Bears Ears is a Desert Paradise. It’s Up to All of Us to Keep it That Way.

Meditations on a special place in the desert southwest.

Photo: Louisa Albanese

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The desert always seems so pure. Scooping up sand in the wide entrance of Arch Canyon, I cast my gaze upward where clouds linger on the sandstone spires, as if to hold onto the view just a bit longer. With the sun kissing my cheeks into a smile, my eyes trace down from the rim to a line in the cliff which clutches a small, rock structure. I’m reminded: The desert is less nature’s blank slate than it is an ever-growing time capsule, collecting stories for a millennium and revealing them to those willing to listen. My story lives here, too.

It was this exact spot, in 2017, during my first hike in Arch Canyon—one of my first in the greater Bears Ears area—where I realized not even the soaring canyon walls were enough to shelter me from a broken heart at what my life had become. When my eyes dried, I got up, brushed the sand off my legs, and left. I was looking for escape, but the canyon was offering only depth.

Throughout history and literature, the desert has been a place of healing, exile, and solitude. Its vast open spaces hold crevices and caves, a mingling of exposure and protection that sets the stage for a reckoning. I came to Bears Ears because I needed space to be alone, to rest in safety, to scream at the sky. After that first, failed hike, I contemplated leaving the desert. But I knew that wouldn’t really help me get better. I decided to stay—all year—navigating the network of twists and turns through the rock strata. I thought going deeper into the geologic layers would scour me of the film left by a tumultuous divorce and expose something better underneath.

Wild weather swings and harsh terrain ensured I never got stuck in the quicksand of inner turmoil. The focus required to live in this environment moved me past my trauma and kept me in the present. I never feared the coyotes howling nearby in the night; they were friends who would protect me from the violence I had escaped in my marriage.

I’d wanted to be alone, but soon found, through pictures pecked into sandstone and moonlight illuminating an orange wall decorated with human handprints, that Bears Ears is not an empty desert wilderness. It’s a place with a human history that dates back 2,500 years or more, to when the Basketmakers first carved their existence from the sandstone here. There are stories—old and new—all written in the sand. It’s impossible to feel alone.

Cradled by the desert and falling in love with it, I forgot my personal problems when I heard that the area might lose its National Monument status, reducing the level of federal protection. A few months later, it happened. The 1.3-million-acre monument’s boundaries were redrawn, scaling them back by 85 percent and making the excluded areas vulnerable to mining, drilling, and other extractive industries. I cried again, but not for myself.

Now, two years later, I am pushing past my old memories at the threshold of Arch Canyon, part of the national monument’s reconfigured 129,980-acre Shash Jaá unit but the same place I’d fallen apart before. I needed time to see what was inside myself before I was ready to look inside this canyon. But then I paused again: What if everyone understood the significance of Bears Ears and its stories? Would they sit and watch as those things were erased? That’s why I returned, to help make clear the value of this place.

Mistakes compound in the desert. A single footstep in the wrong place can alter the landscape. A thousand footsteps can create a path where there wasn’t one. And, absent vigorous plant life to help the recovery, that path soon widens into a new trail snaking through the sand and yuccas, beelining to points of interest, wounding new ground that was once the home turf of ancient societies. This desert needs protection.

In late 2016, after efforts from 30 indigenous and local stakeholders, 1.3 million acres on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah became Bears Ears National Monument. The blowback from some locals, politicians, and the oil-and-gas industry was  swift. A year later, the monument’s borders were redrawn, shrinking them. The lawsuits from indigenous nations, conservation organizations, and outdoor-industry types soon followed (and are currently working their way through the courts). But while the controversy around Bears Ears National Monument’s borders continues to make headlines, most accounts fail to convey the diversity of its terrain or the number of indigenous cultures that call the place home, which some scholars believe to be the highest in North America.

Though the narrative varies with the teller, Bears Ears and the surrounding region are sacred to many tribes. The Bears Ears themselves, two Wingate sandstone buttes sitting atop the monument’s tallest ridgeline, have the same name in every regional language.

As Lyle Balenquah, a Bears Ears area archaeologist, regional guide, and member of the Third Mesa Hopi tribe, explained to me, “My ancestors, the Greasewood Clan, have oral history about migrating, travelling specifically up through the Bears Ears. They lived a unique lifestyle, were some of the first people to farm in the Southwest, and built architecture that people from around the world still come to see. For many indigenous people, we all have that sense that we are working and living in these same lands.”

