Updated: Sep 12, 2021
Have you ever wanted to drive between the Bears Ears, march up Elephant Hill in a 4x4, and explore the ancient wonders of the Ancestral Puebloans in Southern Utah? Well it sounds like you may have just stumbled upon Utah's most wondrously awesome overland route.
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 264 miles, 6 -10 days
Season: June to November typically (check with local land managers for snow conditions at higher elevations).
Avg Trail Rating: 3 Peak Trail Rating: 5
Typical Terrain: Numerous rocky, tight, and moderately technical jeep tracks, graded forest service roads, and lots of cliffside exposure, especially at the beginning of the route.
Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 with 2" lift and 33" all terrain tires. High roof vehicles (trucks with pop top campers) not advised for the Squeeze section of Elephant Hill. Recommended Gear: Bring extra fuel and plenty of water, especially if you plan to hike to one of the many historical sites. Given the remoteness of this track, it's highly recommended that you travel with at least one other vehicle and have your recovery gear in order.
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s not recommended.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route details for more info. Permits: You will need to buy a vehicle pass when driving through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park (near Elephant Hill). Because less than 20 miles of the route is within Canyonlands NP we don't recommend reserving a backcountry permit (required for overnight stays), unless you plan to camp within the park. If you plan on hiking to the Moon House ruins, you'll need to obtain a permit from the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (BLM). All other ruins in Bears Ears National Monument and the surrounding BLM and National Forest Land can be visited by the public without a permit.
Stretching from Moab to Mexican Hat, the Cedar Mesa Heritage Trail combines some of Utah's most iconic trails, with incredible scenery and opportunities to explore the historical antiquities left by the Ancestral Puebloan people. Whether you're seeking out challenging trails, solitude in the desert, or exploring the ancient homes of the Puebloans, you won't be disappointed! The Ancestral Puebloans first arrived to the Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch region circa 2,000 years ago, and made their homes here for nearly 1,200 years until vacating their homes for Arizona and New Mexico, where their descendants live today. The Cedar Mesa region is one of the best places in the world for adventurers to experience the magnificence of ancient cultures within the New World. It was here that the Ancestral Puebloans grew crops on the sunbaked mesas, and found respite among their adobe houses in the shade of the red rocked canyons. The Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch region is home to hundreds of these ruins and ancient sites. OTG has marked some of the most spectacular and well preserved sites as discovery points. Many of the discovery points require deviating from the main route and hiking to these archaeological sites (if you plan to visit the Moon House, you'll need a permit from the BLM), so make sure you have your map or navigation device handy! In December of 2016, President Obama designated over 1.3 million acres creating Bears Ears National Monument, protecting many of the ancient sites. Less than one year later, President Trump reduced the size of the monument by over 1.1 million acres, removing the federal protections that many of these sites had gained just 11 months earlier. It is our duty as the general public to remember that these land and these locations hold a significant cultural and spiritual significance to the descendants of the Puebloans, and we must treat these sites with the utmost care and respect.
Most will travel the route starting in Moab and working their way south to Mexican Hat. The route begins with a famed section of trail known as Chicken Corners. The trail has some of the best views of canyon country in Moab as you make your way along the trail with the mighty Colorado River 500 feet below. Chicken Corners is a popular trail, and you can expect to see your fair share of 4x4s, OHVs, motos, mountain bikes, and people traveling by foot. This section of trail qualifies as mildly technical, but a stock 4x4 should be able to manage the trail with ease. The Birthing Scene petroglyph (DP3), not far from the route's start, is your first opportunity to experience the ancient Puebloan culture. The walls that envelop Kane Creek begin to open up, and the trail begins to ascend up the mesa, until reaching Hurrah Pass (DP5) with its incredible vistas of the snaking canyons, sunbaked bluffs and mesas. As you drop down towards the Colorado, the trail meanders and zigs and zags between the river and the base of Hatch Point as you make your way towards Lockhart Basin.
You can expect the trail traffic to die down dramatically as you make your way towards Lockhart Basin, as most trail users on Chicken Corners are only there for a day trip. Things are also going to get a bit more technical along this section of trail, so expect your rate of speed to drop quite a bit. See if you can spot the Needles Overlook above you on your way to Highway 211. Lockhart Basin concludes at Highway 211, for a short stint on pavement. If your vehicle doesn't have an auxiliary tank, we recommend refueling at the Needles Outpost Campground. The next 20 or so miles also pass through lands managed by Canyonlands National Park, which will require that you purchase a park pass. If you intend to camp in the park, you'll also need to obtain a backcountry pass. A few short miles on pavement later, you'll be on dirt again, Elephant Hill to be precise (DP6).
