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Political divisiveness is probably what comes to most people’s minds when they consider Bears Ears National Monument. And it’s no wonder. Since President Barack Obama made this 1.3 million-acre swath of southern Utah a monument in 2016—followed by President Donald Trump’s reduction of its boundaries in 2017—Bears Ears has become a polarizing symbol of the battle over public lands in the West. Though the legal wrangling over the monument’s permanent boundaries continues, this remains true: Bears Ears is a recreational and cultural motherlode offering solitude that’s becoming harder and harder to find, even at Utah’s cornerstone recreation destinations, like Arches, Zion, and, yes, Park City. What’s more, in addition to all the typical things you’d expect to do in southern Utah’s red rock desert—hiking, mountain biking, and rock climbing—Bears Ears is bursting with Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art. In fact, the region is often compared to Rome in terms of the volume of historic artifacts located there.
Bears Ears’ original boundaries span an area just slightly smaller than the state of Delaware, making it a bit hard to know where to start. As such, here we focus on a two-day itinerary within Bears Ears’ Cedar Mesa and Butler Wash areas.
Day 1, Moon House
Begin your day within view of the monument’s namesake Bears Ears Buttes at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (36 miles southwest of Blanding on Hwy 261), where you’ll pick up your permit for Moon House (reserve in advance at recreation.gov), an amazingly preserved, multiroom dwelling and one of the only ruins within the monument that is legal to enter. From the ranger station, drive south 6 miles to the Snow Flat Road, a rough two-track, and then proceed 3 miles to the trailhead. The hike to Moon House is about 1.5 miles, traveling down and then back up the steep walls of McLoyd Canyon. Once you enter Moon House and see the room painted with a white band and moon pictographs, you’ll realize how this surreal dwelling got its name. Scattered corn cobs and pottery shards and ceilings blackened by cooking fires give the impression that it could have been last inhabited just 100 years ago, versus AD 1200.
At the end of the day, head north to Monticello to the Peace Tree Juice Café (516 N Main St, 435.587.5063, peacetreecafe.com, closed late November to early March) for a smoothie or something a little stronger, like the jalapeño margarita.
Day 2, Fish Mouth Cave and the Procession Panel
Pack a lunch, snacks, sunscreen, and plenty of water and head 10 miles southwest of Blanding along Highway 95 to Butler Wash Road (County Rd 262). This dirt road runs for about 20 miles between Hwy 95 to the north and Hwy 163 along the east side of the Comb Ridge monocline. Seven not-very-well-marked trailheads dot this road from north to south, all of which lead west to ruins or petroglyphs and require a certain amount of route-finding skills to navigate. Two of the easiest to locate are also the most memorable: Fish Mouth Cave and the Procession Panel.
You’ll know you’re close to the Fish Mouth Cave Trailhead (7.5 miles south of Hwy 95) when you see the horizontal cave mouth high on the ridge wall to the right. This out-and-back hike is 1.7 miles each way. Scrambling is required for the last several hundred feet up to the cave, but the reward is standing in the cool, stadium-size alcove covered with rock art ranging from pictographs drawn more than 1,000 years ago to graffiti dating from the 1800s to early 2000s (graffiti is now strictly prohibited and against the law in all public lands).
Once you’ve had your fill of Fish Mouth Cave, continue south along the Butler Wash Road (staying on County Rd 262) for about 4 miles to the Procession Panel Trailhead. After a 1.6-mile hike to just short of the ridge, you’ll be greeted by a wall covered with almost 200 petroglyphs ranging from geometric shapes and human figures to big horn sheep and elk.
Conclude your day by continuing south on the Butler Wash Road to Hwy 163. From there, head east to Bluff for a burger at Comb Ridge Eat + Drink (680 Main St, 435.485.5555, combridgeeatanddrink.com, closed early November to mid-March). Streamline the return north by taking Hwy 191 back to the Blanding/Monticello area.
Dispersed camping is allowed on Bears Ears’ Bureau of Land Management land, including along Butler Wash and Comb Wash Roads and on Cedar Mesa. Just remember to stay within previously disturbed areas, do not camp inside ruins or archeological sites, bring all of your own water, and remove all trash and waste—including your own—when you leave. Note: digging a cat hole is no longer the preferred method of pooping in the woods. A toilet-in-a-bag waste kit—more commonly known as a WAG Bag—is. Find these biodegradable human waste bags at White Pine Touring (1790 Bonanza Dr, 435.649.8710, whitepinetouring.com).
Restaurants, grocery stores, and liquor stores are few and far between in this part of Utah. In Monticello, you’ll find Blue Mountain Foods (64 W Central St) and a Utah state liquor store (233 S Main St), but selection and hours are limited. If you’ll be coming in late, stop in Moab for provisions and booze on your way south.
With average highs around 68 degrees, March and April are the best time to visit Bears Ears. If you’re camping, however, bring plenty of layers and a sleeping bag rated to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, as nighttime spring temps can dip into the 20s.
Most of the Puebloan dwelling and rock ruins within Bears Ears are more than 1,000 years old. But they won’t last even another 10 years if they are not treated with respect. Be sure to keep dogs leashed near any ruins; do not climb on ruins; and do not touch rock art (the oils on your hands deteriorate the surface) or make any of your own, which is considered vandalism. It’s illegal to remove historic artifacts from public lands, so leave anything you find alone—even those corncobs. And pay all fees, which help fund preservation efforts. For more information, visit the Bears Ears Education Center (567 Main St, Bluff, 435.414.0353, friendsofcedarmesa.org, closed Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and from the end of November to March 1).