15 Sep Fish & Owl Canyon Loop at Bears Ears National Monument
You’ve either read or heard all about it. Yeah, I’m talkin’ about the controversy of Bears Ears National Monument in Southeast Utah. Since the 1990’s, when President Bill Clinton was holding down the Oval Office, this chunk of lifetime adventure has been staying afloat in choppy political waters that just don’t seem to want to settle.
Things started to look up when in 2016 good ol’ President Obama cached the monument to be maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. Today, this protected area includes the epic adventure sites of the Valley of the Gods, Indian Creek Canyon and the Dark Canyon Wilderness. Despite conservation efforts, Bears Ears National Monument continues to be tossed to and fro between the argument for better protection of its public lands versus the mining and development of it. But, the mere fact that it’s been the center of recent attention has, in lieu, brought folks from all stretches of the globe to it’s deep and plunging canyons and sprawling plateaus of sagebrush.
This goes to show that any publicity, the pretty and the ugly, is actually good publicity.
On 1 September, Andriy and I embarked on an ambitious three day adventure to Bears Ears National Monument. From Albuquerque, the scenic ride was about five hours and straight due North on US-550. This is one of those Google Maps locations that truly takes you to the place you want to go, so I suggest using the app.
Once we hit Utah, we climbed a massive plateau that overlooks the Valley of the Gods. The valley presents magnificent views with tall and reddish sandstone mesas, mushrooms rocks and pinnacles.
A few miles down State Route 261, which is a single paved and two-lane road through the monument lands, we eventually made it to the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. The station was closed on account we arrived at 1 p.m. Beware that the ranger station is open from 8 a.m. to noon during two seasons that run from March 1st through June 15th and from September 1st through October 31st. We were one of a few couples to start off the first day of the last season of the year with an overnight ruck.
The park ranger on duty was just checking out when we arrived, but was kind to hang back for another 15 minutes in order to issue us an overnight backpacking permit and brief us on the do’s and don’t’s while in Cedar Mesa. The do’s and don’t’s were presented to us in a ten minute 1990’s era film.
- Stay on the beaten path; don’t walk over or through living cryptobiotic soil (the dark crust you’ll see growing over sand. This organism is a naturally occurring phenomenon meant to protect sand.
- Definitely do not bathe in water holes (we’re talking full body plunge, here), because it’s believed that sunscreen and other chemical body products can deem the water undrinkable. This becomes a HUGE danger to wildlife that depend on these small sources of H2O during the high and dry summer season.
- Make sure you boil collected water for about 4-5 minutes to kill amoeba and other bacterias. Boiling will also help separate the harsh minerals and dirt to the bottom of the pot, which provides one a cleaner drink. Or you can use a water filter. We used the Sawyer squeeze water filtration system.
- No fires.
- And last, but most important, whatever you pack in, you bet your ass you better pack out.
I will say that Andriy and I have become very accustomed to clean and pristine trails. New Mexico has some of the cleanest backcountry nature we’ve ever experienced. This little pocket of Utahn wilderness at Cedar Mesa passed our critical eye. I think I only packed out one piece of burnt tent that a recent hiker had left before us. For context, you should have seen my bear cache after we hiked the Middle Fork Trailhead in Sequoia National Park, California during spring 2017. I was loaded down with other people’s trash and in bear country, no less!
After we were issued our $10 permit, we made way for Fish & Owl Loop Trailhead. The trail is about five miles southeast from the ranger station. True to what the park ranger told us, the trailhead was situated with an outhouse and a clearing at which to park.
Then, we rucked up, slathered on our sunscreen and hit the trail, starting off with Fish Canyon to make things interesting. According to the ranger, most folks start off with taking Owl Canyon because the descension is easier.
We walked a few miles when we came to the canyon bluff where we found a thin synthetic rope tied to a sturdy juniper tree that dangled about 12 feet above a gravel trail. At the end of the rope was a carabiner used to lower one’s ruck before descending oneself. After our decent, we hiked down another approximate 500 feet and two-hours worth of slickrock. We followed switchback cairns and raced against the setting sun, but finally made it to the banks of a large pour-off by dusk. We set up camp.
