A weekend in Bears Ears

You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in the Western US today who hasn’t heard of Bears Ears. It’s become a rallying cry for conservation and recreation and generally not letting public lands disappear. (If you need a refresher on Bears Ears’ contemporary history, here’s a good primer from a Native perspective.)

I’d driven through parts of the Monument, but never spent any significant time there. So when we started making plans to spend a holiday weekend in the desert with friends, I jumped at Bix’s suggestion to make for Cedar Mesa.

Our friends Hale and Angela flew from Seattle to Grand Junction last Wednesday night. We camped near the 18 Road Trails in Fruita, then drove west Thursday morning to snag a site at what I believe to be the best front-country camping in the Moab area, the campground at Upper Onion Creek.

This was Hale and Angela’s first Moab trip, so we spent a couple of days doing the area classics (Corona Arch, Dead Horse Point, Milt’s), minus the national parks since we had Very Bad Dog Bodhi with us. On Saturday, we packed up the truck and drove two hours south and west to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station on Cedar Mesa.

Angela reserved us an overnight permit for Sunday entry into Road Canyon. The ranger let us pick it up on Saturday afternoon. She answered our questions about water sources in the canyon (“Let’s see when the latest update is from; they never let us out of the office anymore”) and suggested a few potential campsites.

One stipulation of overnight permitting at Cedar Mesa is to watch a ten-minute video on how to be cool about interacting with ancient ruins, the gist of which is “Please leave shit as you found it so that we can continue to have nice things,” which means not stealing potsherds or carving your initials into things or scattering your Clif bar wrappers, among other things.

By the time we got to the very informal trailhead (single BLM post with the word “TRAIL” and a halfhearted fire ring), it was too hot to go for the afternoon hike we’d planned. Instead, we huddled in a dusty patch of shade and drank too many Tecates, passed a windy night in our tents, and got an early start to beat the heat.

There’s not much of a formal “trail” through Road Canyon; it’s mostly unmarked, except for a few (often misleading) cairns, and follows a dry wash. [This and all other photos in this post are by Bix Firer.]
The trail winds through cryptobiotic soil along the mesa top for half a mile or so, then starts to descend into the canyon. Once you’re below the rim, trail markers are few, far between, and often inaccurate; it looks like the wash floods pretty regularly, so the trail changes season to season. We scrambled over a few pour-offs and eventually made it to the canyon floor.

There was fresh blood just above these boulders as we hiked out; this was just one of several near-encounters with the local charismatic megafauna.

Many canyons in Cedar Mesa don’t allow dogs, because people don’t pick up after them and let them destroy fragile archaeological sites (because this is why we can’t have nice things). Road Canyon is one of the few that does, and it’s also chock-full of Ancestral Puebloan ruins, which is why Angela picked it.

I had my eyes glued to the canyon walls from the get-go, which resulted in several false alarms before something I excitedly pointed out to the group actually turned out to be an ancient granary. Soon, we were stopping around every bend to squint and pull out our zoom lenses to get a closer look at the ruins, which generally appeared impossible to access. A little over a mile into the hike, Ang spotted a granary, and we dropped our packs to scramble up to it.

There’s an old corn cob in there. [I took this one.]
We followed a faint trail and scrambled up some slickrock to get to the first site. Bix and I took turns sitting farther away with Bodhi, who, being a dog, was not allowed to approach the ruins. When it’s allowed, we typically let him off leash, since he is well-behaved and not aggressive, but regulations here require pups to be leashed. The only inconvenience here is that Bodhi (full name: Bodhi, Scourge of Lizards) had to stop and pounce every few feet, which got old pretty quickly.

I often tell Bodhi to give it up, since I truly believe he is incapable of catching a lizard. He may one day need therapy and/or become a motivational speaker (“My own mom said I’d never catch a lizard, and look where I am now, a bestselling author who eats lizards for every meal! For just $24.99 a month, you can unlock the secrets of lizard-pouncing and replace boring kibble with lizard flesh!”), and on this trip I actually did have to eat crow because he caught one, despite being on a leash. He looked surprised and immediately dropped it when Bix yelled at him. The lizard scampered away with all legs and tail intact.

