Greater Cedar Mesa
Canyonlands National Park and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park are two heavyweights of southeastern Utah, so much so that nearby Cedar Mesa attracts little attention outside of the backcountry hiking of Natural Bridges National Monument and the increasingly popular Valley of the Gods scenic backway, on the southern rim of the mesa.
Collectively, the greater Cedar Mesa area encompasses up to 1.9 million acres, and flora varies from arid shrubbery at lower elevations to conifer, mountain snowberry, and sagebrush higher up. It is also home to more than 100,000 archaeological sites, and is considered among the country’s most important indigenous cultural areas. Native American tribes in the area regard this diverse, beautiful landscape as sacred ground.
Of course, the greater Cedar Mesa area's remote, rugged backcountry trails are not for everyone. But for adventurers with a love of solitude, archaeology and geographic beauty, this area has it all.
A great place to start your adventure is the serpentine Grand Gulch. Often called an “outdoor museum” because of its dense concentration of Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins and rock art, Cedar Mesa's Grand Gulch is a destination that offers many opportunities for recreation, exploration and discovery. As a whole, the Grand Gulch Primitive Area sprawls over 37,580 acres of canyons and mesas. And Grand Gulch can be accessed via a number of trailheads, most of which are located off S.R. 261.
Most ruins are 800 to 1,200 years old. Around every corner in Grand Gulch and its adjoining canyons, you will see the real dwellings, buildings, tools, pottery, art and other signs of civilization left behind by the acients. The canyon is thought to have been one of the most densely populated areas before colonization in North America. It is surmised that a several-decades-long drought at the end of this period made those who called Grand Gulch home head for more precipitous environs, leaving the ruins behind.
A favorite route into the canyon is Kane Gulch. While it is not the shortest approach, it is one of the most scenic routes, as you enter into the high-cliffed gulch within a mile of the trailhead. This hike can be accomplished as a long, in-and-out day trip, or looped with the Todie Canyon section for an overnight backpacking experience. Other popular side canyons include Bullet, Coyote, and Sheik.
The 52-mile Gulch is unlike anything else in Utah in its abundance of ruins and artifacts. Aside from this, as it’s been previously noted, it is a significantly beautiful canyon. Envelop yourself in the tall walls colored with desert varnish as you meander around juniper, pinyon, and cottonwood trees.
There are a number of ways to explore the Gulch via different entrances and exits, and one could ostensibly even go the same route a dozen times and find news things on each return trip.
In particular, the Kane Gulch access is a mighty rock fortress and pales the other inlets by comparison. If a day-trip is desired, it’s totally doable to reach the intersection of Kane and Grand Gulches, where you’ll be able to tour Junction Ruin before continuing on to Turkey Pen Ruin and farther, if so you desire. To Turkey Pen Ruin from Kane Gulch Trailhead and back is a 9.3 mile day hike.
The Bears Ears buttes that are the namesake for Bears Ears National Monument are famous in San Juan County, for their cultural and geological significance. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, these twin buttes rise 2,000 feet from the floor of Cedar Mesa to an elevation of 8,700 feet. The Bears Ears have served as navigational aids to humans for centuries.
The pair of towering buttes are bordered by Dark Canyon Wilderness and Beef Basin on the west, Comb Ridge on the east, and Indian Creek/Canyonlands National Park to the north. The Bears Ears whimsical moniker comes from its resemblance to the top of a giant bear’s head peeking over the horizon.
Route 95 passes by Bears Ears along the southern edge of Dark Canyon Wilderness area from Blanding, to Natural Bridges National Monument. From Route 95, CR 228 offers access to Bears Ears buttes as well as the rest of the Grand Gulch Plateau upon which they sit.
The region is extremely popular with climbers and other outdoor lovers for its red rock canyons, high alpine peaks, and tree-covered plateaus where wildlife flourishes. Most of the terrain around Bears Ears buttes is easy to access by vehicle, though aspiring hikers and climbers will have a wealth of land to explore if they wish to seek out some of the more remote areas of the plateau.
What You’ll Remember
Bearing witness to ancient petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and artifacts not through the glass of a museum — but in nature’s museum. These miles of winding canyons with high cliffs have ruins that look incredibly inaccessible. There are also closer dwellings and storage structures visitors are able to walk through. Otherwise, the scenery, wildlife, and solitude of this setting are unmatched. But the ruins are the real attraction of the Grand Gulch experience, and there are hundreds of ruins to discover.
If you love museums, but prefer nature, this might be your next stop. Enjoy the infinite scale and beauty of massive canyons while at the same time wrap your head around the lives of ancient homosapiens — of all the lives that passed through these lands.
GPS Coordinates and Regulations
Permits and fees are currently required for several hikes in Cedar Mesa. Some permits are payable at the trailheads, others must be obtained from BLM field offices. Many of the dirt roads in this area are impassable when wet, snowy or muddy. Check at the visitor center or the ranger station before traveling into the backcountry. Permits are available at most trailheads and overnight permits are available at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station — be sure to pick up a map while you’re there. Beginning in March 2018, advance reservations may be obtained on Recreation.gov. Please visit the BLM Cedar Mesa Permits webpage for more information.
Kane Gulch BLM Ranger Station
36 miles west of Blanding
March 1–June 15, September 1–October 31
8 a.m.–noon, 7 days a week
The Kane Gulch Ranger Station is located along Utah Highway 261 about four miles south of Highway 95, not far from Natural Bridges National Monument
The BLM has developed georeferenced maps compatible with any georeferenced map mobile application. These work without cell coverage and are perfect for remote adventure. Get instructions and check out the latest available map of Grand Gulch
Respect and Protect
When visiting sensitive archaeological, paleontological, and other natural resources on federal, state, and tribal lands, always visit with respect. To help visitors understand the importance of these incredible sites, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Utah State Office and Tread Lightly! partnered to develop and implement a statewide public awareness campaign called “Respect and Protect” to engage the public in the stewardship of our nation’s priceless cultural and natural heritage. The campaign also reminds public lands visitors that looting and vandalism of archaeological and paleontological resources on federal, state, and tribal lands is against state and federal law.
Valley of the Gods
Take the 17-mile gravel road through isolated mesas, buttes, and cliffs carved over the course of 250 million years from the Cedar Mesa sandstone.
Goosenecks State Park
Look down upon the San Juan River 1,000 feet below you and see the results of 300 million years of erosion. This one is worth lingering for the sunset.