Arlin and I recently had the opportunity to take a backpacking trip to the Bears Ears National Monument (BENM). As the Monument has become a more and more prevalent news topic, Arlin and I decided that we wanted to explore the area for ourselves. To be completely honest, neither of us even had any idea that Bears Ears existed prior to its Monument designation, so we were excited to explore something completely new.
One of the most important features of the Bears Ears is Grand Gulch, an expansive canyon system stretching about 50 miles from Kane Gulch Ranger Station in the north down to its confluence with the San Juan river in the south. We decided to do a short loop taking Sheik’s Canyon down into the Gulch and traveling out via Bullet Canyon the next day — about 14 miles altogether.
After stopping for snacks at the Hollow Mountain Travel Center in the quaint town of Hanksville, we drove another two hours or so through pitch black to our first destination: Natural Bridges National Monument. Unfortunately the campground was full, so we had to press on in search of a camp site on BLM land. After a few false turns and a general feeling of ‘spookiness’, we finally settled on a spot alongside a dirt road winding up some sort of large hill. It’s always kind of fun arriving in the middle of the night since you never know exactly what you’re going to get in the morning. Boy were we pleased! We both woke up naturally around 7 AM to a stunning sunrise and a beautiful overlook just outside our tent’s door. It was really special to be able to watch the day begin through the crack in our rain fly. We didn’t get any pictures, but I’ll always have the memory.
Overnight trips into Grand Gulch require you to get a permit from the ranger station, so we couldn’t drive straight to our final destination (hence the camping on unknown BLM land). Permit reservations for the weekend were already gone when I tried to call, so we showed up to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station at 8 AM sharp hoping for one of the six walk-in permits they set aside for every day. Before you can get your permit, the rangers require you to watch this cool introduction video to teach visitors about the Gulch and the precious resources hidden within the canyons’ walls. Sure, the music and narration were your typical “AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL” fare, but it was enough to get Arlin and I excited for the adventure ahead.
Permits in hand, we were finally able to arrive at our final destination: Bullet Canyon trailhead. The various trails leading into Grand Gulch can all be completed in a series of day hikes — visitors can hike in to see a ruin or two, and then hike back out the way they came. Since we were backpacking, we decided on a loop. Starting at the Bullet Canyon trailhead, the first section of our hike was this two mile stretch through juniper trees and sage brush to get to Sheik’s Canyon trailhead. This was by far the least exciting part of the hike, but it was cool to have the BENM namesake ‘Bears Ears’ formations guiding our way.
Little stream beds started to merge and grow deeper as it became apparent that we were approaching the beginning of the canyon. One of the really fascinating things about this part of the hike was how absolutely flat everything looked. You would never suspect that there are massive canyons nearby while walking through this terrain. Sure enough, however, the ground around us started to rise as it turned into ledges and then tall canyon walls. We had reached Sheik’s Canyon.
Grand Gulch is particularly known for the high concentration of Anasazi ruins and pictographs in nearly every canyon. Most ruins are difficult to spot; their high placement in the cliff walls and sandstone construction making them nearly invisible at first glance. We noticed our first couple of ruins during our decent into Sheik’s. They were simple granaries, constructed at the tops of the cliffs to protect them from the elements and flash flooding. I somehow spotted all of the ruins on this little expedition — Arlin was none too pleased, but I think it’s safe to say that my Indiana Jones hat played a role in my archeological prowess.
The real excitement started after a fairly sketchy decent into the deepest part of Sheiks. Walking along a high ledge, we were spotted by someone searching for the ‘Green Mask’ pictograph. After explaining that we hadn’t seen anything yet and navigating our way down a bunch of slick rock to the spring, we had a short chat with him and his wife. They had been looking for the Green Mask for a while with no success and were about to give up. About two minutes after we parted ways, however, Arlin and I found the mask hidden amongst a massive panel of pictographs that the couple had been looking at for quite some time. We made our first discovery!
After exploring the pictographs and low-walled ruins for a while, we decided to press on. It wasn’t too long before we reached the confluence where Sheik’s meets with the much larger Grand Gulch. The towering canyon walls made us feel small yet safe — as desert canyons often do (at least when there are no rain clouds in sight.) We had entered the next stage of our adventure.
We camped down the canyon where Grand Gulch meets with Bullet Canyon — our exit route for the next day. The confluence was filled with trees covering large flat areas that were perfect for camping. There was one type of tree directly above our tent that dropped these green seed pods which, when stepped on, released some sort of super glue that was a PAIN to get off. Otherwise, the spot was beautiful, completely empty, and we couldn’t have asked for a better site.
We dozed off relatively early — around 8 or so. I was going to try to take some night shots before the moon rose, but I slept straight through that plan. I did wake up around 1 AM to take some shots, but the moon was so bright at that point you could hardly see the stars. I did end up finding a lens cap I had apparently dropped during the day though, so that worked out.
The next day, Sunday, brought the final leg of our journey. Our exit route was a winding trail through the stunning Bullet Canyon. The first ruin we came across was called ‘Jailhouse Ruin’, named after the strange cross-hatch built into one of the main windows. Two large face-like pictographs marked the ruin’s location high up the canyon wall. I’m honestly baffled at how the ancient people who built these dwellings actually got up to them.
A little further up the canyon was the Perfect Kiva ruin. This was by far the most interesting and expansive ruin we encountered on our journey. Grooves worn into the rock from grinding ancient corn (maize) laid next to short walls surrounding some sort of dwelling.
A near-perfect living structure stood before the centerpiece of the ruins — a partially restored kiva. A kiva is an underground chamber used by the Pueblo Indians for religious rites and ceremony. Since this kiva has been restored, we were allowed to descend into it.
The air inside was cool and had an extremely pleasant smell of herbs and dust. Corn cobs from the people who had lived here hundreds of years prior littered the floor. It was peaceful, and you could feel how special the space is just by being in it.
Seeing all of these ruins and ancient artifacts serves as additional evidence that this region absolutely must be protected. The land in Grand Gulch and the surrounding Bears Ears region was and still is sacred to the Native Americans of the area. You can truly feel that sacred energy as you wander the canyon floor and explore ancient sites ringing with the echoes of people long since passed.
The desert is unique and incredibly special in the way that it so plainly displays the vastness of time to observers. Every layer of rock represents hundreds, if not thousands of years. The monumental forms demand reverence, almost like a temple to Mother Earth. There are few places in the world that so powerfully represent both the extreme beauty and harshness of our planet in a single location. Why shouldn’t this land be protected against development and human interests? To me, this trip reminded me that we must do everything we can to ensure the longevity of these vast expanses of natural beauty.
The rest of our hike was a pleasant trek out of the canyon and up to the rim where our car was parked. While we were both extremely relieved to have air conditioning chilling our sun-kissed faces again, we were also sad to be leaving such a wonderful place and experience behind. I can’t wait for our next opportunity to go backpacking this year!