What is Bears Ears? Take a look inside Utah’s new national monument

Treasure • An elaborate array of canyons, mesas and rock formations makes the Bears Ears buttes area unique and earns it federal protection.

Before an inter-tribal coalition attached the name Bears Ears to what has become the most debated national monument proposal in a generation, not many used that name for the archaeological sandstone wonderland bounded by the San Juan and Colorado rivers west of Blanding.

Nominally speaking, the Bears Ears are the twin buttes rising from Elk Ridge as it climbs from Cedar Mesa, so named for their resemblance to ears protruding from a bear's noggin. These sacred buttes are a small, though conspicuous, piece of this landscape. Their evocative name is now affixed to a stunning array of canyons, mesas and formations within the Bears Ears Buttes' orbit, along with the tens of thousands of archaeological sites tucked into cliffs and hidden in the canyon bottoms.

Bearing equally evocative names like Comb Ridge, Valley of the Gods, Grand Gulch, Natural Bridges, Moki Canyon and House on Fire, these places form a constellation of "attractions" that make these lands, for better or worse, a national treasure — and earned them protection as the Bears Ears National Monument.

Cedar Mesa

A sandstone uplift cut by countless sinuous canyons, Cedar Mesa contains the nation's most dense concentrations of artifacts and ancient cultural sites.

Hole-in-the-Rock Trail

| courtesy of National Park Service Steve Henry, a Nation Park Service backcounty ranger, visits Hole in the Rock, the famous trail cut by Mormon pioneer expedition to reach San Juan County in 1880, along with anthropologist Katie Brown, and Erik Stanfield, a cultural resource specialist for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Utah officials are interested in developing a new state park in part of Garfield County to commemorate the San Juan Expedition and enable bigger groups to visit.

Blazed by Mormon pioneers during the eponymous expedition of 1879-80, the Hole-in-the-Rock Trail crosses the mesa that is framed by Grand Gulch, Cottonwood Wash and the San Juan River.

House on Fire

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune House on Fire ruin, located in South Mule Canyon on Cedar Mesa, is among up to 100,000 archaeological sites within the Bears Ears region. A proposed national monument, which under consideration by President Obama at the urging of tribal groups, was the subject of dueling press conferences Tuesday. Backers say polling shows 70 percent of Utahns support a monument designation, while opponents in the Utah Legislature enlisted San Juan County Navajos to denounce the proposal.

One of Cedar Mesa's most accessible ruins, the aptly named House on Fire is a well-preserved Anasazi dwelling a short hike up Mule Canyon. The color variations on the rounded orange cliff face suggest flames and smoke billowing from ancient masonry.

Moon House

Moon House is the mesa's most captivating and well-preserved structure, dating to the 13th century, built near the end of the Anasazi occupation of Cedar Mesa.

Bears Ears Buttes

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune The Bears Ears mountain as seen from the Comb Ridge near Bluff, Utah, Thursday, December 29, 2016.

Twin mesas rising 9,000 feet above sea level on Elk Ridge in the Manti La Sal National Forest, the Bears Ears Buttes are visible for miles in every direction and are held sacred by several indigenous communities.

Comb Ridge

Native Americans have long called Comb Ridge, the sandstone escarpment running some 80 miles south of the Bears Ears, Mother Earth's Backbone.

Dark Canyon Wilderness

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Hiker negotiates a way in Dark Canyon Wilderness in San Juan County. The area is included for a proposed Bears Ears National Monument.

This 46,353-acre Dark Canyon Wilderness spills off Elk Ridge and covers Dark and Woodenshoe canyons' upper drainages, which cut through layers of sandstone and limestone. Its steep narrow walls block daylight in the morning and afternoon.

Fish and Owl Canyon

Fish and Owl creeks incise 500-foot-deep canyons draining the east side of Cedar Mesa. They are too narrow to support much human habitation, so they don't hold many cultural sites, but they are rich in geological features, such as Nevill's Arch in Owl Creek Canyon.

Valley of the Gods

Wind and waters sculpted a thick layer of Cedar Mesa sandstone into a massive hallway of multicolored formations with names like Lady in the Bathtub, Castle Butte, Battleship Rock and Setting Hen Butte. State Route 242 offers a tour among these remarkable features.

Indian Creek

The canyon, trailing along State Route 211 into Canyonlands National Park's Needles District, draws climbers to its hundreds of world-class crack-climbing routes.

Lockhart Basin

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Lockhart Basin, seen south of the Colorado River, falls within the boundary of the proposed Bears Ears region in southeastern Utah, which is subject to a possible National Monument designation by President Obama under the Antiquities Act for protection. EcoFlight recently flew journalists, tribal people and activists over the northern portion of the proposed 1.9 million acre site in an effort to push for permanent protection from impacts caused by resource extraction and high-impact public use.

Popular with motorized users and climbers, Lockhart Basin rests along the Colorado River opposite Canyonlands National Park. Cliffs of Wingate sandstone hem this area.

Grand Gulch

Grand Gulch is a major network of canyons that drain the south slope of Cedar Mesa and join San Juan River. It is considered an "outdoor museum" because Native American artifacts and ruins dating back 1,2000 years abound here, tucked along the cliffs. Visitors should stop at the BLM's Kane Gulch Ranger Station to get permits and learn conditions before venturing into Grand Gulch and other canyons.

Arch Canyon

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Arch Canyon in San Juan County is a consideration for Wilderness proposal. Senior staff members from Utah Senator Bob Bennett's office met with commissioners from San Juan county, BLM Kane Gulch field office managers, SUWA and various other organizations May 5, 2010 in Monticello to discuss Wilderness Proposals for San Juan County.

This canyon is named for three major formations: Cathedral, Angel and Keystone arches.

Cheesebox Canyon

Cheesebox is the largest of the many canyons off White Canyon falling off the Abajo foothills. Canyoneers explore its narrow sections, which are permanently filled with water in some place and broke up by numerous pour overs.

Mancos Mesa

About 200 miles of canyons wind through Mancos Mesa, an island in the sky overlooking Lake Powell. It was proposed for wilderness in the PLI.

Bluff Bench

This is the scenic bluff northeast of Bluff where hoodoos and ruins are within sight of proposed oil and gas wells.

Excluded from final monument boundaries

Moki Canyon

Ancient Native Americans once populated Moki Canyon, but its lower reaches are now inundated by the waters of Lake Powell. Its upper reaches remain a popular destination for hikers.

The Abajo Mountains

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Fall leaves at peak color on the east side of the Abajo Mountains west of Monticello in San Juan County. The area is included for a proposed Bears Ears National Conservation Area.

The Abajos rise above Monticello to an elevation of more than 11,000 feet.