Ancient Utah: Exploring Bears Ears National Monument

Last Updated on: 9th January 2024, 12:35 pm

Established as recently as December 2016, Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument consists of a staggering 1.36 million acres. While it does indeed include beautiful scenery, the land is largely being protected due to its archaeological, historical and religious importance.

Bears Ears was founded upon the insistence of native tribes who wanted federal protection for numerous sites built by their ancestors, a civilization we now call the Ancestral Puebloans (also commonly referred to as Anasazi).

Most of the historic sites can be found along Highway 95

Given the National Monument’s immense size, there’s no way to see everything in a day. Below, however, we’ll be covering a majority of Bears Ears’ ancient sites, most of which can be found along Highway 95 – also known as the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway.

While I visited the sites as a day trip from Moab, one could also do so from towns like Mexican Hat or Blanding. In fact, we previously covered part of the National Monument in our guide to Mexican Hat, as the Valley of the Gods scenic drive is actually part of Bears Ears. 

Be sure to check the end of the article for more information on suggested itineraries, tips on where to stay, and a bit more on the recent controversy surrounding Bears Ears National Monument.

The Mule Canyon Ruin

I decided to start with the westernmost archaeological site along Highway 95 before gradually making my way east. From Moab, the drive to the Mule Canyon Ruin took me a little under two hours.

Note that when looking at some maps, House on Fire appears to be the furthest west, but the trailhead is actually a bit east of the Mule Canyon Ruin.

Also known as the Mule Canyon Kiva, the site was first occupied as early as 750 AD, though it later reached its zenith from around 1000-1150. 

The site features an L-shaped block of twelve residential rooms in addition to two kivas. But what are kivas? Partially built underground and then covered over with an upper structure, kivas hosted both religious ceremonies and general meetings.

Bears Ears National Monument Mule Canyon

You’ll also find remnants of a circular tower that likely stood at two stories high. As we’ll cover shortly, you can find a much better-preserved tower at the Cave Towers site nearby. 

There are several theories about the ancient Puebloan towers. Maybe they were used for defense, astronomical observatories, or storage. 

Or perhaps they were used for some sort of long-distance communication. Or they may have been used for certain religious ceremonies, similar to kivas.

Bears Ears National Monument Mule Canyon

Frankly speaking, the Mule Canyon Ruin is probably the least remarkable site on this list due to there being so many similar sites throughout the Southwest. But it’s the most easily accessible, while it also provides helpful information about the region.

House on Fire

Next, I returned to Highway 95 and almost immediately made the next left. It’s down a dirt road – which also doubles as the local parking area – that visitors can find the Mule Canyon Trailhead which leads to House on Fire.

Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire
Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire

Those doing any hiking within Bears Ears National Monument are supposed to pay a fee, and walking over to House on Fire does indeed count as a hike. You can pay the fee in advance online at this link.

At the time of writing, a day pass costs $5. As there’s little reception out here, it would be wise to save a screenshot on your phone before heading out. With that said, I never encountered a single ranger, and I doubt that many visitors do.

From the trailhead, it’s about a 25-minute walk each way to reach House on Fire. You can find the hike to the ruins on AllTrails, though you’ll be just fine using the free app instead.

While there are a few alternate paths to take in the beginning which could be disorienting, this is generally an easy and straightforward trail.

Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire
Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire

House on Fire is arguably the most well-known ancient site of Bears Ears National Monument, and it routinely appears on posters and promotional materials throughout Utah.

And it’s easy to see why. Finally arriving at the ruins, it’s amazing to see in person how the orange rock above them really does resemble hot flames. Supposedly, the lighting is even better in the afternoon.

Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire
Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire

The structures here are believed to be granaries, and the setting is indeed quite similar to the granary of Aztec Butte at Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district.

You can peak inside the structures, but needless to say, be very careful not to damage or disturb them in any way.

Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire
Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire

Walking around the area, I also discovered an interesting natural opening in the rock behind the structures, but it didn’t lead anywhere in particular. Supposedly, however, one can keep hiking deeper into Mule Canyon to find even more ruins.

At least that’s what a local couple I encountered on the walk back told me. They even mentioned an additional site in Bears Ears National Monument that hadn’t come up in my research: Monarch Cave. But with a packed itinerary, I wouldn’t be able to see it.

Bears Ears National Monument House on Fire

The Cave Towers

The Cave Towers is one of the more challenging destinations in Bears Ears National Monument to reach. While marked on Google Maps at the time of writing, the road there is completely absent.

Instead, you’ll want to use the offline app (be sure to download the Utah map in advance). Confusingly, however, the road is marked on this app but the ruins themselves are unmarked! Basically, once you’re back on Highway 95, you’ll want to make the next right.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers
Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

You’ll encounter a gate with no signs indicating that you’re in the right place. But continue going through it and you will encounter some signs before long. 

Despite often being described as part of Bears Ears National Monument, the on-site signage indicates that the land is managed by the Utah Public School System Trust, of all entities. But from a visitor’s perspective, it makes no difference.

