Trail of the Ancients Scenic Drive Through Bears Ears

Trail of the Ancients Scenic Drive Through Bears Ears

By Brian Higgins
April 13, 2022

Bears Ears starts in Bluff. Explore Bears Ears country with this guide to both natural and archaeological marvels.

What’s better than a good old fashioned road trip? How about an old, old, old fashioned road trip? A downright ancient road trip, where you’ll see archeology thousands of years old and landscapes created through eons of erosion. That’s exactly what you’ll get when you travel the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway from Bluff, Utah

Don’t worry, you won’t have to travel by wagon, horse or brontosaurus — your car will do just fine. Use this itinerary to explore both the cultural and natural sights of the unique Bears Ears region. For more info download the ebook or stop by the Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff to pick up a free map. 

As you travel, remember that the land within Bears Ears National Monument isn’t just protected — it’s sacred. The cultural significance of the land to Native American tribes, both in the past and the present, is a huge part of why the area is protected. Honor these tribes and your fellow visitors by following some simple Visit With Respect tips like staying on trail, leaving artifacts as you find them and keeping pets off of structures. It’s always important to show respect for those who will visit after us, but in Bears Ears it’s even more important to honor those who were here before us. 

Them’s the rules, so study up. And when in doubt, be as kind as possible to every person, place and thing you see. Now fill up that tank (there are few services along the route), grab plenty of food and water for the day ahead, make sure your phone is fully charged for pictures and get ready to hit the road.

(Sites with an asterisk indicate those within Bears Ears National Monument)

Site 1: Navajo Twin Rocks 

This unique rock formation is the perfect starting point for a few reasons. Reason one? It's at the beginning of the drive. Reason two? Breakfast! Start your day with a delicious meal at Twin Rocks Cafe and gaze up at the towering Navajo Twins. These rocks were named for the Hero Twins, who held immense power in Navajo creation stories. The twin rocks also symbolize twin prayer sticks that bless and watch over the Navajo to this day. 

Site 2: Sand Island Petroglyph Panel*

Found on the banks of the San Juan River, the Sand Island petroglyph panel contains rock art from between 800 and 2,500 years ago. Archaeologists believe this spot was once a gathering area, and that the art was intended to be seen by all. The petroglyphs are in great condition and there are many easily recognizable figures among the art. You’re free to interpret all you want (who is that sheep playing flute to?), just be sure to Visit With Respect and keep your hands off the panel at all costs. 

Site 3: Comb Ridge*

As you drive along the route to the next site, you’ll notice the unique, imposing presence of Comb Ridge. This 80-mile monocline, or a sharp step-up in the earth’s rock layers, can be seen from the northern boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument all the way to Arizona. The ridge is named for its similarity to a jagged rooster’s comb. Just look at it strut its stuff!

Site 4: Valley of the Gods*

This 17-mile unpaved scenic loop will lead you past towering pinnacles, monoliths, buttes and other incredible red-rock formations cut out of the majestic Cedar Mesa sandstone. There are no hiking trails, camping areas or facilities along the Valley of the Gods drive, but the “ooohs” and “aaahs” are some of the best around. 

Site 5: Goosenecks State Park 

Since you left it, the San Juan River’s been awfully busy. Not as busy as it was during the millions of years it spent carving out the towering canyon walls of Goosenecks State Park, but still pretty busy. It’s mostly just been admiring its own handiwork — you can do so yourself from the awe-inspiring viewpoint inside the park. A thousand feet below, you’ll see the San Juan wind around tight turns again and again (and again and again). Over a distance of one and a half miles, the San Juan River flows over six miles through the winding canyons. 

Site 6: Navajo Tapestry

As you leave Goosenecks State Park, this colorful landmark can be seen off to the east. Even if you don’t know which direction is east, you’ll know the tapestry when you see it. After all, there aren’t many other ridges that look like a giant blanket was constructed out of the earth. The Navajo Tapestry, also called Raplee Ridge, takes its name from its naturally colorful zigzag patterns. The Navajo also associate this landmark with the mythology of the Big Snake. 

Site 7: Moki Dugway*

If your driver is afraid of heights, now might be a good time to have them switch out. And close their eyes. Actually, if you have a tranquilizer dart that might be the best option. Just kidding — the Moki Dugway isn’t that bad, but this unpaved series of switchbacks is certainly one of the more exciting roads you can drive in Utah. You’ll travel 1,200 feet up the cliff’s edge over three miles of switchbacks, with grades as steep as 11%. Passenger cars can handle it just fine, but RV owners might have some measuring and rerouting to do — the State of Utah advises vehicles over 28 feet and 10,000 pounds to find another route. 

Site 8: Muley Point

Your drive up the Moki Dugway pays off (and then some) with this panoramic viewpoint. Travel just a few miles down the road and Muley Point’s stunning vistas will begin to unfold before you. Offering views of Monument Valley, Goosenecks State Park, Valley of the Gods and hundreds of miles of open desert, it’s one of the most stunning viewpoints in all of southeast Utah, and that’s saying something. Be sure not to miss it. 

Site 9: Bears Ears Buttes*

Back on State Route 261, you’ll be able to see the two towering buttes from which Bears Ears National Monument takes its name. (You may recognize them from the top of this article.) The buttes stand at over 8,700 feet and can be seen for miles in every direction. Bears Ears is an important ancestral home for Native Americans; tribes that originate in the area have deep connections to these lands and feature stories and legends about the Bears Ears’ buttes in their oral traditions. Once you see them you’ll begin to understand why. 

Site 10: Natural Bridges National Monument

You’re really having a monumental trip, aren’t you? Your laughter at that perfect joke should carry you all the way to Natural Bridges National Monument. The three incredible bridges that lend the park its name — Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo — can be seen from viewpoints just a few minutes off the road, or you can hike a few miles to see them up close (Owachomo is easiest to view). Fun fact: the park was named the first world’s first International Dark Sky Park in 2007 and has some of the most stunning night skies in the state. Come back later for a peek, or visit Goosenecks State Park, which is also a dark sky park. 

Site 11: Mule Canyon Interpretive Site*

A roadside attraction that blows the World’s Largest Rocking Chair out of the water. (But not the World’s Largest Office Chair, you gotta see that.) This preserved cultural site contains structures from the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the region around 1,000 years ago. The site is believed to have been home to multiple family dwellings, a tower and an underground kiva. Explore the site on the paved path, read about the history on the interpretive signs and remember your Visit With Respect tips. This site has stood the test of time, and it’s our job as visitors to help it continue to do so. 

Site 12: Butler Wash Overlook and Trail*

This is a fine example of an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling and a fitting final stop for the drive. Walk the half-mile path from the parking lot to the lookout area where you can marvel at  this ancient cliff dwelling, which seems to spring out of the natural landscape. Several structures can be seen from the vantage point, where you can read about the Ancestral Puebloans who once lived there. 

Want to learn even more about the Ancestral Puebloans and other tribes who made their home in the region? Visit the Bears Ears Education Center back in Bluff. There you’ll also find comfy lodgings, a beautiful desert sunset and some of the darkest skies around. Thank you for Visiting with Respect and keeping these lands Forever Mighty®.