The Bears Ears Twin Butte rock formation has been a natural landmark of the native people through eons of time. The physical importance of the towering Twin Buttes is not easy for outsiders to grasp, especially if this landmark is only viewed from the distant paved road. The spiritual importance is also not easy to understand, but some insight can be gained by visiting this National Monument. By tradition, Bears Ears has always been a ancestral pilgrimage site where the spiritual world and the natural world meet. Experiencing Bears Ears in person truly is a way to learn about the lore of this land and touring the long dirt road that goes uphill to the Bears Ears Twin Buttes is a good start!
Getting to Bears Ears National Monument on the paved roads is not as easy as it may seem. Because of rampant political corruption, there is very little signage in this region and this National Monument does not always show up on modern mapping systems. Defining the boundaries of the wilderness areas that are supposed to be part of Bears Ears National Monument is complicated, because so many federal agencies manage this vast expanse of land. Illegal public land sales have also complicated the matter and this all adds up to quite a bit of frustration for those who want to visit Bears Ears.
This entire region has always been sacred to the native people, so it is best to just refer to this region by the name that the native nations agreed upon, which is Bears Ears. Bears Ears has been in the news lately, yet the true meaning of why this vast wilderness area was protected in the first place is rarely is mentioned by the media. Bears Ears has been a Native American pilgrimage site for thousands of years and this region has well over 100,000 ancient archaeological sites spread out over millions of acres. The Zuni, Hopi, Ute and Navajo are just to name a few civilizations that have ancestral ties to this ancient World Heritage Site and these modern nations want to see the public lands protections left in place.
As mentioned earlier, the Bears Ears National Monument signage is minimal, so finding your way to destinations in Bears Ears will require doing research and some careful map cross referencing. A dedicated GPS mapping system or an old fashioned detailed paper map is the best bet for navigating Bears Ears. Smart phone mapping systems are not a good choice, because there is no data signal to be found in this region. Up to date information and maps can be found locally at the Bears Ears Education Center in Butte and the Kane Gulch Ranger Station.
Elk Mountain Road is one of the main Bears Ears National Monument access points and this road is fairly easy to find. From Blanding, head west on SR 95, to SR 275. After turning onto SR 275, the Elk Mountain Road access point will be found less than one mile on the north side of the road. There used to be a Bears Ears National Monument sign at this intersection, but it has disappeared. The sign to look for is now the Manti-La Sal National Forest sign for Elk Mountain Road, which is a long dirt road that goes to the Twin Buttes.
Elk Mountain Road is a long dirt road that has a few rough spots and it is a little bit too bumpy for low ground clearance vehicles and tiny compact cars. High ground clearance vehicles, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks can easily do the trip, as long as the weather permits. This red clay dirt road can turn into deep impassible mud when it rains. If wet weather is in the forecast, then it is best to schedule the trip for some other time, because getting stranded in the mud way out in the middle of nowhere may result in several days of waiting for help to arrive.
It does not take long to get that adventurous feeling when heading into the Bears Ears National Monument wilderness on Elk Mountain Road! As the dirt road heads uphill toward the Bears Ears Twin Buttes, the climb is steep enough to enable some great views of Cedar Mesa down below. From the higher elevations, the views of the colorful desert sage brush dotted red sandstone landscape stretch way out into the horizon. The mountain ridges and mesas rise like islands through the haze in this vast ocean of a desert. The silence is deafening in this desolate place, except for the occasional sound of a hawk or a raven nearby.
As the vehicle lugs its way up and over the crest of the red rock high mesa, the scenery becomes a bit more green. In fact, the old juniper and piñon trees are so overgrown that the long dirt road straight ahead is all that can be seen. While slowly driving along in this section, the Bears Ears Twin Buttes occasionally rise up over the forest canopy, then after moving a little ways forward they disappear once again, just like a bear cub playing hide and go seek! When realizing this while taking in the views as the vehicle creeps along, all that one can do is chuckle over the amusing sight!
Upon arrival at the Bears Ears Twin Buttes, a visitor will actually find some official Bears Ears National Monument signage. The signs mark the hiking trails that run up to each of the twin buttes. The signs also designate the elevation of each of the Bears Ears, which are 8929 and 9058 feet above sea level. The hiking trails are fairly easy to navigate and the views from the peaks are as majestic as can be. This is a spot where an entire day could be spent, so be sure to pack plenty of water. Drinking extra water will help to prevent altitude sickness in this high elevation.
Anybody that is interested in Bears Ears will first learn that this is a native sacred place. Part of the answer as to why Bears Ears is a place of spirituality will be discovered after arriving at the Bears Ears Twin Buttes on Elk Mountain Road. At this high elevation, a visitor can see what is on the other side of the Bears Ears Twin Buttes and the sight will likely be a complete surprise that leaves the jaw hanging in mid air!
On the southern side of the Bears Ears Twin Buttes is a very harsh barren desert where a visitor will only find sage brush and cactus. On the north side of the Twin Buttes a visitor will see a pristine lush green forest that stretches out forever into the horizon, which is the opposite extreme! There are grassy meadows, streams and ponds in this hidden high elevation paradise. Bears Ears actually has always been a place that sustains life, which truly is something to respect with great reverence in this seemingly uninhabitable high desert region. The hidden life giving forests on the north side of the Twin Buttes is part of the reason why Bears Ears has always been a spiritual place.
Traveling on Elk Mountain Road into the lush forested environment is very much like driving on a National Forest dirt road in Colorado. Visitors will see grassy meadows, deep woods and a few old ranch structures in between. The wildlife is everywhere, yet it remains hidden from view till the wild animals decide whether you are a potential threat or not. It seems like the slower that one plugs along when driving on this dirt road, the more wildlife one will see. This is hawk and eagle territory, so be sure to pack a good telephoto lens. Eagle photos are nearly always a once in a lifetime opportunity, so be sure to keep the eyes peeled!
Elk Mountain Road eventually intersects with County Road 092 deep in the forested area. County Road 092 runs about 30 miles east to the town of Blanding through the wide open countryside, so this is another dirt trail to consider touring. The total distance of the Elk Mountain Road tour is about 8 miles, so there should be a comfortable amount of fuel left in the tank. Because there are so many viewpoints and slow going sections on Elk Mountain Road along the way, a visitor should plan on spending at least a half of a day when doing the 8 mile trip, especially if doing the Bears Ears Twin Butte Hiking Trails is part of the plan.
Visiting an ancient heritage site like Bears Ears National Monument can bring a whole new perspective to life, which is the reason why so many people venture to this scenic destination. There is a reason why Bears Ears is a native sacred place and by touring this majestic landscape some understanding will be easier to come by. Bears Ears is a place where the seemingly harsh lifeless desert meets the lush high elevation forests where life giving waters can be found. Bears Ears is a pristine wilderness area where food has always been plentiful, yet one go plenty hungry by being on the wrong side of the towering Twin Buttes. Bears Ears National Monument is an interesting place to spend some time and it goes without saying that touring Elk Mountain Road is a one of a kind adventure!
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