After parking, you’ll have to hike about a mile each way to reach the ancient towers. You could also drive, but the road is restricted to 4×4 vehicles only.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers
Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers
Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

Once you get closer to the towers, you’ll pass through another gate, after which you’re supposed to follow a loop trail. The trail is demarcated with rocks and cairns which don’t appear to be regularly maintained. As such, the trail can be difficult to follow in some parts.

As a result, I found myself freely exploring while also trying my best not to step on any cryptobiotic soil, and especially not any ruins.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

Before long, you’ll encounter one main tower which overlooks a spectacular vista of the canyon below. The tower appears fairly well-preserved from one angle. But walk around to the other side and it looks to be largely in ruin.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

The Cave Towers reminded me a lot of Hovenweep National Monument, also in Utah. That site is known for numerous towers built around a scenic canyon. But this one is just as – if not more – scenic.

It also reminded me of yet another Puebloan site called Painted Hand Pueblo in Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

As mentioned above, we’re still not sure of the true purpose of these Ancestral Puebloan towers. But it’s interesting to note that these particular towers probably would’ve been visible from the Mule Canyon Ruin mentioned earlier.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers
Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

Walking around, I also encountered the remnants of an additional tower of which little remains, in addition to what seemed to be a kind of grave. While the ruins here are relatively small in number, this setting is hard to beat!

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers
Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

Incredibly, I could even spot additional ruins built within the alcoves of the canyon. Surely, there’s a lot more to this area than first meets the eye, though it’s unclear how many excavations have taken place here.

Despite the great tourism potential this area has, I get the impression that modern-day descendants of the Puebloans would prefer these sites remain relatively unknown and untouched.

Bears Ears National Monument Cave Towers

Butler Wash

Among those familiar with Puebloan ruins, the stunning cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado are some of the first things that spring to mind. But the Puebloans also built other, lesser-known cliff dwellings, and Butler Wash is one such example.

To avoid any potential disappointment, however, you should be aware in advance that the dwellings cannot be seen from up close. Rather, you’ll only get to see them from a distance via an overlook.

Bears Ears National Monument Butler Wash

To reach the overlook, you’ll have to walk about twenty minutes from the parking area. While not terribly strenuous, I did find it to be the most tiring hike of my day spent at Bears Ears National Monument.

In total, these dwellings contain four kivas built in a similar style to those of Mesa Verde. One, however, is square-shaped, which is more reminiscent of kivas discovered in Arizona. 

Ceramics discovered at the site further enforce the idea that Butler Wash was largely dominated by Mesa Verde in its heyday.

Unfortunately, at the time of my arrival around noon, the sun wasn’t quite in an ideal position. While the cliffs as a whole were being illuminated, the light didn’t quite make it directly to the ruins. But I was still able to spot many of them.

Note that I took some of these photographs using a telephoto zoom lens, but the wide-angle shots are more representative of how Butler Wash looks to the naked eye.

Bears Ears National Monument Butler Wash
Bears Ears National Monument Butler Wash

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

Next, it was time to leave Highway 95 and head north down Highway 191 toward the town of Blanding. Having departed from Moab, I’d already passed through Blanding earlier that morning.

Ordinarily, it would make sense to start your day at the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum to get acquainted with the local history and Ancestral Puebloan culture as a whole. But the museum doesn’t open until 9:00, so those getting an early start will have to save it for the return trip.

At the time of writing, entry to the museum and accompanying ruins cost $5 per person.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

As the name suggests, the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum is managed by the state of Utah and is not technically part of the Bears Ears National Monument. But it does serve as the de facto museum for this region as a whole.

You’ll find all sorts of objects spread across multiple floors, including some that were discovered by chance by various hikers.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

Arguably the most fascinating item on display here is a well-preserved macaw feather textile which dates to around 1150 AD. But macaws are not native to the region, meaning that the feathers must’ve come here via trade with Mesoamerica.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

We know that the Toltec Empire, which was dominant in Central Mexico around this time, established trading routes with both the American Southwest and also with the Mayans to the south. It’s possible, therefore, that these feathers came from as far away as the jungles of the Yucatán!

While we don’t know for sure, the live birds may have been traded rather than the finished sash.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

Behind the museum, you’ll encounter the ruins of what we now call the Edge of the Cedars Pueblo. First inhabited in the late 9th century, a new village was built over the previous one and inhabited from 1050 until around 1225. 

The village was heavily influenced by the Chacoans, and it even featured a multi-story ‘Great House’ similar to those found at Chaco Canyon.

The most remarkable feature of these ruins is the refurbished kiva that you can walk into yourself. Considering how the roofs are missing from most kivas we see today, it offers a fascinating perspective of how a kiva would’ve originally looked and felt.

Previously, I’d gone inside another replica kiva at the Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. But that’s a replica of a massive ‘great kiva,’ while this one represents a smaller kiva that was far more typical amongst the Puebloans.

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum

Continuing along the path, you’ll also find a modern device built to mark significant astronomical events, such as solstices and equinoxes. It’s a unique way to keep the ancient practice of archaeoastronomy alive.

Newspaper Rock

While part of Bears Ears National Monument, Newspaper Rock is quite a distance from the other sites mentioned in this guide. It’s considerably further north, and you can only access it by turning off of Highway 191 onto Highway 211 and then driving for about 15 minutes. 

While indeed interesting, I’d mainly recommend Newspaper Rock for those on their way to The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, as you’ll pass it on the way there.

The rockface has been entirely etched in petroglyphs, and archaeologists believe that they may have been gradually added over a span of 2,000 years. 

That means that some of the glyphs even predate the Ancestral Puebloan civilization, and were probably left by their ancient ancestors such as the Basketmaker culture. 

While we can be almost certain that these glyphs were sacred to the native cultures that inhabited these lands, there’s no way to decipher their meaning. The name suggests, however, that the glyphs as a whole reveal some type of story.

Bears Ears National Monument Newspaper Rock

For those moving on to The Needles, you’ll find a few more ancient ruins there as well, but more on that in a future guide. 

While I’d end up visiting Bears Ears National Monument and The Needles on the same day, I’d highly recommend splitting them up between two different days if possible (more below). 

Additional Info

As mentioned above, I visited the various sites around Bears Ears National Monument as a day trip from Moab. I’d then go on to immediately visit The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. I pretty much crammed two day trips into one, and while I saw most of what I’d hoped to see, it was a long and exhausting itinerary that I wouldn’t recommend most people attempt.

The Needles district is absolutely worth seeing, but if at all possible, I’d recommend visiting Bears Ears and The Needles on separate days, which would also allow you to visit additional sites in both areas.

If I had to do things over again, my itinerary would look like this:

Day 1: Make the long drive from Moab to Natural Bridges National Monument (about 2 hours). Then, proceed east along Highway 95, visiting the sites in Bears Ears National Monument as described above. If time allows, make a detour to the cliff dwelling of Monarch Cave, located down Comb Wash Rd. The turnoff is a little bit west of Butler Wash.

After Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, simply head straight back to Moab.

Day 2: Start the day at Newspaper Rock, and then proceed down Highway 211 and head straight for The Needles. See all the sites and do all the hikes that you can (see our dedicated Needles guide for more).

From Mexican Hat:

But what if you’re staying in Mexican Hat? While The Needles may be out of reach, you could easily tour Bears Ears National Monument by heading north along Highway 261, which will bring you to Highway 95, right in between Natural Bridges National Monument and the Mule Canyon Ruin.

Eventually finishing at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, head south down Highway 191 and then down Highway 163 to return to town.

If you start early enough, you may even be able to fit in the Valley of the Gods scenic drive first thing in the morning.

Considering how Moab serves as the base for two National Parks, one State Park and plenty of other nearby attractions, you’ll likely be spending at least several nights here.

Moab is one of the most touristy towns you’ll encounter in the Southwest, so there’s no shortage of accommodation options to choose from.

I stayed at a centrally-located motel called the The Virginian Inn Moab Downtown. Overall, I had a comfortable stay and consider it a good value.

The most peculiar thing about this motel is that the receptionists are located in the Philippines! There is someone on-call 24 hours, and you can start chatting with them via a video conferencing machine as soon as you enter the lobby. It felt rather strange at first, but the system actually worked out pretty well.

Other highly-rated accommodations for a similar price range include the Expedition Lodge, the Bowen Motel and the Rustic Inn.

I stayed in Mexican Hat, Utah during a previous trip, when I used it as a base for exploring Monument Valley. The drive to Monument Valley takes about thirty minutes, while there are also plenty of other landmarks near Mexican Hat itself.

I stayed at the San Juan Inn. While it was double the price of almost everywhere else I stayed on my Southwest trip, it was still cheaper than anything else I could find near Monument Valley. Conveniently, the hotel also has an attached restaurant.

You can also camp at Valley of the Gods (free) and at Goosenecks State Park, but be sure to check ahead for info on restrictions.

Established in December 2016 in the final days of the Obama administration, Bears Ears has been the center of controversy ever since. And when researching things to do and see within the National Monument, you’ll often get news articles about politics.

President Trump would go on to shrink the National Monument by a whopping 85%, while it was later restored to its original size by President Biden.

Personally, I’m in favor of Bears Ears National Monument and the protection of all the ancient sites within it. I’m against the destruction of heritage in general, including the removal of statues and monuments dedicated to important historical figures that has sadly become so commonplace.

While I’m far from an expert on this land and everything going on in the region, I also think it’s a bit naive to assume that the sudden transfer of over a million acres into federal hands wouldn’t be met with some opposition.

But all the controversy raises another question: Why does the United States lack a dedicated Archaeology Department, such as Mexico’s INAH (National Institute of Archaeology and History), not to mention many similar agencies throughout the world?

A dedicated Archaeology and History Department could more efficiently set aside land to protect historical sites and manage excavations. And they could also do a better job of promoting these sites, as surprisingly few people around the world and within the US itself are aware of the country’s rich archaeological heritage.

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