Everything you need to know about visiting Bears Ears National Monument

Everything You Need to Know About Visiting Bears Ears National Monument

By Vincent Ninh
February 03, 2022

In the last few years, Bears Ears National Monument has been in the national spotlight a lot — but not for the right reasons. Ever since it was caught up in a political affair that threatened to reduce its size, the splendor of the region has almost become secondary to the story.

But in the same way that we need to remember M. Night Shyamalan for "The Sixth Sense" and not "The Last Airbender," we need to remember why Bears Ears rose to prominence in the first place. It’s a showstopping landscape, filled with panoramic desert views, forested buttes and mesas and an estimated 100,000 archeological sites. It's also deeply sacred to many indigenous tribes in the region. Here are the best ways to enjoy this park's beauty, and why you should make the trip.

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 about as unforgiving as a professor grading a paper you wrote the night before. Bears Ears is a remote park spread out across 2,215 square miles. And the seclusion that makes it so special and uncrowded also makes it a hard place to fill up on gas or catch a cellphone signal.

Before heading out there, gear up in Blanding. Make sure your car has a full tank 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, although 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 areas in Utah, Bears Ears has something to offer to everyone. These are just a few highlights, listed roughly from south to north. Note: the first three are located in the southeastern end of the area and the next three are in the north end.

Find Solace in Valley of the Gods

A hop, skip and jump from Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods is a rugged backcountry area that's often considered a mini version of its iconic older brother. There are sandy, bumpy and steep sections along the region's 17-mile scenic road, which means high-clearance vehicles are recommended. And the jaw-dropping, 250 million-year-old sandstone monoliths surrounding you mean cameras (and tissues) are recommended.

Location on Google Maps

Become a Student of Archeology at the Butler Wash Ruins

Easy and well-marked, the hike to the Butler Wash Ruins Overlook will take you to one of Bears Ears’ most impressive archeological sites — which is saying something. These three alcoves were built by Ancestral Puebloans (likely in the 1200s) who used them for storage, ceremony and habitation. Binoculars are highly recommended to see these incredible cliff dwellings in greater detail, as the hike stops at an overlook. Accessing the site itself is also possible, but not advised, as it requires some challenging scrambling. If you choose to make the trek, please refrain from touching or leaning on any of the structures, or removing any of the artifacts. They've gotten along just fine for over 800 years with your help.

Location on Google Maps

Extinguish Your FOMO by Visiting House on Fire 

House on Fire is located a mile into the south fork of Mule Canyon, a four-mile trail that passes eight Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites. They’re all worth seeing if you can, but House on Fire is the star of the show (with Cave Tower Ruins in a great supporting role). This cliff dwelling, which contains five granaries that were built between 700 and 2,500 years ago, has the unique distinction of being nestled under a sandstone “ceiling." The rocks above the dwelling are patterned in a way that resembles flames, especially in the right light. And when can you catch that light exactly? Visit between 10 and 11 a.m. to get the full effect (and maximum likes on Instagram).

Location on Google Maps

Peep the Namesake Buttes 

Standing at a towering 8,700 feet, the Bears Ears Buttes from which the park takes its name 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.

Location on Google Maps

Double Your Monument Intake at Natural Bridges

Good things come in threes, and Mother Nature followed that rule when carving out Natural Bridges National Monument. The three majestic natural bridges in the monument each bear (ha!) a Hopi name — the imposing Sipapu, the stout Kachina and the elegant Owachomo. Each bridge can be admired from a viewpoint right off the road, and if you want to get a closer look, they're all accessible via short hikes. For an even more picturesque backdrop, go at night and look up: Natural Bridges has the honor of being the world's first International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Location on Google Maps

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, the over 650 figures on the rock 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 (X?).” Better listen, even just the grease from your fingertips can harm this ancient artifact.

Location on Google Maps

Go Rock Climbing 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. It's not for newcomers, though, or even sport climbers. It's mostly trad climbing (meaning you have to place your own anchors rather than clip into existing ones) and most of the climbs are rated 5.10 and up. If you've got the chops (and didn't need any of that explained to you), you’ll be planning your next trip there before you’ve even left. And if you're not a pro but have some climbing experience under your harness, book a local guide to learn crack climbing techniques in the best location possible. Nearby camping is available and completes the experience, because there's nothing like discussing the day’s routes with like-minded folks.

Location on Google Maps

Poke Around the Needles Overlook 

Also located on the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway is the Needles Overlook, which presents spectacular panoramic vistas of the Indian Creek area, Abajo Mountains and the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. Some downsides? It’s accessible right from the road and usually isn't crowded at all. Wait a minute — those aren’t downsides at all!

Location on Google Maps

Leave It As You Found It

Bears Ears is pretty dang beautiful, so be sure to leave it that way. Or, go a step further and help leave it better than you found it by being a role model for those around you. Below are a few curated points from the comprehensive etiquette guide provided by the Bears Ears Partnership — read the whole thing when you can. 

  • View sites from a distance
  • Leave all artifacts
  • Don’t touch pictographs or petroglyphs, and don't make your own
  • Dogs and archeology don’t mix
  • Camp and eat away from archeological sites
  • 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 to avoid damaging cryptobiotic soil)