Worth a trip: Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears National Monument has made headlines in recent years. Located east of Grand Staircase-Escalante country, it's named for a pair of reddish, nearly symmetrical mesas that strikingly resemble ursine anatomy. It was created in 2016 by former president Barack Obama and covers a vast swath of 1.35 million acres. However in 2017 it was greatly reduced in size and divided into two smaller, unconnected parcels – Shash Jáa and Indian Creek – by President Donald Trump. At the time of research, those changes are the subject of pending court cases.

Regardless of the controversial change, Bears Ears is an exceptionally breathtaking destination. Much of the rugged landscape is remote backcountry filled with abundant flora and fauna, from leafy cottonwood trees and piñon pines to scaled horned lizards and actual black bears (though they're rarely seen). It’s also an immense outdoor gallery of priceless archaeological sites, including rock art and cliff dwellings left by Native American cultures like the Ancestral Puebloans long ago.

Bears Ears is a hiking wonderland, and it's a good idea to stop by Kane Gulch Ranger Station – the monument's de facto headquarters – for trail permits and information on current weather conditions. In the southerly Shash Jáa unit, the Hwy 95 waypoints of Mule Canyon, Comb Wash, and Butler Wash feature easily accessible trails that lead to impressive (and slightly eerie) ruins dating back more than six centuries. Indian Creek, the northern section of the monument reached by Hwy 211, lies on the far side of the Abajo Mountains, the pyramidal peaks that loom in the distance of the Bears Ears buttes. It features one of the classic Southwestern photo opp stops: Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument. There, a massive slab of mineral-stained sandstone features hundreds of chiseled-out petroglyphs that tell stories stretching back two millennia. Just up the road is Donnelly Canyon; its soaring walls are frequently filled with rock climbers.

Natural Bridges National Monument, created in 1908, is another regional gem. Located close to Shash Jáa, it protects a trio of stone spans that have been carved by snowmelt and rain over untold eons, including photogenic Sipapu, second in size only to iconic Rainbow Bridge National Monument. Stargazers flock here, as it became the world's first International Dark Sky Park in 2007.

Bears Ears is a sparsely populated portion of the Southwest, with just a few towns and hamlets dotting the map. Blanding, the largest burgh, is home to the anthropological Edge of the Cedars State Park and the paleontological Dinosaur Museum. Smaller Monticello is the gateway to the Indian Creek parcel. To the south, the tiny settlements of Bluff and Mexican Hat are located on the banks of the serpentine San Juan River, a favorite of rafters and kayakers. Both offer numerous boating outfitters and guide companies from spring to fall.

The route from Bears Ears toward Arizona along Hwy 261 – a section of the Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway – brings even more vistas and adventures, including the sublime, multi-hued spires of Valley of the Gods; the 3-mile, white-knuckle, gravel switchbacks of Moki Dugway; and the deep, curving chasm of Goosenecks State Park. Finally, at the state border, visit the Navajo village of Oljato for handcrafted art including silver jewelry and intricately patterned wool rugs, all with cinematic Monument Valley for an unforgettable backdrop.