We used GPS mapping to lead us through Fish & Owl Canyons, and it is suggested you do the same or bring an accurate map. Cairns are not reliable for orienteering.
For three days and two nights, we routed through 17 miles of abundant scenic beauty. We witnessed the majesty of Nevill’s Arch that juts from a sandstone fin (a thin blade) in Owl Creek Canyon and crossed bushels of the rare kachina daisy; painted pink on its tips and white at its petal base.
Toward the end of our ruck, like a musical crescendo, we finally came upon the Owl Canyon archaeological site, and one of many on Cedar Mesa. I was waiting for this very moment the entire trip, it seemed. Anything having to do with archaeology just absolutely blows my mind and I take great effort to learn and divulge in it whenever I bear witness.
This particular alcove was occupied during the Archaic Period (6500 – 1500 B.C.); a time of hunters and gatherers. These people migrated seasonally following food sources and so left little behind in terms of architecture. After the hunters and gatherers, life started to become more sedentary and thus came the Basketmakers (1500 B.C. – 750 A.D.) and then the Ancestral Puebloans (750 – 1300 A.D.). The people of both periods lived, farmed, worshiped and died at Cedar Mesa, leaving behind their impressively preserved ancient structures and pictographs.
The structures pictured, exhibit advanced masonry of that time. The food items that may have been stored in them, such as squash and corn, required complicated irrigation systems to grow in abundance. Archaeologists theorize that these structures were built between 1150 – 1270 A.D.; during the Puebloan period, and were indeed storage units because there is a lack of soot on the ceilings to indicate fire.
On the alcove ceiling are pictographs consisting of 21 handprints and a zigzag. The paint used to make them is red and pink and was generally created with pigment derived from hematite (a type of iron crystal) and red ochre. What has caused the pictographs to stay for so long, as if painted merely yesterday, is the sticky substance with which the paint was made: like animal fats, pinion gum, the root of the yucca and a naturally occurring chemical reaction that permanently adhered the paint to the rock.
The special experience about the ruins of Bears Ears National Monument Cedar Mesa is that they are not guarded like many ancient archaeological sites are throughout America. This is what adds to the diversity in outdoor recreation experiences at Bears Ears National Monument, but I can’t help but think that this public openness will soon be the demise of such precious history.
Here is a neat travel vlog that the hubs and I made about our trip.
Things we’d do differently
We would bring about 15 liters (five gallons) of water instead of just the 11 liters (three gallons) we started off with. We had to fill up by collecting on the beaten path and from some pretty muddy sources. We collected about a half gallon, which seemed to get us through the last leg of our hike (five miles of pure slickrock ascension). After we made the canyon bend from Fish into Owl, the pour-offs become rather scarce as well as the shade, and Andriy and I were hurting bad for H2O.
The topographic map that we used was downloaded from the app Hiking Project by REI. Although, it was accurate with trail information, it missed detail that was essential to the success of our trip: like the fact that it didn’t state ranger station hours, season dates, permitting laws/regulations or specifics about carrying your own water. We’ve since updated the app with our insights.
I would also check out the forecast before your hike (this should be practiced before any outdoor adventure, anyway). The best time to visit Fish & Owl Canyon is after a nice heavy rain, so that there is water in the creeks and pour-offs.
Things we’d do the same
We’d take this ruck on the first day of the last season (September 1st through October 31st). It’s still hotter than all hell in Utah during September, but it’s not as hot as you’d experience it in June. And because it is still hot in September, you’re less likely to see other folks manning the trail; if you like that desolate wilderness experience, that is. As we rucked, we only met two other couples on our very last day. We spent two days and two nights alone under the scorching sun and silver stars, which is how we love it.
We’d also take Fish Canyon again versus Owl Canyon as recommended, because the lapel experience was rather gratifying as compared to an upward scramble if we had done the opposite. But this is a matter of preference, mind you.
In sum, visiting Bears Ears National Monument Cedar Mesa is a challenge to orienteering and primitive camping and requires seasoned hiking skills. Keep in mind that there are the fewest human made amenities possible on this loop. If you love it this way, just like we do, then believe you me that you’ll find hog heaven at Bears Ears National Monument.
Visit the Bears Ears National Monument, Cedar Mesa, and Fish & Owl Canyon Loop website for more informaiton.