Photo: Louisa Albanese

How To Visit Bears Ears National Monument—the Right Way

President Biden just restored this remarkable Utah preserve to its original size. Here’s how to explore it.

With its vast expanse of red-rock canyons, high-elevation desert plateaus, juniper stands, sandstone climbing routes, and abundance of archeological riches, Bears Ears National Monument beckons everyone from hikers to mountain bikers to climbers to history buffs. But while the outdoor recreation opportunities here are second to none, it’s important to know that these lands are much more than a playground. Bears Ears includes the ancestral lands of five tribal nations—Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, and Pueblo of Zuni—and remains sacred ground for these communities today.

Bears Ears National Monument has seen some dramatic ups and downs in its short existence. It was first designated by President Obama in 2016. But the following year, President Trump signed an executive order that slashed the monument’s size by 85 percent, raising the threat of fossil fuel development, mining, resource damage, and looting of archeological sites. Then, in early October of 2021, President Biden reinstated the monument’s original 1.3 million acres, plus an additional 11,200 acres. Indigenous groups like the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC), as well as public lands advocates across the country, applauded the move. 

“Thank you, President Biden and Vice President Harris, for upholding your commitment to restore Honmuru (Bears Ears National Monument), which is the birthplace of many Hopi and other Native peoples,” said Clark W. Tenakhongva, Vice Chairman of the Hopi Tribe and BEITC Co-Chair. “Through this action, the history of our people, our culture, and religion will be preserved for future generations.”  

The return of federal protection makes now an excellent time to plan a visit to this public lands treasure, which is managed jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Here’s what you need to know to plan your trip—especially, how to make sure that you respect the cultural and archeological treasures you’ll find here.

Where is Bears Ears National Monument?

The monument sits in southeastern Utah’s canyon country, bordered by Canyonlands National Park on the northwest and the Navajo Nation to the south. Gateway towns include Moab, Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff. 

What’s included in the national monument? 

Bears Ears brings together several areas of public land. The  northernmost “peninsula” of land encompasses Lockhart Basin and the Indian Creek area. Moving south, you’ll find a swath of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, including the Dark Canyon Wilderness. Bears Ears surrounds Natural Bridges National Monument, and also contains the Cedar Mesa area in its southern section. 

When should I visit?

Spring and fall offer the best conditions for exploring the desert, thanks to their mild daytime temperatures and relatively dry weather—but they’re also the most popular seasons for visitors. Summer can get very hot, and the monsoon season in late summer brings the potential for big storms and flash floods. Winter can be a good time to visit and enjoy solitude, but be prepared for cold temperatures, fewer services, and potentially impassable roads.

Photo: Louisa Albanese

What can I do at Bears Ears?

If it’s outdoors and fun, you can probably do it here. There are also unique opportunities to learn about ancestral cultures by seeing rock art, dwellings, and artifacts firsthand. Read on for just a sampling of the options. The Bears Ears Education Center in Bluff is another excellent resource for learning about the area and its various recreational opportunities. 

Day Hiking

You can’t go wrong by just exploring on foot. Trails in Bears Ears trace canyon rims, plunge into desert washes, and lead to ancient archeological sites. One favorite: The Todie Canyon Rim Trail, which skirts a winding canyon in the Cedar Mesa area for 2 miles en route to a viewpoint encompassing the confluence of Todie Canyon and Grand Gulch. Note: Though this hike doesn’t require a day-use fee, several Bears Ears day hikes do ($5/person or $40 for an annual pass). 

Backpacking

Head into the backcountry with overnight gear and sleep on ground occupied by Indigenous people for millennia. Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon is a classic three-day trip that wanders between sandstone canyon walls, across slickrock expanses, and past a number of Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Note: Backpacking in this area requires a permit; $15/person/trip, booking details vary by season. Arch Canyon, just west of the Comb Ridge area, is a lesser-known trip through a 12-mile-long box canyon with outstanding scenery and better solitude. Keep in mind that water can be scarce throughout this desert monument; check with rangers about current conditions before your trip and be prepared to pack in what you need. 

Mountain Biking

Cyclists love Lockhart Basin Road, a 44-mile route along a dirt road in the northern tip of the monument that follows the Colorado River and treats riders to views of rock sculptures, buttes, and cliffs along the way. Do it in a (long) day, or make it a bikepacking trip

Photo: Daniel Holz/TandemStock

Climbing

Bears Ears is home to the revered Indian Creek, a cliffy sandstone area known for its crack climbing. More than a thousand routes dot the area, most of them quite challenging. Several campgrounds in the area make for excellent basecamps. 

Camping

Sand Island Campground makes seeing rock art simple: Just stroll the short distance from your tent to the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, a remarkable example of petroglyphs spanning thousands of years and several cultures. What’s more, you’ll camp on the banks of the San Juan River—a treat in this dry landscape. 

Archeological Exploration

Bears Ears contains 100,000 archeological sites, thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs, and hundreds of structures from the Ancestral Puebloan people—an archeological gem by any standard. Two famous sites: Newspaper Rock, a rock art panel in the Indian Creek area with about 650 designs (you can drive right up to it), and House on Fire, a collection of five ancient granaries in the Mule Canyon area accessible via a 1.5-mile hike.

How can I visit Bears Ears respectfully?

Photo: Brad Kraminski

Because of its significance to Indigenous tribes, the number of priceless archeological sites and artifacts it contains, and its fragile desert environment, visitors should take extra care to preserve this unique place. As you explore the area, keep in mind what the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition says about the past and present: “This region is a sacred space, and over the years the amount of looting and site destruction that has taken place continues to cause immeasurable harm to Native communities connected to it. There is a reason these objects and sites were left behind. Today’s Tribal people continue to view Bears Ears country as part of their ancestral homeland and currently use the area.”

Follow these guidelines to make sure you’re visiting Bears Ears the right way:

  • View ruins and other cultural sites from a distance—pack your binoculars!—to preserve them and respect the wishes of tribal elders.
  • Leave all artifacts where you found them. You might discover pottery, ancient corn cobs, or tools at Bears Ears; enjoy looking at them, but leave them where they are.
  • Don’t touch ancient sites, including rock art panels or structures, to prevent damage.
  • Where dogs are allowed, keep them leashed and away from archeological sites.
  • Don’t build cairns (small piles of rocks sometimes used to mark trails). They detract from the wild feeling of the place, and you risk unknowingly damaging artifacts by mistaking them for stones.
  • If you use trekking poles, make sure they have rubber tips to prevent marking up the rock.
  • Stay on established trails.
  • Use pit toilets or pack out your waste (if that’s not possible, bury waste six inches). Human waste has become a problem in some parts of this remote area, so do your part to keep it clean.
  • Don’t geotag photos of archeological sites or otherwise reveal their locations to help protect them from overuse. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.