Countless generations of Native Americans have called the landscapes of Utah home, from the hunter-gatherers of the prehistoric era and the Ancestral Pueblos who built cliff dwellings in the Bears Ears and Shash Jaa areas, to the five distinct American Indian cultures who live here today. This four-day itinerary will paint a vibrant picture of Utah’s heritage as you visit dwelling sites, petroglyphs, and other places steeped in Native American culture and history.
Start your trip in Arches National Park, where just off the trail to Delicate Arch lie ancient Ute petroglyphs. Outside Moab at Newspaper Rock, you’ll find hundreds of petroglyphs etched into the cliffside and dating as far back as 2,000 years.
Around Blanding and Bluff, you can visit Edge of the Cedars State Park to explore an ancient Pueblo village, as well as Hovenweep National Monument and its castle-like remnants of a massive ancient village. Then marvel at the 100-yard panel of petroglyphs at Sand Island.
Take a Jeep tour of Monument Valley with a Navajo guide who will teach you about Navajo culture, storytelling, and this breathtaking landscape they call home. Get a closer look by walking the Wildcat Trail that loops around West Mitten Butte. If you've seen even a few Hollywood Westerns, chances are, this place will seem familiar.
On your final day, explore the rugged Cedar Mesa area where you’re bound to discover — and respect — ancient cliff dwellings along S.R. 95 and countless relics scattered throughout the canyons. Or visit the largest known Fremont Indian village and its artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs as well as the impressive range of animals depicted in the petroglyphs of Capitol Reef National Park.
- Delicate Arch Hike
- Newspaper Rock
- Edge of the Cedars
While Wolfe Ranch paints a vivid picture of homesteading the Salt Valley of Arches, the distinctive petroglyph panel begs the question: What did early indigenous people think of these magnificent landforms? After Arches, head south toward the Indian Creek Scenic Byway to the Needles District of Canyonlands for a stop at the historic Newspaper Rock. If time permits, explore Cave Spring of Canyonlands, or continue on to Edge of the Cedar State Park Museum to familiarize yourself with the archaeology of the Four Corners region. Overnight in Blanding.
When you come around the corner and see the full breadth of Delicate Arch, you’ll know why this is such a classic hike. At 3 miles round-trip, the hike is no simple stroll, but it’s worth every step. Carry water, hike early to race the sunrise, or stay late for the sunset. Be sure to bring a headlamp.
Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings tell stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and the mythologies of their lives. It’s a great stop on its own or as part of the Indian Creek Scenic Byway to the Needles District of Canyonlands.
Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum is a beautiful repository for ancient artifacts in the Four Corners region and is an excellent companion destination to Bears Ears National Monument. The museum showcases Ancestral Puebloan culture along with contemporary Native American items and the largest display of artifacts in the area.
- Ancient Cliff Dwellings
- Hovenweep National Monument
- Navajo Fry Bread
Ancestral Puebloan sites are simply astonishing. From the cliff dwellings along S.R. 95 to the precariously perched multi-story structures of Hovenweep National Monument, these were ingenious people. Imagine living off the land in Utah’s stark Canyon Country and the rugged Four Corners. Fast forward several centuries to the advent of U.S. western expansion and the emergence of Navajo fry bread out of a time of struggle. The dish is common in San Juan County and an excellent accompaniment to your exploration. Overnight in Bluff.
Of all of the Ancestral Puebloan dwellings dotting San Juan County, none catches the attention quite as much as cliff dwellings. Built with adobe brick into the sides of mesas, mountains and caves, these structures were used as protection as well as to store grains and seeds for later use.
Hovenweep National Monument is an inspiring place that begs visitors to ask questions about the ancients. 700-year-old and older archaeological sites can be visited by paved and improved dirt roads, but hikes are necessary to fully explore the ruins.
Fry bread emerged out of the interaction between the expanding United States and indigenous people. It survives today as a symbol of Navajo culture and its complicated relationship with the West as the dish became central to some practices. Stopping for fry bread is a popular activity for visitors to these sacred lands.
- Sand Island Petroglyphs
- Monument Valley Jeep Tour
- Hiking the Wildcat Trail
Start the day with easily accessible petroglyphs in the scenic landscape defined by the winding San Juan River. More adventurous families may fill up today rafting the gentle rapids of the river for unique angles on more fascinating rock art. Otherwise, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park awaits. Book a Jeep tour in advance to get the best access to the park. There are tours of varying lengths, but be sure to save time for the Wildcat Trail, the only self-guided trail in the park. Overnight in the park or nearby Mexican Hat.
The easily accessible rock art panel at Sand Island is extensive and represents images from 800 to 2,500 years old. It presents a good overview of the type of rock art that is found all along the San Juan River. Challenge your kids to find Kokopelli and the humpbacked flute player, among the many figures.
Book a tour of Valley Drive (which you can also drive on your own if you have the right vehicle) or a longer trek such as Mystery Valley, accessible only with a licensed guide. A Jeep tour visits the iconic sites, but is accompanied by a Navajo narrative.
The Wildcat Trail is a 3.2-mile loop hike into one of the most scenic areas that Monument Valley has to offer. This trail lets hikers feel like they stepped back in time into the Wild West. Hikers will travel around one some of the most famous rock buttes in the park.
- Greater Cedar Mesa
- Capitol Reef Petroglyphs
- Fremont Indian State Park
Most of the hikes in Cedar Mesa explore ruins, artifacts, and the rock art of the land’s former inhabitants. It’s clear why local tribes are rallying to protect the landscape. For now, hikers with wayfinding skills can grab a permit for treks into the remote lands or simply enjoy the drive up S.R. 261 with stops at overlooks to appreciate ancient life. Continue to Capitol Reef National Park, where evidence of prehistoric people abounds among the park’s seemingly endless trail system. Finish at Fremont Indian State Park, a happy accident of freeway construction.
Cedar Mesa's remote, rugged backcountry trails are not for everyone. But for adventurers with a love of solitude, archaeology and geographic beauty, day use permits are available at most trailheads and overnight permits are available at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. A great place to start is the serpentine Grand Gulch.
Petroglyph panels throughout the park depict ancient art and the stories of people who lived in the area from approximately 600 to 1300 A.D. Venture through Capitol Reef to see various panels and take your guess at what these works of rock art represent.
During construction of Interstate 70, the largest known Fremont Indian village was uncovered. Discover the artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs left behind. Spend a day at the museum, then camp at nearby Castle Rock Campground.