Photo by Patrick Hendry

Over the past few months, two of Utah’s national monuments have come to the forefront of American political discourse.

On December 4, 2017, President Trump shrank Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, and reduced nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante to approximately half its original size. Combined, this represented the largest rollback of federal land protection in recent history and ignited a major debate over the importance of public land protection and conservation. The move has already inspired a host of federal lawsuits. The Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Indian Tribe, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, as well as the outdoor retail giant Patagonia, have all argued the president’s proclamation exceeds his federal authority.

One of the most effective ways to show your support for these monuments is simply to utilize them.

If you’re planning an upcoming trip to Bears Ears or Grand Staircase, here’s everything you need to know.

Photo by Patrick Hendry
Photo by Patrick Hendry
Photo by Patrick Hendry

Bears Ears

  • Location: San Juan County, Utah
  • Original size: 1,351,849 acres
  • Current size: 201,876 acres
  • Established: Dec 28, 2016
  • Nearest city: Blanding, Utah

Bears Ears draws its name from the pair of twin buttes that rise from the beautiful wilderness of the region. Framed by scenic areas with names such as Dark Canyon Wilderness and Grand Gulch Plateau, the distinct rock towers overlook an expanse of red rock, juniper forests, and an abundance of Native American artifacts that honor the area’s cultural legacy.

With its astounding natural rock formations, Bears Ears offers a host of recreational opportunities, including hiking, camping, rock climbing, river running, and mountain biking. With over 250 miles of trails, there is a lot to choose from, but if you’re looking for a scenic day hike, we recommend Bullet Canyon, a 14.2-mile out-and-back that takes you down steep slickrock and descends 600 feet into the rocky amphitheater from which it derives its name. For those in search of a more extensive, multi-day trek, opt for the Kane Gulch Trail, a 14.3-miler which is often tacked onto the Bullet Canyon Trail to form a longer three-day loop.

Those in search of spectacular landscape shots should set their sights on Cedar Mesa. At its southern end, the sandstone cliffs give way to the Valley of the Gods, a tremendous sandy plain that was once home to ancestral Puebloan peoples and is dotted with rocky monuments and sandstone spires. Another great option is Needles Overlook, a precarious perch that looks down upon Indian Creek Canyon, the Colorado River, and the distant Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. This is a perfect spot from which to watch the setting sun cast rays of intense red and orange across the rocky landscape.

Photo by Patrick Hendry
Photo by Patrick Hendry
Photo by Sandra Ramos

Grand Staircase-Escalante

  • Location: Kane and Garfield Counties, Utah
  • Original size: 1,880,461 acres
  • Current size: 1,003,863 acres
  • Established: Sep 18, 1996
  • Nearest city: Kanab, Utah

So called because it forms a natural series of plateaus descending from Bryce Canyon toward the Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante is like a heavenly back porch giving way to the world’s best natural backyard. The monument also includes the 9,000-foot-high wilderness of the Kaiparowits Plateau and the rugged canyons and grottoes carved from the rock by the Escalante River.

Photo by Martin Rose

An outdoor paradise, Grand Staircase is popular among offroaders, hikers, campers, and anglers. For a quick excursion, aim for Devil’s Garden, a short jaunt just off of Highway 12 that guides you through a cavalcade of arches, hoodoos, and sandstone formations resembling giant mushroom caps. You won’t need to strain yourself much at all as the stony orchard offers plenty of opportunity to unleash your inner child and hop from rock to rock (just remember to stay on the marked paths and respect the trail).

For an overnight journey, try Hole in the Rock, a 62-mile road that follows the path of the Mormon expedition of the same name. You’ll actually drive the route, though it’s not as easy as it may sound. The dirt road is rutted out and quite rough, so make sure you have a 4X4 vehicle, a full tank of gas, and plenty of water. At the end of the road, you can set up camp, hike down to check out Lake Powell, and enjoy a night under the stars.

Like most places in the American Southwest, Grand Staircase-Escalante is a photographer’s paradise — you’ll never be at a loss for spectacular landscapes to capture. But, if you’re looking for suggestions, check out Calf Creek Lower Falls, a perennial waterfall tucked within the monolithic desert that comprises most of the monument. The verdant falls plummet down mineral-streaked cliffs, forming a breathtaking oasis. If you don’t have the energy to hike to your photo shoot, try relaxing with a cappuccino and pastry from Kiva Koffeehouse, located by Mile 74 along Highway 12. Nestled in the heart of the scenic region, the quaint coffee shop features an open-air patio that overlooks the sprawling canyon surrounding it. You can even rent a room for the night if you decide to stay for an extra day or two. Grab a drink, kick back, and enjoy the splendor of southern Utah.

Header image by Jameson Schultz