A few weeks ago, our office had the opportunity to go on a guided tour with Sunrise Outfitting, a local guide based in Blanding, UT, who runs guided OHV tours throughout Bears Ears National Monument and the surrounding area. For our outing, the owner, Josh Nielson, suggested Arch Canyon- a popular OHV & jeep route through a beautiful canyon with countless archaeological sites.
As those of you who follow my blog may remember, I don’t own an ATV or OHV myself, but I’ve been known to bum a ride or two over the years! In fact, one of the first rides I bummed was on the Arch Canyon trail ride during the 2011 San Juan ATV Safari. It was an awesome ride and a beautiful canyon, so I was excited for the opportunity to go back with one of our local guides. (You can read about my first Arch Canyon ride HERE)
Since I had been on this trail, I thought I knew what was in store for us the morning we met up with Josh, but I was extremely excited to see that he does Arch Canyon a slightly different way, which added a level of excitement that I wasn’t expecting.
Josh had brought two OHVs, one that he would drive, and one that we could take turns driving. We started out on a gravel county road, and before dropping down toward Arch Canyon, we made a quick stop at an overlook for an awesome archaeological site that was just off the road. The site was tucked in an alcove, and from a distance appeared to be very well preserved. This site was not signed, and there was no interpretive information for visitors, so unless you knew where you were going, you’d likely never come across this site on your own… one of the many advantages to going out with a guide!
I’d always heard about ‘Old Hwy 95’, (Also known as the Comb Ridge Dugway) which was built in the 40s to transport uranium. You can see the cut of the road in Comb Ridge from the west side, but I’d never been on it. We found out that morning that we’d be starting the ride off the Cottonwood Rd, and dropping down the Comb Ridge Dugway to access Arch Canyon.
Josh told us that this road was constructed to haul uranium from the Happy Jack Mine near Hite and what’s now Lake Powell, which is really hard to imagine when you see the road. People think the Moki Dugway is bad, but it has NOTHING on this road! The Moki Dugway is unpaved but it’s very well maintained and is plenty wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other… The Comb Ridge Dugway, on the other hand… I can’t even imagine how two vehicles, let alone two large trucks, would pass each other on it. And to think that this road was used until the current Hwy 95 (Bicentennial Highway) was paved in 1976 completely blows my mind!
The view from the top as we passed through Comb Ridge was absolutely beautiful. One of my favorite parts of the drive out toward Cedar Mesa is when you pass through Comb Ridge on Hwy 95, and the view from the top of this road was equally spectacular! I actually really enjoyed the fact that we were moving at a much slower speed, so we had a chance to take it in a little more than when you’re on Hwy 95.
Once you get to the bottom of the road through Comb Ridge, it’s just a short drive to the trailhead for the Arch Canyon Trail. There’s a large staging area at the trailhead, which is just barely off Hwy 95, and this is the more common starting point for Arch Canyon. But if you’re looking to add some excitement and an amazing view to your ride, you can always come down the Comb Ridge Dugway like we did!
One of the first things you come to when you start down the trail into Arch Canyon is an archaeological site. At first glance it seems like a small site, but as you walk along the base of the cliff wall, Josh pointed out how extensive the site once was. You can see marks in the cliff wall where logs were once secured, possibly for a roof or higher floors.
In addition to the structures, there are also quite a few petroglyphs and some pictographs at this site. At first, the petroglyphs (images etched into the rock) are a little hard to spot since there isn’t much patina on the rock wall for color differentiation, but the longer you look at it, the more and more you begin to see.
As we continued down the trail, Josh stopped several times and got out binoculars and a telescope to show us other archaeological sites nestled high in the canyon walls. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been in this canyon before on one of the rides during the San Juan ATV Safari, but I didn’t see a fraction of the sites that Josh pointed out to us. Each time he’d stop, I’d immediately start scanning the cliff walls trying to find the site before he showed it to us.
We also stopped at a site that we could actually hike right up to. It was a small structure, but the inside of it was unlike any structure I’ve seen before with what appeared to be shelves built into the walls, which was really cool.
By the time we got to the end of the motorized trail/jeep road, which is about 7.5 miles up the canyon, the vegetation had changed quite a bit. Rather than the Cottonwood trees that were near the trailhead, this area had lots of tall Ponderosa Pine trees, which create a nice, shady spot for lunch. At the end of the motorized trail, there’s a big turnaround spot, a picnic table, and a view of Cathedral Arch- one of the arches that Arch Canyon is named for.
For anyone who would like to continue up the canyon, only hiking and horseback riding are allowed past this point. Just about a half mile farther up the canyon is Angel Arch, and about 2 more miles past that is Keystone Arch. After enjoying our lunches, we turned around and did the trail in reverse, although it was a much quicker ride out of the canyon since we had made all our stops on the way in.
Although Arch Canyon is one of our more popular OHV trails, I think we only came across 2-3 other groups that day- one as we were about halfway out of Arch Canyon, and a few 4-wheelers as we were driving up the Comb Ridge Dugway. It took a little maneuvering to make room to pass the 4-wheelers on the Dugway, so it’s completely beyond me how two regular sized vehicles would have passed each other!
We had a wonderful day with Sunrise Outfitting, and I was so glad that we had the opportunity to experience their guided tours. I really love how Josh includes the Comb Ridge Dugway/Old Hwy 95 as part of his tours of Arch Canyon- I think it gives visitors a really good taste of the diversity of trails in San Juan County, and a little bit of history too since I’m sure most visitors would have no idea that it was the old highway! I know I definitely learned a few things from Josh that day!
Bears Ears National Monument has been in the news so much in the past 5-6 years partially due to the controversy over the boundaries, and we know that there are many people who have already come, or are interested in visiting it. However, I think people are a little surprised when they arrive and find that it’s not the typical National Monument experience with an entrance station, visitor center, park brochures & maps, etc. Since there isn’t a park brochure listing all the hikes and points of interest that you can pick up once you arrive to help you plan your visit, you need to do your research before you come to make the most out of your time.
If you’re interested in visiting Bears Ears National Monument, but not really sure where to start, I’d definitely recommend going out with one of our local guides, like Sunrise Outfitting. They are local experts who are passionate about showing people the amazing things San Juan County, UT has to offer, and they are also equally passionate about helping to teach visitors how to visit with respect so that this area can continue to be enjoyed by others long into the future.
Visit our website for more information on local Guides & Outfitters.