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 five-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 things off with a visit to the Natural History Museum of Utah then give yourself a couple of days to tour Nine Mile Canyon and the backcountry roads of the San Rafael Swell to see some of the state's finest rock art sites. First-time visitors might start the trip in Arches National Park, where just off the trail to Delicate Arch lie ancient Ute petroglyphs. (But plan with care: The park gets busy and patience is a must. Check traffic in advance and know that weekends will be especially busy.) Head south toward the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway unit of Bears Ears for a stop at Newspaper Rock, where 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 Museum 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. With high-clearance, a map, preparation and respect, nearby River House and Comb Ridge offer a closer look at this land's indigenous history.
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 with humility and care the 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.
- Natural History Museum of Utah
- The 46 Miles of Nine Mile Canyon
- Buckhorn Draw
Many themed trips through Utah get their best start at the Natural History Museum of Utah, the "trailhead to Utah." Departing Salt Lake City (for extended stays read our Play the Hits: Salt Lake City's Iconic Sights and the Cool Kids Guide to Salt Lake) with provisions for a road trip, pick up maps and stop for coffee or lunch in a gateway community like Helper. From Helper, take the half-day spur trip up the rolling and paved scenic drive of Nine Mile Canyon, known as the world's longest outdoor art gallery.
The next day, head south on S.R. 10 toward the welcoming communities of Huntington and Castle Dale before turning east down the unpaved BLM backroads into the heart of the San Rafael Swell. It's slower travel but worth it. Consider a visit to the scenic Wedge Overlook into the Little Grand Canyon then head toward the Buckhorn Wash pictograph panel, one of the state's most extraordinary rock art sites amid rugged and wild landscapes.
Overnight: Green River
A literal walk through the eons, the Natural History Museum of Utah’s main path, will take you from the age of dinosaurs all the way to the sky above. Start either at the bottom (again, giant dinosaurs) or the top for a fascinating journey through the state’s natural history.
Follow Nine Mile Canyon Road into the rugged and remote Book Cliffs, where messages from the ancients interface with settlers of the West and modern ways of thinking. Plan two to four hours for the tour, giving yourself time to gaze upon the prehistoric writing or works of art, much of whose meaning has been lost to time.
The Buckhorn Draw, with commanding pinnacles and steep cliffs and canyons, is in the northern section of the San Rafael Swell. Visitors can experience several intriguing attractions while there, including the Wedge Overlook, the San Rafael Bridge and the mysterious Buckhorn Wash Pictograph panel, estimated to have been painted over 2,000 years ago.
- Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway
- Edge of the Cedars
- Mule Canyon's House on Fire and Cave Tower
First-time visitors could consider a well-timed visit to Arches National Park. (Late mornings on weekends March through October are especially busy. Check the park for traffic and conditions and always travel slowly and patiently.) The distinctive petroglyph panel inside the park begs the question: What did early indigenous people think of these magnificent landforms? After Arches, head south toward the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (within Bears Ears National Monument) 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. For well-prepared travelers with time, nearby Mule Canyon and Butler Wash offer excellent introductions to Bears Ears-area ancestral sites.
Driving down Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (a unit of Bears Ears National Monument) isn't just a way to get to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Exploring the byway is an adventure in itself with a fascinating history, awe-inspiring views and some worthy stops along the way.
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.
In the rugged corridors of secluded Mule Canyon, you’ll not only find solitude but also a sense of mystery, as you scramble up rust-colored cliffs to examine the ruins of an ancient Native-American civilization that seemingly vanished into thin air.
- 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.
Ancient art can sometimes be a hard sell for kids, but these displays, featuring interpretations of bighorn sheep, deer, dogs, snakes and more will keep the kids entertained with a game of “I Spy” as you navigate the boardwalks to each viewing platform.
During construction of Interstate 70, the largest known Fremont Indian village was uncovered. Discover the artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs left behind and gain a greater understanding of all the rock art you’ve spotted on your trip so far at this park’s museum. Spend a day at the museum, then camp at nearby Castle Rock Campground.