The Bears Ears are a pair of prominent buttes that sit atop the already-elevated plateau of Cedar Mesa in Southern Utah. They appear for miles around like the ears of a bear poking just the top of its head into the horizon, so they have always been known as such by Native Americans. The Bears Ears lend their name to the national monument, but its boundaries encompass far more of this beautiful and historically rich region.
Set near the center of Utah's "Grand Circle" of natural wonders, Bears Ears is an integral corridor for wildlife and a cradle of culture. Scattered among the many cliffs, caves, and canyons are more than 100,000 identified archaeological sites--traces of human history that help us understand the past. The area around Bears Ears is one of the densest collections of such sites known from anywhere in the Southwest. Native Americans have lived here for thousands of years, and their stories cannot be understood without valuable clues like ruins, rock art, and artifacts found here.
Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Paiute, and Navajo peoples all trace ancestral ties to this region, tell oral histories involving the Bears Ears buttes and other landmarks, and consider these places sacred. Many tribe members still enjoy traditional uses of the land like hunting, fishing, gathering firewood, collecting medicinal plants, and visiting heritage sites. The primary purpose of designating Bears Ears National Monument is to preserve these practices by ensuring protection of natural and cultural resources indefinitely into the future.
Bears Ears National Monument was designated on December 28, 2016, by proclamation from President Obama under authority of the Antiquities Act. The decision was the result of years of advisement from an intertribal coalition of Native Americans from the region as well as public scoping performed by the BLM, USFS, and other federal agencies. The final boundaries of the monument encompassed significantly less area than originally proposed, which was a result of a compromise with local stakeholders who were opposed to more federal rules in a county already heavy on protected lands. The final area is 1.35 million acres entirely within San Juan County, Utah.
The regulatory significance of the designation is that new leases for mining, drilling, or exploration are not allowed. Existing leases for extraction within the monument are able to continue. Some areas in and around Bears Ears are rich in uranium, and others may contain valuable fossil fuel deposits. Many people would rather this land remain open to extractive uses, and many are against new regulations on land use in general...hence the politically charged controversy over Bears Ears National Monument.
Monument designation does not currently put new restrictions on other uses like grazing, hunting, fishing, firewood gathering, and collection of plants. All this remains allowed and controlled with the same permit systems as before. The monument also does not directly affect private land, state land, or any road access. The only land included in the national monument is public land of either Bureau of Land Management (1.06 million acres) or US Forest Service (289,000 acres), all of which was already managed for recreation and multi-use and will continue as such. Approximately 109,100 acres of state-owned and 12,600 acres of private land lie surrounded by the monument, but they are not part of it and have no new regulations imposed.
Besides being rich in history, Bears Ears is a treasure trove of outdoor recreation. From deep canyons to high mountains, endless opportunities are out there, but most destinations are rarely visited. Part of the charm of this new national monument is the lack of development. There are currently no entrance stations or fees, few maintained hiking trails or campgrounds exist, and most of the roads are rugged and remote. Paved roads and well-signed trails do lead to spectacular scenery in some places, so there is certainly something for everyone, but venturing off the beaten path requires a real sense of adventure and skills of self reliance. Use this guide to find the activities that are right for you and to inspire further discovery in Bears Ears National Monument.
Much of Bears Ears National Monument is inaccessible by road, and even among the roads that there are, few are paved. Most require capable vehicles with four-wheel drive, OHVs, or mountain bikes to safely navigate. Driving anywhere off of designated roads is prohibited, and bicycles are also allowed on roads only. The state of many roads in the monument leaves little to be desired in the way of adventure, however. If venturing anywhere off the pavement, you need to be prepared for self-reliance and changing conditions. With few other travelers and no cell service, getting stuck could mean being out there for a long time. Even paved roads can be treacherous in winter or during heavy rains, so watch the weather before any outing.
Considering its wide area and wealth of scenery, there are actually few marked trails in Bears Ears. This wildness only adds to its rugged attraction, however, and leaves the horizon wide open for adventure. Here are a few popular hikes that make a good introduction to the landscape and history. Let these serve as a starting point, and inspiration to find less traveled trails to explore
Indian Creek Corridor is one of the country's most renowned rock climbing destinations, and it is located entirely within Bears Ears National Monument. Climbers come from around the world to test themselves on Indian Creek's famous "splitters" -- vertical cracks in otherwise smooth sandstone that demand specialized techniques and equipment to climb. Regulations do not require any fees or permits, but climbing over petroglyphs or ruins is prohibited.
Bears Ears lies near the heart of Utah's Canyon Country, where water and wind have worked away at layers of sandstone, leaving a landscape furrowed with deep gorges and tight chasms. Parts of these canyons can be explored simply on foot, but drop-offs and permanent pools in some places warrant special skills and gear to rappel cliffs and negotiate other obstacles. These technical descents are called canyoneering routes.
There are few developed campgrounds within Bears Ears National Monument. Currently, the only ones are in the Indian Creek Corridor along UT-211. Dispersed camping, however, is allowed and free of charge throughout most of the national monument. For any dispersed camping in Indian Creek, there is a strict pack-it-in-pack-it-out policy that extends to human waste (no cat holes), and this is a good Leave No Trace ethic to practice elsewhere in the monument as well. Always stick to spots that have clearly been used for camping before, in order to minimize impact. Drive or bike only on designated roads, and observe all seasonal campfire regulations.
Indian Creek Campgrounds
There are plenty of camping options in adjacent and nearby parks as well. Here are a few of the best.
Bears Ears National Monument is in Southern Utah's "high desert" where weather can be extreme. In general, summer is hot and winter is cold, but elevation gradient and irregular weather patterns can make conditions hard to predict. Most unpaved roads in the monument become impassable when icy or wet, so always pay attention to the weather before venturing out. The best times to visit are late March through mid June, and September and October. This is when temperatures are cool but not too cold and the weather is most stable.
Summer daytime temperatures often exceed 100 degrees at the lower elevations. July and August bring monsoon rainstorms, which present risk of flash floods in narrow canyons and lightning strikes at higher elevations. Spring and fall are pleasant at all elevations, but nighttime temperatures can drop significantly. The first frost generally happens in mid to late October, and snow usually falls in November. Some facilities and roads close for the winter. By late March snow is gone from all but the highest elevations, and the weather begins to dry out.