Elephant Hill is one of Canyonlands most infamous trails, and for good reason. It's got magnificent hoodoos and sandstone rock formations. Then throw in features like the Squeeze and Devil's Lane, and you've got one heck of a trail! Oh yeah, there's one turn that's so tight you'll need to reverse in order to make it (you'll probably want to leave the trailer at home for this one). Elephant Hill is filled with rocks and small ledges, so once again, you can expect your rate of travel to slow to a crawl. Then there's the Squeeze (DP7), a tight section of trail between two vertical rocks that provides just enough room for a full size truck to squeeze through. It's a one-way section of trail that has been filled in and leveled in recent years to minimize the risks of vehicle damage, but a small overhang makes passage for high roof vehicles ( trucks with campers) nearly impossible without sustaining some sort of damage. After making your way through the Squeeze, Devil's Lane (DP8) provides a plethora of interesting rock formations. From Devil's Lane you'll make your way to Bobby's Hole, and then to the extremely remote Beef Basin (DP9). The roads are rocky and bumpy, so again the going will be slow. Beef Basin and Horse Mountain are both extremely remote regions in Southern Utah, so make sure you've brought plenty of food, water, and fuel. The hustle and bustle of Moab is far behind you at this point, and you may not see another traveler for hours, or even days if you're traveling during the week. The wide open-ness of the desert seems to vibrate with spiritual energy through the mountains and canyons-- or perhaps that's just the ancient Puebloans welcoming you to their ancestral homeland. The farm house ruin and tower ruin are both easily accessible from the road, and are a great introduction for what's to come as you make your way south into the heart of Bears Ears National Monument.
The route gradually climbs and wraps around the butte of Horse Mountain. If you've got plenty of fuel, you may wish to take Elk Ridge Road, which cuts off nearly 50 miles of trail but also skips a refueling opportunity in Blanding. Even if you need to refuel, consider making an out-and-back trip to Big Notch, which has incredible views of the canyon lands and parched red landscape. The manicured dirt that leads to the Chippean Rocks (DP10) and down into Blanding could be driven by a two wheel drive vehicle in dry conditions. As you descend towards Blanding, West Mountain towers above you at 11,018 feet. The primary purpose for heading into Blanding is for fuel, but for those interested in learning more about the Bears Ears region and the Ancestral Puebloans who once lived here, should pay a visit to the Edge of the Cedars Museum (DP11), which has a plethora of artifacts on display.
From Blanding, make your way back into the mountains to Elk Ridge Road. Along the way be sure to make a stop at the impressive Over-Under Ruins (DP12), which does entail a short and steep hike into the canyon below. You can expect your rate of travel to pick up as most of the roads and trails out this way are a bit more well kept (not quite as rugged), compared to the trails from Moab through Canyonlands National Park and Beef Basin. However, there are literally hundreds of ancient sites and ruins in the surrounding canyons, so while your average speed is likely to pick up while driving, keep in mind you'll likely be spending quite a bit more time outside of the vehicle exploring. You've probably at least heard of Bears Ears before coming across our route guide, but you're in for a surreal experience, as you'll literally drive between the two buttes that that form the Bears Ears (DP13). South of the Bears Ears East and West, lies the heart of Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch, with their hundreds of ruins. You'll need to deviate from the main route to explore many of these sites, and expect some hiking, but nothing to strenuous in terms of length. Some of the most impressive and unique ruins include Kiva Ruin (DP14), House on Fire (DP15), Butler Wash Ruins (DP16), the Citadel (DP17) and the Moon House (DP18, requires a permit). If you're a history buff, you may want to spend a bit more time along this section of the route. One could spend literally months exploring the canyons in search of ruins, artifacts, and ancient sites, and if you meet a local, they may just fill you in on some of their favorite locations. Remember to treat these ancient sites with the respect and care they deserve.
The final leg of the journey traverses through Valley of the Gods (DP20), which has a very similar look and vibe with Monument Valley to the south. Unlike Monument Valley, Valley fo the Gods is on BLM land, so you won't need to reserve a Navajo guide to explore the dirt roads here. Your final discovery point is at Muley Point Overlook (DP21), which affords a nice view of the San Juan River. But if you're still up for some additional exploring, consider making the short hike over to the dancers panel. The cliff walls here feature a number of petroglyphs. As you make your way down the mesa along the dirt switchbacks of Moki Dugway, be sure to stop and catch a photo at the Valley of Gods Viewpoint. Soon enough you'll be back on pavement and headed to Mexican Hat, where this particular adventure concludes.
Those carrying extra fuel may wish to skip the section to Blanding, which primarily serves as a fuel stop along the route. Elk Ridge Road, and especially Big Notch affords fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, mesas and canyons. The out-and-back trip to Big Notch is worth it in itself. If you do decide to take Elk Ridge Road, you'll cut nearly 50 miles off the total length of the route. Elk Ridge Road is a designated scenic byway, so the dirt road is in relatively good condition.
Dispersed camping is permitted for most of the route, just keep in mind that if you plan to camp in Canyonlands National Park you will need to obtain a backcountry permit in advanced. In terms of recommended camp sites, this route is just to awe inspiring to create a short list of sites. Get out there and explore, and find a site that suits you. Just remember,
DP1 - Colorado River
DP2 - Tombstone Rock
DP3 - Birthing Scene Petroglyph
DP4 - Funnel Arch
DP5 - Hurrah Pass
DP6 - Elephant Hill
DP7 - The Squeeze
DP8 - Devil's Lane
DP9 - Beef Basin Road
DP10 - Chippean Rocks (West)
DP11 - Edge of the Cedars Museum
DP12 - Over Under Ruins
DP13 - Between the Bears Ears
DP14 - Kiva Ruin
DP15 - House on Fire Ruin
DP16 - Butler Wash Overlook Ruins
DP17 - Citadel Ruin
DP18 - Moon House Ruins
DP19 - Kachina Petroglyph Panel
DP20 - Valley of the Gods
DP21 - Muley Point Overlook
Maps + Navigation
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