Catching canyon fever in southeast Utah

Oct. 31—I go to canyon country to get my spirit realigned.

Wandering among towering rock formations during the day; staring up at thousands of stars in the silent desert night. A few circadian cycles like this and I feel back in balance.

Time puts everything into perspective, and it's a constant presence when visiting the spectacular landscapes of southeast Utah. Partnering with the natural elements, its works of art created over tens of millions of years are visible in the gaping canyons and colorful sandstone formations that are ubiquitous throughout the region.

The harsh environments imbued with beauty and wonder draw visitors in and, over time, keep them coming back.

I returned in mid-October to delve deeper into Canyonlands, one of my favorite national parks, and to experience a pair of national monuments — Bears Ears and Natural Bridges — for the first time. With the exceptional fall weather, relatively low volume of visitors and changing colors of the cottonwoods that dot parts of the landscape, I realized autumn is the optimal season for exploring these remote regions.

Such a rich region to explore

The Needles district of Canyonlands is about six and a half hours from Santa Fe and offers some of the best hiking opportunities to be found in any of Utah's five national parks. It also receives far fewer visitors than Arches National Park or the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands, which are both closer to Moab, meaning much less traffic on the trails.

Hiking along slickrock ledges, doing light scrambling up inclines, poking through slot canyons and walking among multi-colored sandstone spires that rise hundreds of feet above the red earth are part of what makes the Needles such a satisfying region to explore.

Druid Arch is a signature destination of the district. The 10.8-mile out-and-back hike provides one of the best views in the Needles. The 150-foot arch gets its name from its resemblance to Stonehenge monument in England and stands on a shelf in a canyon surrounded by tall cliffs and spires.

The last quarter mile involves a steep climb that includes a ladder and some scrambling to reach a viewpoint just below the arch, which isn't distinguishable as an arch during much of the approach. Upon arrival, I found a perch above the viewpoint with my back towards the concave cliff wall. As other hikers made the climb, the acoustics made it sound like they were next to me even though they were hundreds of feet away.

I heard a couple say, "Where is this arch? We've got to be getting close." Shortly thereafter came the incredulous laughter and expressions of astonishment. It's truly a sight to behold, possibly just one rung below Delicate Arch's iconic natural amphitheater in Arches National Park.

The next day, I hiked out to one of the less promoted but equally impressive Peekaboo Trail. The 10-mile out-and-back holds its own surprises.

The hike begins over a sandy grassland before reaching a high slickrock ridge. The view from atop the ridge reveals the tree-filled Lost Canyon below and an expanse of more canyons and rock formations in the distance.

The leaves on the cottonwoods in the canyon were turning from green to gold and provided a striking contrast of colors against the red and tan rocks.

The highlight of the hike was a long traverse of a couple of miles along high red sandstone benches that offered sweeping vistas of the canyons and formations below and the La Sal Mountains far in the distance to the northeast.

Centuries of Indigenous history live on today

Near the end of the long bench traverse, hikers pass through a small keyhole notch in a sandstone fin formation before descending into Salt Creek Canyon. At the end of the trail is a rock painting of white dots, shield figures and hand prints made by ancestral Puebloan people who inhabited the canyon from 1000 to 1300 A.D.

Centuries of Indigenous history can be seen throughout southeast Utah in countless petroglyphs, cliff dwellings and other ancient structures. There are an estimated 100,000 archaeological sites in Bears Ears National Monument alone.

Democratic President Barack Obama proclaimed 1,351,849 acres as Bears Ears National Monument in December of 2016 under the Antiquities Act of 1906, partially in response to the frequent looting of archaeological sites in the area in previous decades.

The next year, Republican President Donald Trump ordered an 85 percent reduction of Bears Ears and a 47 percent reduction of the 1.87 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in south-central Utah in a move seen as a victory for the energy and mining industries.

The decision boosted the visibility of the Bears Ears and led to campaigns and lawsuits by Native tribes and environmental organizations. In October 2021, Democratic President Joe Biden restored the original boundaries of both monuments.

Today, Bears Ears is co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the five tribes of the Bears Ears Commission who are working to protect the cultural and natural resources within the monument.

Bears Ears, which is named for a pair of distinct buttes that resemble the ears of a bear, is filled with deep sandstone canyons that are a thrill to explore. Though confined to the channel of the canyon, the ecosystems feel like they're continually changing. They can vary from bedrock bottoms with small pools and no vegetation to lush patches of tall grass that rise above shoulder height.

For me, the excitement of exploration is heightened by solitude. I hiked one canyon in Bears Ears for a couple of hours before seeing another person, following only cairns and faint footprints that suggested a route between the cliffs.

There are ancient structures, artifacts and petroglyphs from ancestral Puebloan people all over Bears Ears that date back 700 to 2,500 years. Most are not along well-marked paths with signage like at Bandelier National Monument, but they are still protected by law. Treat all cultural sites with care and respect and do not enter or touch structures or handle artifacts.

Awed by natural bridges

Entirely surrounded by Bears Ears, Natural Bridges National Monument is where I spent my final day in Utah. The 7,636-acre monument was designated by Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to protect the area's three massive natural bridges and was Utah's first national monument.

A nine-mile loop road allows visitors to drive to each bridge and view them from overlooks. But the best way to see them is from below.

Trails lead down from the canyon rim to each natural bridge and give a better feel for their sheer size. Sipapu Bridge is the longest in the park with a span of 225 feet, the 13th longest natural bridge span in the world.

The National Park Service notes that the difference between natural bridges and natural arches is that running water carves natural bridges, while seeping moisture and frost shape the arches.

A stream still runs below two of the three bridges and creates little oases in the white sandstone canyons.

Though covered in a coat of sunscreen, dirt, sand and sweat at the end of each hike, the trip to canyon country left me rejuvenated. Without cell service for nearly a week, I was able to disconnect from one world and connect with another.

When I was roaming the Needles, I came upon a group of six middle-aged to retirement-aged men who were resting in the shade at a viewpoint on their way back from Druid Arch. One experienced hiker said Canyonlands was his favorite place he's ever been and that the group had been meeting there every autumn for the past six years to go on adventures through the park's stunning landscapes together.

I think they may be on to something.