Southeastern Utah has been in the news, big time, lately. The area that encompasses and surrounds Bears Ears National Monument is a focal point in the debate over public lands in the United States. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go there. While the politicians grandstand, the protesters protest and the lawsuits fly, it’s still one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth, and if you’ve been wondering what all the fuss is about, well, it’s about wonder. Capital “W” Wonder. In an area long famous for such, the best launching pad for an exploration of all this uppercase Wonder, splendor and peaceful scenery that didn’t do anything but be beautiful and serene, is Bluff, Utah. The town boosters are billing themselves as the “Gateway to Bears Ears” and rolling out the welcome wagon for curious visitors who don’t give a hoot what the politicians say—they’re in it for the Wonder.
Where the heck is Bluff?
Bluff is a cute little town at the darn-near bottom of Utah on US Highway 191. For Salt Lakers who often stop in Moab for their S. Utah adventures, it’s about two hours further. The area was initially settled by Silas S. Smith, an early church leader and nephew of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. Asked to settle the area around the San Juan River, Smith led a party of 200-plus on an expedition to start a farming community in southeastern Utah. After forging more than 200 miles over difficult terrain, the settlers arrived on the site of Bluff in April of 1880. The town is situated beneath its namesake Bluffs and the Twin Rocks formation. Tucked in below the beautiful red cliffs, it was a welcome sheltered spot after a hard journey.
Over the years, it’s been an outpost for folks recreating in the region and film crews who came to make movies amid the splendor of nearby Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods (see sidebar). Bluff is also located on the bottom corner of a loop that takes you around the Cedar Mesa area, where the disputed Bears Ears National Monument is primarily located.
Feel the Hozho
Bluff’s proximity to the Navajo Nation means that there is a strong Navajo feel to the town. On the surface, this just means you’ll see lots of native art on display and most of the local business are staffed with Navajo workers. But it’s more than that. The locals call it Hozho which is one of those Navajo words that can only loosely be translated into English but is a concept of peace, balance, beauty and harmony with the passage of time. Bluff’s modern history is typical of a settlement of the frontier, but its’ prehistoric history reaches back, way back. You can truly feel the Ho´zho´ when you consider that more than 1,000 years ago in the area surrounding Bluff there was a thriving population of what are loosely known as Ancestral Puebloans. They built cliff dwellings in the canyons of Cedar Mesa starting around 650 AD. This period ended around 1300 AD, when this ancient people left, likely in response to a multi-year drought, and dispersed throughout the region, leaving their dwellings, pottery and many other artifacts preserved in the dry desert air.
Southeast Utah is still a little rough on the dining front, but there is one bright spot. Duke’s at the Desert Rose Inn (701 Main St, Bluff, Utah, desertroseinn.com, 888-475-7673) has a lovely patio and a menu of seasonal fare. Your other option is the Twin Rocks Cafe (913 East, Navajo Twins Drive, Bluff) open year-round and located below the eponymous rock formation that marks the entrance to Bluff. Both spots have a liquor license, with beer and wine available while dining. On that subject, Southeastern Utah, while not quite dry, is parched. Blanding does not allow alcohol sales at all, for example, so plan accordingly. For a good cup of coffee and light menu, try Comb Ridge Bistro & Espresso Bar (680 Main St, Bluff, 435-485-5555)
There is a lot to explore in the area surrounding Bluff. First on the list is Cedar Mesa, which can be accessed by a collection of highways that make up a scenic loop running through Bluff and the other towns of the region. The scenic loop made up of US Highway 163, Utah Highway 261, Utah Highway 95 and US Highway 191 is the main pathway to explore the area. While these are all paved roads, if you want to head deeper into Cedar Mesa (and you will) you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle with 4WD, or you got the rental insurance, right?
A good place to start is the Kane Gulch Ranger Station (Utah Highway 261, 435-587-1500). It’s open from 8 a.m. to noon daily from March 1 through June 15 and Sept. 1 through Oct. 31. It’s located in the heart of Cedar Mesa near the Grand Gulch Trailhead and is an excellent resource for information. Permits for the backcountry can be obtained here as well. BLM officials at the station are somewhat taciturn about archaeological sites in the area. There are several spots that are well known, like Butler Wash and House on Fire, and rangers will happily direct you to these areas. But you can expect them to be tight-lipped about other sites in accordance with regulations regarding antiquities. The BLM walks a high-wire between protecting these sites from vandals and its role as a steward of public lands. Basically, do some homework, talk to fellow hikers, be a curious and open-minded traveler and all will be revealed. Also, get some good maps, USG maps are sold at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station and can be ordered through the Canyonlands Natural History Association (800-840-8978).
Along the loop, you will find Valley of the Gods, a stunning collection of beautiful spires and bluffs. The Valley is well-signed and accessible by a graded dirt loop road. Depending on which way you drive the loop across Cedar Mesa you will either go up or down the Moqui Dugway, a spectacular climb up to the mesa’s top. This graded-dirt road is a nail-biter for sure with steep drop-offs and only open to vehicles that can navigate its hairpin turns—sorry RV owners.
Religiously wear sunscreen, a large brimmed hat and light long sleeves are better than a tank top. There are many exposed areas and temperatures even in spring soar into the 90s. Pack plenty of water and drink it often.
There are several roadside inns and guesthouses in Bluff, but the best of the bunch is the Desert Rose Inn (701 Main St, Bluff, Utah, desertroseinn.com, 888-475-7673), a modern well-appointed full service hotel. The Desert Rose is a comfortable place to come home to at night. Recapture Lodge (250 Main St, Bluff, recapturelodge.com, 435-672-2281) is a some-frills, less-expensive option with various room configurations. It offers a trail system to explore the San Juan River and family play areas. Recapture Lodge also owns the Adams House, a renovated historic home in Bluff that is well-suited to larger groups and families.