Bears Ears and Natural Bridges National Monuments

Hi everyone,

After three days spent exploring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we headed south of Moab on Highway 191. Links to those posts are here, here, and here. Our destination in the next couple of days was the next national park on our visit list, Capitol Reef. On this portion of our journey, we’d stop at two national monuments and cross the Colorado River once again. Here’s the story of this segment of our month long trip.

Blanding, Utah

We spent the night in Blanding, the largest town (about 3700 people) in San Juan County that covers the southeastern corner of Utah. The closest city with services and shopping is 75 miles, the next largest is two hundred or more miles away. There are two Native American reservations near Blanding, as are many natural and archeological resources. The major industries are oil and gas exploration, mining, and tourism.

It was late afternoon when we checked into the Stone Lizard Lodge, a small locally owned motel. I’d made the reservation on-line after reading the rave guest reviews. They were spot on. Our nicely appointed room was decorated in a southwestern motif as was the whole courtyard.

At check-in, I asked the friendly woman at the reception desk if any restaurants offered outdoor dining or curbside pickup. She quickly recommended the Homestead Steakhouse as the best place to eat in town, they had an outdoor patio. I called the restaurant to see if we needed a reservation, we didn’t. They were busy and it took a few minutes for the staff to clean a place for us to eat outside. One other person was also out on the nice patio. Our order was taken quickly and our meals were served soon after. The sun was setting so the temperature began to drop. It was a pleasant evening, one of the few times we ate meals at a restaurant on our trip.

Our room at the Stone Lizard came with a breakfast. In the morning, we were the only people in the small breakfast room and had a nice chat with the attendant who also staffed the reception desk. All the food was fresh and made by the lodge staff. It was the best free hotel breakfast I’ve ever had! The half whole wheat flour, half white flour cinnamon roll in the photo below was to die for, so tasty with a not-to-sweet frosting. I’d stay there just for the breakfast.

Bears Ears National Monument

A few miles south of Blanding we turned west onto Highway 95 that would take us through the main part of Bears Ears. Of the 129 national monuments, Bears Ears is one of the newest and largest at nearly 1.36 million acres. This has not been without controversy since President Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in late December 2016 just before he left office. The next administration cut the size of Bears Ears by 85% but that cut was restored by the current administration. There are court battles over both actions, they may not be settled for years.

Bears Ears protects over 100,000 archeological sites within its boundaries. These sites are considered sacred and significant by a number of Native American tribes. The Clovis peoples lived in this region beginning about 13,000 years ago. They are considered the ancestors of the Pueblo, Zuni, Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and other regional tribes. This and the environmentally fragile lands were the main reasons Bears Ears was protected. This national monument provides wonderful opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and off road vehicle use.

Bear Ears is one of the few national monuments co-managed by the U. S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Since this monument is relatively new and controversial, it doesn’t have a main entrance or a visitor center.

Just after turning on to Highway 95, we saw about 15-20 mule deer ready to cross the highway. I quickly pulled off and popped off a few quick shots as they made their way across.

Just ahead was an approach that I pulled into for safety reasons. There I saw this scene. It looked like the carcass of a cow that was picked clean by the coyotes, turkey vultures, and ravens. I wondered how long the skeleton had been laying there bleached by the sun. It could be months or years. 

The prickly pear cactus and the fallen tree provided more opportunities for photos.

A few miles up the road, we noticed a small sign for the Butler Wash Ruins and pulled into the large parking lot. There were only a few cars. We hiked about a half mile on the well marked trail to the overlook. 

Across the narrow canyon, we could clearly see the ancient dwellings in the four caves. We did see a couple of hikers making their way to the ruins even though they are off-limits. 

After viewing the ruins, we walked up a path that led to a view of pools of water as it comes down the side of the hill. This was a place for the indigenous people and wildlife to secure water in the high desert.

Down the road, we saw a small sign for the namesake of this monument, the Bears Ears. The two buttes in the distance were named by the natives of the area in several languages, all translated to some version of Bears Ears.

The gravel, winding road took us through the pinyons and junipers to the buttes. We rose over 2000 feet above Highway 95 to the cut between the buttes where the second and thirds photos were taken. They look so different up close as compared to a distance. The air was thin but fresh and fragrant from the forest surrounding the buttes.

From this height, through the haze, we could see the Valley of the Gods some 20-25 miles south of the buttes. This and Monument Valley, across the border in Arizona, are on my list for our next visit.

Natural Bridge National Monument

Within the boundaries of Bears Ears lies another national monument, Natural Bridges. It’s run by the National Park Service and was the first national monument established in the State of Utah (1908). This park receives a little over 100,000 visitors per year. While it’s remote, I think it’s definitely worth the time and travel to see such natural beauty.

After showing our Senior Pass at the entrance kiosk saving the $20 fee, we made a quick stop at the visitor center. Although the exhibits were closed, we talked with the park ranger on duty and picked up maps and information. The 9-mile one-way Bridge View Drive features several turnouts and parking areas for the three bridges and hiking trails. There is a picnic area where we relaxed and had a bit of lunch before checking out the bridges.

Bridges differ from arches in they way they are created. Bridges are formed by the erosive action of moving water through the sandstone deposited millions of years ago. Arches are mainly formed by frost, seeping moisture, wind and blowing sand.

The first bridge along the scenic drive is Sipapu Bridge, meaning place of emergence or gateway in the Hopi language. This bridge is the second largest in the U. S. and thirteenth largest natural bridge in the world at 220 feet high with a span of 268 feet. 

I found the Owachomo Bridge the most intriguing, maybe because it’s the most accessible. We hiked part of the trail to get a closer look. It has the thinness span at only 9 feet suggesting it eroded more quickly. This bridge is 106 feet high with a span of 180 feet.

The Kachina Bridge is considered the “youngest” of the three bridges due to the thickness of the span at 93 feet. It is 210 feet high with a span of 204 feet.

For more information on Bears Ears and Natural Bridges National Monuments, click here and here.

We had miles to go before before we could sleep. Our destination was Torrey, a small town near Capitol Reef National Park. On our drive, we came to another crossing of the Colorado River. I couldn’t help but stop for a few more photographs. The second photo looks to the to the northeast and the third to the south.

Below are some photos of the red rock scenery on our route.

The light was fading when we arrived in Torrey. We settled in at the Broken Spur Inn, had some dinner, and rested to prepare for our day at Capitol Reef.

Until next week, happy travels!




2 thoughts on “Bears Ears and Natural Bridges National Monuments

  1. Although I haven’t written after every week’s post, I’ve really been enjoying your Utah park posts. We haven’t been to Bears Ears, since it didn’t exist the last time we were there, but we’ve visited all of the others so far, some of them two or three times. Thanks for the posts and the enjoyable photos.

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