch, a route that leads you straight to Junction Ruin, a three-level Anasazi site with more than 50 separate structures. Overnight permits cost $8/person per trip.
INSIDER TIPBears Ears allows local tribal members to collect medicinal plants, firewood and other materials but even if you aren’t a member of a Native American community, no permit is required to collect a “reasonable amount” of nuts, berries, and herbs on your backpacking trip, including up to 25 lbs per person of piñon (pine) nuts and up to five gallons of berries per person.
Marvel at the Night Sky, One of the Clearest in the World
Stargazers have been admiring the night sky above Bears Ears for thousands of years; the evidence of their astronomical prowess appears not just in the petroglyphs and pictographs they drew but in the positions of certain structures built to mark solstices and equinoxes. Despite the light pollution that plagues much of the U.S., Bears Ears at night still has some of the darkest skies and brightest stars around, rated a Class 2 on the Bortle Dark Sky Scale (pretty much as dark as it gets above ground). Stop by the Bears Ears Education Center to see if there are any organized stargazing events during your visit or watch the skies on your own on a blanket spread out near the Kane Gulch BLM Ranger Station or from the trail.