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.