Crack open Google Earth and zoom in over the American southwest and you’ll see a remarkable brown smear over the four corners region. This is red-rock country–primordial, sanguine clay-stained soil–where wind and water have steadily burnished mother earth’s soft patina into goblin-like hoodoos and neck-craning arches. It’s also the confluence of nowhere and American politics, where this past winter, state’s rights rammed head-on with National Monument status. This is Bears Ears.
SHENANIGANS IN BEARS EARS
Bikes, boats and National Monuments
Text: Steve Graepel. Photos and video by Steve Graepel and Dave Blum
If you’re late to this party, (or out of the country ... or simply can’t keep up with our ever-changing political currents) here’s the CliffsNotes. This past December then President Obama penned 1.3 million acres of this staggeringly barren land as a National Monument, protecting 18 wilderness study areas and miles of pre-western archeological sites from looting and energy development. Ink still wet on the page, Utah’s Governor signed a resolution crying federal overreach, urging the new administration to trump the decree.
This tripped a cascade of outdoor industry revolts; Patagonia, and then Arc’Teryx announced they would boycott of the outdoor industry trade show juggernaut, Outdoor Retailer, held bi-annually in Utah. Eventually OR itself decided it was time to pull the plug on Utah, citing Governor Herbert “has a different perspective on protections of public lands...and it’s bad for our business...”
Heeding the call of the feral, we were already plotting a route across this brick-stain on the map. The political kerfuffle only added to our curiosity. So we racked the bikes and punched the coordinates due south and proceeded onward to pedal-about into the American southwest.
But let’s start with the boats. Nose deep in our bags at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station, a tall, lanky fella with gangly chicken legs strolled up and chirped “Hey! I hear you guys are riding bikes to the ruins...maybe I’ll see you there!” He paused...and followed with “...what’s up with the paddles?”
This is pretty much par for the course. Gear vomited across the parking lot attracts attention. Soon enough, someone’s gonna recognizes boats in the mix. It raises the freak flag, cueing someone’s up to no good ... biting off more than one should chew. But as Oscar Wilde once said, even moderation should be consumed in moderation. So sporting more testicular fortitude than smarts (and the whole appeal of eating something bigger our heads), there we were, in the parking lot, pondering the question from our new-found friend, when Dave, my partner who was wrestling his boat between the handle bars, got that mischievous glint in his eyes. Without skipping a beat, Dave casually responded “Paddles...for our boats...” as if to say, you know, because we’re in the desert...cycling to ruins...with boats. Of course we’re bringing paddles. And with that, our audience broke half a smile at the crazy notion, backed away, and we pointed the bikes south. Our Bears Ears shenanigans were game on.
The Cedar Mesa maybe in the middle of nowhere but there was a time when it was the Gotham of North American civilization. Grand Gulch is to archeology as the Alps is to cycling. If you are into exploring ancient Anasazi and Puebloan ruins, pictographs and petroglyphs, then Cedar Mesa is your Tour. Later in the day we would meet Gary Dorgan, a retired BLM ranger who specialized in archeological preservation. In his words, “you can’t spit on the Mesa without hitting some ancient artifact.” Being gentlemen, we keep the expectoration to a minimal. But rough finger in the wind estimates calculate there are over 100,000 archeological sites inside Bears Ears–many right here on Cedar Mesa. We were salivating at the opportunities to explore. And while I’d like to say we picked Moon House ruins for its exemplary example of prehistoric Puebloan architecture (with nearly 50 rooms, it’s gotta be on that list), let’s be honest...we’re not that smart. We ran with Moon House so we could sneak a quick peek while sticking to our Swiss-like schedule.
We cut east off the highway and squished onto the Snow Flat road with a brick-red dust rooster tail sputtering off the back tires. Mormon Pioneers were the first westerners to visit these parts and cut the route across Cedar Mesa to wagon west. Bikes silently ripping across the red velvet carpet trail, we found our religion and it was simply divine.
At the trailhead, we stashed the bikes behind a stumpy stand of pinyon pines and scampered down the well-cairned trail that eventually plunged down into an oxbow canyon. And then … then we saw it. Pinched between the weathered sandstone layers cut into the bluff was a long row of methodically stacked and mortared stones. I passed a set of ancient corn granaries and shimmied inside the kiva proper to find an internal ‘courtyard’ with a second row of rooms tucked under the soot stained roof. Smaller stone structures were stacked along the bench to the south and the north. The structure was reputed to house over 30 ancient Puebloans. Though over 800 years old, it was locked in time - hardly a stone appeared out of place.
