Pets allowed
Allowed
Guided tours
No
Backcountry camping
Yes
Lodging
No
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Bears Ears National Monument Overview | Scenic Driving and Biking | Hiking | Rock Climbing | Canyoneering | Camping | Weather

Bears Ears National Monument Overview

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.

Newspaper Rock at Indian Creek. Photo by Jesse Weber.

Designation

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.

Recreation

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.

Scenic Driving and Biking

Hatch Point and the Book Cliffs illuminated at sunset, seen from Needles Overlook. Photo by Jesse Weber.

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.

  • UT-95 (paved):
    • This highway bisects the national monument from Blanding to Hite on Lake Powell. It is the most commonly traveled route through the region and offers an extensive tour of its scenery, including slickrock domes, high mesas, narrow canyons, and distant peaks. Butler Wash and Mule Canyon, two excellent hikes to Puebloan ruins, are along this road.
  • UT-211 (paved)
    • This is the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, but en route it leads through Indian Creek Corridor, one of the most spectacular areas of Bears Ears. Huge cliff walls hem in a wide, verdant canyon that is home to a working cattle ranch and rich Native American history. Newspaper Rock is a must-see. It is a dense collection of interesting rock art right next to the road.
  • Needles Overlook (paved)
    • Though not technically inside the monument boundary, the view from Needles Overlook is not to be missed. The drive to get here from US-191 is amazing all its own, with views of the La Sal and Abajo Mountains on the horizon. The overlook on Indian Creek's canyon rim is nothing short of mind-blowing, however, with vantage for 100 miles over Bears Ears National Monument and Canyonlands National Park.
  • Harts Draw Highway (paved)
    • Also located outside the boundary, this route between Monticello and UT-211 grants amazing views of the Abajo Mountains, which are partially within the national monument. Drive it in the fall for fiery aspens or winter for snowy vistas.
  • Moki Dugway (gravel; suitable for passenger cars when dry)
    • When UT-261 runs into the escarpment of Cedar Mesa's east rim, the road turns to gravel and winds its way up switchbacks cut into the cliffside. Originally built to access uranium mines, this incredibly scenic road is now a main route into the national monument.
  • Muley Point (gravel, suitable for passenger cars when dry)
    • At the top of the Moki Dugway, a side road leads to the vista at Muley Point. From this spot on the rim you can see Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. 
  • Valley of the Gods (gravel; suitable for passenger cars when dry)
    • Though often upstaged by the Hollywood fame of nearby Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods is another natural wonder held sacred by the tribes of this region. A 17-mile loop meanders among giants of stone that stand strong above the weathered landscape.
  • Abajo Loop Scenic Backway (gravel, dirt; high clearance recommended)
    • A spectacular tour of the Abajo Mountains that exceeds 9,000 feet elevation. It is best in the fall when the weather is cool and dry, and the groves of aspen turn gold.
  • Elk Ridge Scenic Backway (dirt; high clearance and four-wheel drive recommended)
    • This is perhaps the best all-in-one digest of the national monument's diverse scenery, from high forested mountains deep desert canyons. The route is rich in panoramas the whole way as it follows the crest of Elk Ridge between UT-211 in the north and UT-95 in the south, passing between the Bears Ears mesas themselves along the way.
  • Beef Basin (dirt; high clearance and four-wheel drive recommended)
    • Beginning at UT-211 in Indian Creek, this road goes through a lesser-traveled side canyon with equally amazing red cliffs all around, then makes a bold climb into the high country for unrivaled views of the Abajo Mountains, Cathedral Butte, and a labyrinth of canyons far below.
  • Lockhart Basin (dirt, sand, rock; high clearance and four-wheel drive required)
    • An exciting trip among the seldom-seen stone towers and slickrock near the boundary of Canyonlands National Park. The road begins at UT-211 in Indian Creek and can be followed all the way to Kane Creek near Moab as a multi-day trip.
  • Lavendar and Davis Canyons (dirt, sand; high clearance and four-wheel drive required)
    • This pair of routes departing from UT-211 go into a remote reach of Canyonlands National Park where some unique ruins and rock art can be found, but the way is treacherous with loose sand, and navigation can be difficult.

Hiking

House on Fire Ruin. Photo by Morgan Tashea.

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

  • Butler Wash
    • A great intro to slickrock desert hiking and Native American history of the region. A short hike with informative signage leads to an overlook of fairly extensive Puebloan ruins in a large cliffside alcove.
  • Road Canyon
    • A moderate hike to spectacular Puebloan ruins tucked within the cliff walls. Getting here requires travel over a rough dirt road and a self-pay fee of $2 to be made at a kiosk near the trailhead. 
  • Mule Canyon
    • This forked canyon contains many pictographs and ruins among its colorful walls and vegetation. A favorite of photographers is the House on Fire, a ruin named for flame-like patterns on the rock face above it.
  • Grand Gulch
    • This deep and elaborate canyon was home to many people in ancient times, and has been called an outdoor museum in the modern day, with thousands of artifacts and ruins hidden within. All are protected by federal law as part of the national monument, so you are free to observe, but leave everything as you find it. Best done as a multi-day backpacking trip, Grand Gulch winds for more than 50 miles, not counting endless side canyons inviting exploration. Permits are required from the BLM Monticello Field Office, and can be reserved in advance by phone.
  • Dark Canyon Wilderness
    • Flying under the radar in this already sparsely traveled region, Dark Canyon is a pocket of steep-walled ravines rarely seen in the modern day, but its history is rich and still evident in ruins and relics. A 40-mile backpacking trip is the best way to explore it, but hikes of any length require advanced desert camping and navigation skills.

Rock Climbing

Legendary rock climbing at Indian Creek. Photo by Jesse Weber.

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.

Canyoneering

Fry Canyon is a technical descent that requires ropes and other special gear. Photo by Jesse Weber.

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.

  • Fry Canyon
    • A moderate technical descent through a narrow slot canyon with a few rappels and swims. A well preserved ruin sits inexplicably high in the canyon wall after the junction with White Canyon.
  • White Canyon
    • This canyon is extensive and has many distinct sections, not all of which are technical. The "Black Hole" contains several tricky spots, however, including a long swim in deep, cold water.

Camping

Dispersed camping at Indian Creek. Photo by Jesse Weber.

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.

Weather

Traces of snow at the end of November along Beef Basin Road. Photo by Jesse Weber.

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.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Winter
Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

Moderate

Parking Pass

Sometimes

Pros

New national monument. Archaeologically significant.

Cons

Largely undeveloped. Few amenities.

Features

Geologically significant
Backcountry camping
Historically significant
Rock climbing
Mountain biking
Bicycling
Potable water
Picnic tables
Off-leash dog area
Covered picnic areas
Old-growth forest
Fishing
Horseback riding
Bird watching
Wildlife
Big Game Watching
Big Game Watching

Location

Field Guide

Nearby Lodging + Camping

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