Saturday, December 31, 2016

Bears Ears National Monument: The Bears Ears Buttes

Bears Ears Buttes and rainbow, San Juan County, Utah.
Rainbow and Bears Ears Buttes, from Natural Bridges National Monument.
Bears Ears National Monument was declared by President Barack Obama on December 28, 2016. The new National Monument is comprised of 1.35 million acres in San Juan County in southeast Utah.

Bears Ears Buttes from Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, Utah.
Bears Ears Buttes from Natural Bridges loop drive along White and Armstrong Canyons.
 In the very center of the National Monument are its namesake, the Bears Ears Buttes, up on South Elk Ridge overlooking the northern edge of Cedar Mesa and Natural Bridges National Monument.

This post will introduce those not familiar with this area to the Bears Ears Buttes themselves. Subsequent posts will show the other areas of the Monument.

Bears Ears Buttes and moonrise, San Juan County, Utah.
Moonrise over the Bears Ears in winter, from Natural Bridges.
The designation of Bears Ears National Monument by presidential Executive Order, invoking the Antiquities Act, is contentious, as are all public land management issues. However, it is pertinent to note that Utah's "Mighty 5" National Parks -- Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Bryce Canyon -- all started out as National Monuments declared by presidential Executive Order, as well. All five were later upgraded to National Park status by Acts of Congress, which has the sole power to declare National Parks. The "Mighty 5" are tremendous tourist draws for visitors from around the world.

Bears Ears from Highway 261 on Cedar Mesa, San Juan County Utah
Panorama of Bears Ears after a late spring snow, from Highway 261 on Cedar Mesa.
Bears Ears is of a vast size, with greatly varied life zones. They range from high desert to subalpine forest. In this area you can drive from the desert of the lower San Juan River valley to the Ponderosa pine, aspen and spruce-fir forests above 8,500 feet elevation in an hour or less.

East Bears Ears Butte from South Elk Ridge, San Juan County, Utah
East Bears Ears Butte from mountain meadow on Forest Road 88.
There are three main areas of Bears Ears National Monument. From north to south are the Indian Creek area bordering the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, the Elk Ridge area of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, and Cedar Mesa, home to countless Ancestral Puebloan sites.

Wintertime scenic of Bears Ears and Elk Ridge from Natural Bridges
Utah Juniper snag and Bears Ears Buttes in winter, from Bridge View Drive loop in Natural Bridges National Monument.
Both West Bears Ear (elevation 8,929 feet at its summit) and East Bears Ear (8,908 feet) are at the south end of South Elk Ridge, on the Manti-La Sal National Forest. From Utah Highway 275 (the Natural Bridges entrance road) you can drive north on Forest Road 88 (when the road is not muddy) and go right between the two Bears Ears Buttes on your way to accessing the rest of the Elk Ridge area.

Monsoon season thunderhead clouds over Bears Ears Buttes, Utah.
Bears Ears Buttes and South Elk Ridge with monsoon season thunderhead clouds.
The name Bears Ears came from Native American tribes in the region that consider these landmarks to be sacred, especially since they can be picked out on the horizon from as far away as Monument Valley and Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.

Bears Ears from mountain meadow on Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah.
Bears Ears Buttes from the north, in an alpine meadow on South Elk Ridge.
Except that the ears of bears are roundish, not flat! What gives? It has to do with an old Navajo legend, of which there are at least two variations. Perhaps the other area tribes have their own versions as well. The best known legend is a gruesome one, in that Changing Bear Maiden was killed by her brothers after she had turned to the "dark side" and had become an evil bear, after which they chopped off her ears. That's why the "Bear's Ears" are flat. Like many Indian legends, it is meant to teach the difference between good and evil, of choosing the right path in life.

Forest Road 88 at Bears Ears Pass, Manti-La Sal National Forest, Utah.
Forest Road 88 on the Manti-La Sal National Forest goes right through the pass between the two Bears Ears Buttes.
The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa area are beloved by locals and non-local visitors alike, for driving, hunting, hiking, and camping. The area is still used by area Native American tribes for collection of edible, medicinal, and ceremonial plants and their fruits and nuts. This will be the first National Monument to be co-managed by representative of those tribes, in conjunction with the Bureau of Land Management and USDA Forest Service.

Bears Ears and Elk Ridge from Blanding, Utah
Bears Ears Buttes and Elk Ridge from Blanding, Utah.
Photo location: Bears Ears Buttes, Manti-La Sal National Forest and from surrounding public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service (Natural Bridges National Monument), San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Bears Ears panorama with rainbow, San Juan County, Utah.
Rainbow panorama, Bears Ears Buttes.
© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg