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Utah's Bears Ears offers chance to explore ancient Pueblo ruins

Utah's Bears Ears offers chance to explore ancient Pueblo ruins

House on Fire

An easy hike along a canyon floor brings travelers to the House on Fire site, featuring five granaries built into overhanging Cedar Mesa Sandstone with a streaked pattern that resembles flames in certain lighting.

In the heart of the Colorado Plateau, the Bears Ears area is big country full of mesas, gorges, canyons, high desert plains and archaeological sites.

The southern Utah region is less touristy than Arches National Park farther north, yet provides equally beautiful views.

Canyon overlook

An overlook provides views into a canyon along the Cave Towers archaeological site in Utah's Bears Ears. Several kivas dot the cliff faces in this area, which is home to thousands of ancestral Puebloan ruins.


The Bears Ears area was declared a national monument in 2016 by former President Barack Obama.

Under the Trump administration the boundaries of the monument were downsized by 85%. The reductions paved the way for potential coal mining, oil and gas drilling.

Since then there has been a fight among Native Americans — namely the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition — environmentalists, paleontologists and outdoor organizations to reverse the reduction.

I visited the area just a week before Interior Secretary Deb Haaland toured the monument.

Haaland will submit recommendations on whether to reverse the Trump administration downsizing of that site and Grand Staircase-Escalante, another Utah national monument, the Associated Press reported.

Horse Collar Ruin

This is one section of the Horse Collar Ruin in Natural Bridges National Monument. Horse Collar Ruin is one of the best-preserved ancestral Puebloan sites in the area. Few visitors make the steep trek into the canyon.

Billings Gazette outdoors editor Brett French shows off some of the sights from his recent trip to southeastern Utah.


Bears Ears derives its name from two rounded buttes, which were still snow-covered and inaccessible to drive to in my small car earlier this spring.

The area offers a lifetime of exploration of archaeological sites. Most trailheads are found off Highway 95, but many of the sights in Bears Ears are poorly marked or hidden behind gated Bureau of Land Management roads.

Not much information can be found online about hiking trails or historical sites, as the BLM staff ask that people not geocode ruin locations for fear of vandalism.

A quick trip to the ranger station will get visitors a map and a few instructions on where to go.

House on Fire

Rock markings on top of the five granaries at the House on Fire ruin in the sandstone overhang create the illusion of fire during certain periods of daylight.


My first hike in Bears Ears was to the House on Fire, a quick three mile out-and-back trip to ancient granaries built into overhanging sandstone.

During certain periods of the day the sun illuminates markings on the sandstone that resemble flames.

If you continue on the trail you can see ruins of a former tower, but in the midafternoon heat I opted to return to my car and its air conditioning.

Next I hit the Butler Wash Ruins, a quick hike to an overlook that offers views of three ruins built into the cliff face.

A walk just a few minutes down the highway, in the Upper Butler Wash area, allows a closer look at similar ruins.

The hike to Ballroom Cave is shaded along a creek and cottonwood trees. The Ballroom Cave ruins include a main alcove and two small caves, which visitors may explore.

Within the first cave are two small walled enclosures. The second, smaller cave includes a square kiva — a Puebloan ceremonial meeting room — with some roof beams intact.

To the right of the kiva are three painted figures and some painted hand prints.

Sipapu Bridge

Sipapu Bridge is the largest of the three natural bridges in Natural Bridges National Monument, with a span of 268-feet and 220-feet high. It can be seen from a roadside overlook, or adventurous hikers can take a steep hike down two wooden ladders to the canyon floor. Once on the canyon floor you can take an approximately eight-mile loop to see the two other bridges in the area.


The next day my sister and I hiked an eight-mile loop in Natural Bridges Monument. The route traveled into the canyon and past the three large natural bridges in the monument: Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo.

There you can also hike to the Horse Collar Ruins (there is a roadside overlook for nonhikers). Throughout the trip and along the canyon floor keen eyes can pick out ancient structures tucked into the canyon cliffs.

Being on the canyon floor provided some respite from the heat (it was warm, especially for us Montanans) and afforded fantastic views of the large bridges.

We only spent three days camping in the area, which was not enough time to view all the archaeological sites, canyons and bluffs. I hope I’ll be able to take another crack at the area soon.


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