In the last few years, Bears Ears National Monument has been in the spotlight a lot — but not for the right reason. Because it’s been caught up in a massive political affair — which will not be discussed in this article by the way — its splendor has almost become secondary.
But in the same way that we need to remember Kanye more for College Dropout than for his presidential campaign, we need to remember why Bears Ears rose to prominence in the first place. It’s a showstopping desert landscape that contains an estimated 100,000 invaluable archeological sites and is deeply sacred to many indigenous tribes. Here’s how to enjoy its beauty to its fullest — and why.
How to properly prepare for a visit to Bears Ears
Bears Ears National Monument
First of all, a word of caution. Lack of preparation is never good in life, and the desert is as unforgiving as a professor grading a presentation you put together the night before. Bears Ears is remote and spread out across many miles. This seclusion, which makes it so special and uncrowded, also means there are fewer services and limited cell service.
Before heading out there, gear up in Blanding. Make sure you have a full tank of gas and plenty of food and water (at least one gallon per person per day). Inform someone exactly where you plan to go and what time you plan to be back. And if you’ll be hiking or walking a lot, bring the right shoes. Just because you saw a guy hike Angels Landing in flip-flops once doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.
Lastly, be aware that you need a vehicle equipped with four-wheel drive and high clearance to visit many regions within the national monument — though some major highways and dirt roads are passable in a passenger car. Refer to the official map for more details.
Things to do and see
Like many other natural landmarks in Utah, Bears Ears runs a fantastic diversity and inclusion program — it has something to offer to everyone. Here are a few highlights, listed roughly from south to north: the first three are located in the southeastern end of the area (Shash Jaa) and the next three the north end (Indian Creek).
Find solace in the Valley of the Gods
A hop, skip, and jump from Monument Valley, this 17-mile scenic road is actually frequently considered a mini-version of the iconic location. Sandy, bumpy sections and steep sections mean high-clearance vehicles are recommended. And the jaw-dropping, 250 million-year-old sandstone monoliths surrounding you mean cameras and tissues are recommended.
Be a servant of archeology by visiting the Butler Wash Ruins
Easy and well marked, the hike to the Butler Wash Ruins Overlook will take you to a view of some of Bears Ears’ most impressive ruins — which is saying something. These three alcoves were built (likely in the 1200s) by Ancestral Puebloans who used them for storage, ceremony and habitation. Binoculars are highly recommended to see the ruins in greater detail. Accessing the ruins themselves is also possible, but not advised as it requires challenging scrambling. If you choose to do it, act like your germophobic aunt and DO. NOT. TOUCH. ANYTHING.
Extinguish your FOMO by visiting the House on Fire
The House on Fire is located a mile into the south fork of Mule Canyon, a 4-mile trail that passes eight sites remnant of Ancestral Puebloan life. They’re all worth seeing if you can, but the House on Fire is the star of the show (with Cave Tower Ruins being the co-star). The remains of a cliff dwelling containing five granaries built between 700 and 2,500 years ago, it has the singularity of being nestled under a sandstone “ceiling” patterned in a way that resembles flames. Pro tip: go between 10 and 11 a.m. to get the full effect and maximum likes on IG.
Peep the namesake buttes
Standing at a towering 8,700 feet above the ground, the Bears Ears Buttes after which the national monument is named have been considered sacred by the many surrounding indigenous tribes for over 2,500 years — when Ancestral Puebloans started occupying the area. Stunning views of the landscape and a deep sense of spirituality can be enjoyed from the saddle of the buttes, but please be respectful and do not climb on the buttes themselves.
Lay you down at Natural Bridges
Good things come in threes, and Mother Nature followed that rule when carving out what is now known as the Natural Bridges National Monument. Three majestic natural bridges, which each bear (ha!) a Hopi name, are the focal attractions of the national monument: the imposing Sipapu, the stout Kachina and the elegant Owachomo. Each can be admired from a viewpoint right off the road or a short hike if you want to get closer. If you want an even more picturesque backdrop, go at night and look up: Natural Bridges was designated an International Dark-Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Do some light reading at Newspaper Rock
There are a lot of petroglyphs in Utah, but the state’s largest and most impressive collection is found at Newspaper Rock, along the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway. Incredibly, these 650 rock-art designs were engraved over the course of 2,000 years, and their meaning mostly remains a mystery today. Apparently, one reads, “Hey, you human with the weird clothes. Don’t touch this rock. If you want to write something dumb, go on Twitter or whatever.” Better listen.
Rock climb at Indian Creek (pronounced “crick”)
Not too far away from Newspaper Rock, “The Creek” offers the best and most scenic crack climbing in the country and has long been a legendary destination in the climbing community. Note that it’s not for newcomers, with most of the climbing being 5.10 and up, but if you’re up for it, you’ll be planning your next trip there before you’ve even left. Nearby camping is available and completes the experience — nothing like discussing the next day’s routes with like-minded folks.
Poke around at the Needles Overlook
Also along the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway is Needles Overlook, which presents spectacular panoramic vistas of the Indian Creek area, Abajo Mountains and Canyonlands National Park. The downsides? It’s right off the road so you don’t have to work for the views at all and crowds are usually small so you don’t have to fight off people to set up your tripod. Wait a minute — those aren’t downsides at all!
Leave it better than you found it
Or at the very least — leave it the same as you found it. Below are a few curated points from the comprehensive etiquette guide provided by The Bears Ears Education Center — read the whole thing when you can.
- View sites from a distance
- Leave all artifacts
- Don’t touch rock imagery or make your own
- Dogs and archeology don’t mix
- Camp and eat away from archeology
- Use rubber-tipped hiking poles
- Pay your fees
- Pack out your poop
- Stay on designated roads
- Don’t bust the crust (stay on existing trails and routes)