Bears Ears National Monument was probably the most controversial of all and the main focus of the presidential review. Like Grand Staircase-Escalante, Bears Ears was significantly reduced from the original size established in 2016 (read original proclamation). From the 1.35 million acres (546,000 ha), almost 85% were eventually excluded through the presidential proclamation of December 2017, and the monument was split into two separate units: Indian Creek to the north and Sash Jáa to the south. The creation of this national monument represented a historic moment and a recognition of the demands of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, formed by the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, and the Zuni Tribe. For all of them Bears Ears is a sacred land and home to their ancestors. After the decision made in 2017 to split the monument and cut out most of its original size, several local and national organizations, including the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition sued the presidential administration and the final decision is still to come. Originally the monument included the Manti-La Sal National Forest managed by the US Forest Service. On the BLM website a new map and a good amount of online resources have been added recently, but this map will show you the original boundaries of Bears Ears and what’s currently left of it (two dark green areas). When we visited in November 2017, we stopped at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (at the time within the national monument) and picked up an excellent map (online & pdf version still available here). Right now though the best option is to visit the local BLM Field Office. We arrived in Bears Ears from Grand Staircase-Escalante on a route which highlights the best of Utah’s wild canyon country: Scenic Byway 12 to State Rte 24, then to State Rte 95, passing through Capitol Reef National Park. We entered the monument from its west side at sunset and were overwhelmed by the extraordinary beauty of the rock formations towering above us and of the slot canyons opening below us in that pink, orange and gold light. Soon the road weaved its way to the Manti-La Sal National Forest from where the two iconic Bears Ears Buttes rose from the ground. We spent the night in Monticello, a small city with a decent range of accommodation and restaurants and a good gateway to the national monument and forest. Locals in Monticello are descendants of the pioneer ranchers that came to the area a few centuries ago, and a majority opposed the monument. From discussing with a few of them it seemed that there was a lot of misunderstanding regarding what the monument meant. Although Monticello in itself is not much of an attraction (except for the Canyon Country Discovery Center who also organize trips in the monument), we wanted to spend time and money here as visitors to Bears Ears and add to the point that the national monument can mean new economic opportunities for the locals. South of Monticello, on the San Juan River, the smaller town of Bluff is a charming community which has embraced the creation of Bears Ears and is a lovely place to use as base for exploring Cedar Mesa, the river and the south part of the monument. The vast Cedar Mesa formation is famous for the tens of thousands of archaeological sites spread across it, potentially more than what is currently found in the nearby Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Cedar Mesa has been excluded from the conservation lands in 2017. Outside Bluff, along the San Juan River, you’ll find several important archaeological sites as well, visible on the original tourism map linked above. Before reaching Bluff on the way from Monticello we visited the famous Butler Wash Ruins and drove along the iconic Comb Ridge. After stopping in Bluff we continued west to Valley of the Gods (close to Monument Valley) and did the amazing 17-mile scenic drive along a maintained dirt road, after which we took the dizzying but spectacular Moki Dugway road up the plateau. This turns into the paved SR 261 heading back north to the Manti-La Sal National Forest. In November 2017 all this was part of Bears Ears National Monument. We then drove up the rougher, unpaved and very scenic Elk Ridge Road (feasible with a Subaru Outback) through the Bears Ears Buttes where short day hikes are available. Continuing north the views from the road open toward the outstanding Dark Canyon Wilderness and the Canyonlands National Park in the distance (best seen at sunset). On the other side you’ll find the imposing Abajo Mountains rising above the plateau covered in sagebrush where mule deer roam. We slept in this remote part of the national monument, woke up to a flat tire, and wound our way along dirt roads with a spare tire to the Newspaper Rock site from where the paved road begins again. If you continue north you’ll reach the Indian Creek area, famous among the climbing community. However, if you’re planning a trip to Bears Ears you won’t find a better online resources than the website recently put together by the Friends of the Cedar Mesa local organization. They have also opened in 2018 the Bears Ears Visit with Respect Education Center at 567 W. Main St in Bluff, a project created thanks to a crowdfunding campaign. When well prepared, your visit to Bears Ears will be an adventure filled with purpose on public lands rich in history, biodiversity, and complex geology, yet currently threatened by large-scale mining interests. The more we care, understand and get attached to Bears Ears, the better chances it has to remain undeveloped within or outside the official boundaries of a national monument.
For more stories from national monuments you can also check our blog.