One of my favorite things about this kind of remote backpacking is how much route-finding it requires. We had to drop packs and split up to find the best option a number of times. We’d downloaded the maps beforehand and used Gaia GPS to navigate and track our distance, speed, and elevation. But in a landscape like that, there’s often some finagling to find the best route, even if you’re sure about the direction you should be heading.

The ranger had mentioned a pool around mile 4, and we were surprised to see how deep it was. At that point, we stashed our overnight packs, hung our food, and continued hiking down the canyon to see the remainder of the archaeological sites. We planned to rejoin our packs later and find a campsite up-canyon from the pool.

The perfectly-round pool was deep enough that we couldn’t see the bottom. That kind of exposure is pretty intimidating, and it took me a few false starts before I finally committed to jumping across at this spot.

We took a few rest breaks in the shade as we continued toward the bottom of the canyon, in part because Scourge of Lizards was getting pretty hot, thanks to his incessant pouncing.

Around six miles from the trailhead, we arrived at Seven Kivas. I don’t really have the words to describe the site. The seven circular kivas, thought to have been used for ceremonial purposes, are estimated to be around 700 to 800 years old. Two of them are still in pretty good shape: thatched roofs still intact, plaster still visible inside. There are countless corncobs and potsherds (this, I learned, is an archaeological term; they are, as I suspected, shards of ceramic pots).

The BLM has put up chains near the midden, or ancient trash pile at the base of the kivas, and in front of the entrances. You’re not supposed to enter structures, but you can carefully scramble up to the kivas and peek in the windows.

This was the highlight of the trip for me. There was something almost unspeakably powerful about peering into the kivas and knowing that other humans had been there and built them and lived their lives around them hundreds of years ago. To say it was really, really cool feels like a profound understatement.

The area around the Seven Kivas site was sprinkled with corncobs and potsherds. I’m not including any photos of the kivas because they can’t possibly do the site justice. It’s worth experiencing for yourself in person.

Our normally irreverent group spent a few silent moments looking into the kivas, then snacked in the shade at the base of the midden. Eventually, we headed back up-canyon to reunite with our packs and find a campsite.

Except there weren’t many good campsites in Road Canyon. The ranger had mentioned that people don’t often backpack there; it’s often done as a day hike (there’s even a shortcut to Seven Kivas via a side canyon). We dropped our packs and scoped out what seemed like dozens of potential sites, but all had some combination of bad campsite qualities: in the wash, on angled slickrock, not enough room for two tents, covered in cactus or cryptobiotic soil or red anthills, and so forth. At some point, we resigned ourselves to taking our overnight packs for a very long walk; we set up camp just before dark right back where we’d started.

The next morning, we piled back into the truck, feeling sore and dusty and very lucky to have seen the sights we had the day before. We stopped by the Ranger Station to report on water conditions and use bathrooms with toilet paper, then headed back toward Blanding. We stopped briefly at Mule Canyon, where a short hike takes visitors to some pretty incredible ruins in excellent condition.

This was only about a mile + a short scramble from the trailhead.

We dropped Hale and Angela off at the Grand Junction Airport last night and headed home. This was one of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time, in part because of good company and gorgeous surroundings. But it also felt good to connect with this place I’ve been hearing so much about.

Bears Ears has become a focal point for the conservation movement. I, along with just about every other recreationist I know, donated to the Kickstarter campaign to build the Bears Ears Education Center. I’ve read about it ad nauseum, but spent very little time experiencing what made it so special. Until this weekend, I figured Bears Ears was a lot like any other tract of public land: definitely worth protecting, but part a small part of a larger conversation.

Hiking down Road Canyon was indescribably special. Seeing those archaeological sites, largely undisturbed and in surroundings that look much as they did hundreds of years ago, was an important reminder of just how important the fight for public lands is. It’s not about recreating; it’s about preserving an important piece of history, protecting it from being irreparably damaged, and respecting the Ancestral Puebloans’ descendants, the people who right now are telling us that it’s meaningful to protect those sites and their surroundings. We should listen.

I am ready and excited to keep fighting the good fight. In the meantime, I am happy-tired, maybe still a little dusty, and planning my next trip to the desert.




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