If our travel logs offer any proof, there is no shortage of things to do in Utah’s Canyon Country. Over the years, we’ve spent weeks wandering through the sandstone mesas and ridgelines of this corner of the state. We’ve rappelled down quiet canyons, biked beneath towering monoliths, and indulged in a number of local specialties. But when we returned this fall we weren’t at all surprised to find new and exciting things to explore.
This story was created in partnership with San Juan County Economic Development and Visitor Services, Utah. Images by Whitney James.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Surrounded by Bears Ears National Monument, this natural wonder designated in 1908 has the distinction of being Utah’s first national monument. Home to three sandstone arches—called bridges because water formed them, each is a testament to how incredible the geology of Southwestern Utah really is. It all began 260 million years ago when the surrounding area was a beach of white sand. Someday, all three of the bridges will eventually collapse due to erosion of wind and water. For now, visitors can enjoy these marvels in their current state. Try the half mile hike down to Sipapu Bridge. It takes you along a series of ladders, making for a fun and heart-pumping climb back up! As you descend the layers of the canyon to the creek below, enjoy spotting endemic plants like juniper and yucca, and keep an eye out for wildlife. You may also be lucky enough to spot signs of Ancient Puebloan civilizations. Just remember to leave everything as you found it!
Bears Ears National Monument
The recently restored Bears Ears National Monument boasts a staggering amount of natural and historical importance. You could spend an entire week exploring just within the boundaries of the monument, but we recommend the following sights:
Mule Canyon Ruin
Mule Canyon Ruin is so well hidden within the juniper-piñon forest that you might miss it at first. This Ancient Puebloan village has, in recent years, been excavated and stabilized to prevent further erosion. But the keen eye can still spot shards of pottery and misplaced rocks in the surrounding landscape. The kiva itself is in incredible condition and really gives you a sense of scale for how large this community must have been. Take some time to explore the site, and imagine the bustling day-to-day that must have occurred here.
House on Fire
If there is any Ancient Puebloan dwelling you’ve seen photos of from Utah’s Canyon Country, chances are it’s House on Fire! This site received its name thanks to the characteristics of the sandstone directly above the walls of the structure. Even on a cloudy day, they appear like smoke drafting upwards from below. Luckily this structure did not actually burn down, even though fires were cleverly used to seal in food for storage. (In fact, they were so effective at sealing in these rooms that they have been discovered by archeologists unperturbed in modern times.)
The name of this site is somewhat misleading, because the area is so much more than just one tower. Overlooking a stunning canyon, this was once a bustling metropolis for the Ancient Puebloan people. Seven towers surround the rim of the canyon, while numerous buildings seem to materialize out of thin air on the sides of the cliffs below. This area is best explored with a guide. They will be able to point out treasures even the most careful observer would surely miss.
Butler Wash Dwelling
Another of Bears Ears National Monument’s quiet roadside attractions: Butler Wash Dwelling. This site is unique because it lies on the other side of Comb Ridge, meaning that the people here were effectively cut off from those to the west. While not necessary, you may enjoy bringing a pair of binoculars to get a better look from across the canyon. For those looking to photograph the dwelling, consider visiting in the morning hours for the best light.
Further north on the way to Canyonlands National Park, travelers can jump out of their cars to stretch their legs and take in Newspaper Rock. Called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, meaning “rock that tells a story,” this special site is well worth a visit. You’ll quickly identify human figures, animals, and tools; each with their own meaning and interpretation. This is one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country. Consider what it must have been like to pass through this way and pick up the latest news or leave a message for those who followed. It’s almost surreal that this way can still be viewed today!
Needles District of Canyonlands National Park
Past Newspaper Rock, the remainder of the 19-mile Indian Creek Scenic Byway will deliver you to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. This section of the park is much less visited than the portion outside of Moab, Utah, which means more views all to yourself! Off-roading and backpacking are popular pastimes here, but there are also plenty of short hikes that suit families or those on a time crunch. Try the 2.5-mile Slickrock Trail with 360-degree views of this sandstone wonderland, or the 6-mile Chesler Park Viewpoint Trail. Remember to pack a picnic for this portion of your trip, as options for dining are few and far between. Camping within the park or at nearby Glamping Canyonlands are wonderful ways to extend your stay in this part of Utah’s Canyon Country!