I feel welcomed by the view of the Bears Ears sitting atop Elk Ridge as I approach Arch Canyon, 90 minutes south of Moab. According to traditional Diné narratives (and other tribes as well), these buttes are a symbol of feminine healing. Though I did not know this when I first came to Arch Canyon, learning it from an archaeologist and a Diné woman I met in Bears Ears gave me strength during the period I decided to stay here alone. I found comfort in knowing other women sought healing in these same lands. Even when Mother Bear, as she is known to many tribes, isn’t visible from within Arch Canyon, I could still feel her sitting and watching from her perch on the mesa as she presided over the daily lives of those who lived in these canyons long before I arrived. 

As I explored, I paid attention to the landscape through sandy washes, quicksand, snow, and mountainsides covered in quaking aspens. I sought out the perspectives of those most invested in this landscape. Bears Ears is a place that people can’t agree how  to protect, yet its importance is nearly universally accepted.

But with protection withdrawn from so many acres, Bears Ears needs a different sort of conservation ethic now, one that hikers can—and must—lead.

We chose Arch Canyon because its turkey-foot shape lends itself to meandering exploration, it’s off the Cedar Mesa greatest hits list, and—importantly—it’s well-suited to travel. A sandy ATV road snakes along the first 8 miles, providing access and concentrating the impact through this delicate zone, but after that, it’s all foot traffic for the hikers, climbers, and hunters who use the area. 

On a crisp morning last fall, the Backpacker staff hiked through the sand and stared up at the ponderosa pines towering above. “I didn’t expect it to be so forested here!” someone said. We spent the time gawking at outcroppings of cacti and pine, following bear tracks across the sandy canyon floor, sliding across a stream frozen into ice ribbons, and spotting an ancient potsherd hand-painted with black stripes. These are the details that make hiking in Bears Ears so mesmerizing—and we’d barely left the ATV track.

On our five-day trek, we basecamped in an established spot between the thousand-foot-high canyon walls and explored the canyons outside the monument’s redrawn borders in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Through upper Arch Canyon, we stopped to gaze up at creamsicle orange layers of sandstone crowned with bowing arches. In Texas Canyon, an offshoot of Arch, we craned our necks up at 800-foot Texas Tower, among the tallest free-standing desert spires in the Southwest. We picnicked on slickrock promenades bathed in sunlight.

On our last day, we listened to a spring dripping through a hanging garden, its vibrant green fronds clinging to a desolate roof of red sandstone. We reached an impassable pourover in a side canyon, a place transformed into a waterfall during monsoons. But as I’ve learned during my time in Bears Ears, there is always another way in the desert.

We clambered on, and when I stopped to catch my breath, I looked up only to have it whisked away again. High above us in the canyon, a row of ancestral dwellings sat on a ledge. It was 800 feet higher than we were, but I could still make out a granary, once used to store corn, in a high alcove. Together, these ruins are a fragile marker in time, a standing family tree connecting ancient civilizations, their modern descendants, birds, insects, pine trees, and visitors like us. 

Everyone has a story—my own had gone from fear, to exile, to healing, to whole, all thanks to this place—and the desert can hold all of them. But we must be willing to hold out our hands to protect it. And we must watch our step. 

Respect Bears Ears

The desert and cultural sites come with their own code of outdoor ethics.

Look but do not touch artifacts and cultural sites. This includes rock art, ancestral dwellings, arrowheads, and potsherds. 

It is illegal to remove artifacts and fossils. Leave them where you find them.

Keep your distance. Camp away from cultural and historic sites. Do not touch or lean on walls. Keep pets and children from playing in culturally or ecologically sensitive areas.

Historic trash is not trash. It is illegal to remove anything older than 50 years.

Pack it in, pick it up, pack it out. As always.

Stay cairn-free. Do not build new cairns or add to previous ones. 

Don’t bust the crust. Stay on pre-existing routes to avoid disrupting the delicate cryptobiotic soil—the dark brown or black clumps on the surface of the sand—which takes centuries to form.

Poop properly. If there’s soil present, do your business away from water sources, bury it in catholes 6 inches deep, and pack out your toilet paper. If there’s only sand, use a WAG bag.

Sign in and pay up. Log in to trail registers and pay permit fees.

Share carefully. Don’t geotag or post locations of sensitive sites on social media. 

Keep it small. Larger groups have a higher impact on the landscape.

Watch your wheels. Drive on official roads only.

Leave the ropes at home. It is illegal to use rope or technical climbing gear to access cultural sites.

Join the fight. Connect up with Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition or Friends of Cedar Mesa to advocate for these lands.

These tips are excerpted from The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes by Morgan Sjogren 

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