We could have spent all day exploring McCloyd Canyon but daylight was burning. So we hoofed it back to the bikes, saddled up and pressed eastward to the distinctly serrated Comb Ridge–an 80-mile monocline range that defines Bears Ears eastern border–before we ducking into Valley of the Gods.
Nearby Monument Valley … it gets all the press. It’s tall, it’s iconic, it’s a western beauty queen. Smaller but uniquely spectacular, Valley of the Gods is Monument’s humble sister. Tucked immediately below Cedar Mesa, on the map it looks out of the way. But the burnished gravel road is well worth the extra 17 miles. Cue the Ennio Morricone soundtrack: we snaked our wagons in and around red sandstone monoliths, chasing the slow shadows casted across the desert floor.
The day wrapped with a 10-mile casual ride down the highway to Goosenecks State Park, where $10 gets you a toilet vault (unfortunately, no water) but most importantly ... a ringside seat overlooking the San Juan River. One of the hottest views in the southwest and worth every penny. We dined on gourmet freeze dried and botanical superfoods while catching up on our atomic sunsets, which went absolutely nuclear over the Navajo horizon.
Let’s Get This Goat Rodeo Going
Mexican Hat, Utah, population at 31. The small desert hamlet may sit on the southern border of the Monument but it’s at the social epicenter of Bears Ears. The popular story would have it that the monument is imposed against local will. But Mexican Hat stays afloat on catering tourism–primarily selling 4% beer to rafters floating the San Juan–and is “all in” on the status.
The San Juan river cuts right through “down town” Mexican Hat and is a classic rock nerd example of an “entrenched meander…” a sinuous river carved deep in a canyon. Goosnecks typically form when slow water flows over flat land and left to it’s own idle hands. It takes a special something to get a meander to form 1500 feet below the deck. That something was the formation of the Rockies, which, when sprouted a hundred miles to the east, increased the river’s flow rate. The river’s path already set, the erosive San Juan simply cut deeper through soft limestone, sandstone and shale.
Rather than riding out and back to the Goosenecks via the highway, we followed our creative sensitivities back to the maps and divined a route that would deliver us from Mexican Hat through the desert with bikes strapped to small, packable rafts via these spectacular meanderings–the southern border of Bears Ears–eventually pulling us up the historical Honaker Trail. So we filled up the bladders, swapped the gear from bike to boat, hoisted the jolly roger and plopped the boats down on muddy waters. As we passed under the bridge, a Dodge Ram honked and gave us a thumbs up (or the finger). Either way, we took it as a sign of approval.
To pass time, we honed our river reading skills. By skirting the outside shore and drafting off major riffles, we’d slingshot from current to current, giving us the illusion of speed and efficiency. After 4-hours of bobbing in our kiddie pools with bikes, we finally reached the last of our meanderings and beached on the shore below the Honaker which would lead us up and out of the canyon.
Cut out of the canyon’s vertical wall at the turn of the century, the Honaker was created as the only supply route to haul sluiced gold out of the river basin. But gold proved difficult to sift from the silt and the trail was too steep even for pack mules (legend has it a donkey fell off the trail within a week of the trail’s completion). Muscling our bikes up the Honaker seemed like the right idea.
So how do you train to climb 1,500 feet in two miles with a bike? Here are a few suggestions:
-Bench press your bike while climbing on your local YMCA Stairmaster
-Run Tour de Stat repeats while shouldering your bike
-Partake in cyclocross, or other velo-masochistic pursuits
Being ‘off the couch’ sort-of-guys, we opted for neither and dove into the canyon head first, following the light to the end of the tunnel. It’s 2 to 3-hour climb through an earth history lesson: Desmoinesian, Missourian, Paradox formation ... entrapping fossilized brachiopods … for those with a keen eye, the geology is staggering. Earth science not your jam? If it makes you feel any better, they say the walk down sucks more. We’ll leave that for someone else to ground truth, (please share your experience with us in the comment section below).
The trail finally spit us out on the mesa’s surface where we unpacked, dried out and repacked in preparation for one final challenge. The short but mighty, Moki Dugway is registered as a National Scenic Byway, folding over itself as it climbs 1,200 feet in three miles to the plateau. The following morning we set our sites north and pedaled up the Dugway and back to the truck, with Bears Ears twin summits bobbing over the Byway.
Back at the rig, gear was once again spilled out on the parking lot. I kicked a peculiar stone in the gravel: convex on one side, carved out on the other. I picked it up, spun it in my palm and recognized it was fossilized shell from eons ago. The Utah desert … it’s full of hidden gems. Bears Ears is perhaps the pearl washed up from the ancient marine environment. I smiled, tucked the stone in my shirt pocket to show the kids back at home, certain to return in search of more hidden treasures.