By: Susan Munroe
Planning a San Juan River trip this summer? Looking for other local attractions and activities to enhance your experience? Look no further. The San Juan River is a long way from anywhere, but it flows through a region that is rich in archaeology, stunning rock formations, and endless desert wilderness. We’ve developed a list of some of the area’s best attractions within the towns of Bluff and Blanding, Utah, and a 2-hour driving radius beyond: scenic drives, museums, hiking trails of all lengths, archaeological sites, canyons, overlooks, and stargazing. Arrive a day or two early or spend a few days after your trip to really explore the Four Corners region. Or just pick a couple of quick leg-stretching stops along your route to or from home.
Blanding, Utah: Things to Do and Places to Explore
Right in town:
Blanding, Utah, is home to three different museums. Each one addresses a different element of the region’s rich prehistory as well as more modern history. The Dinosaur Museum presents the “complete history of the world of dinosaurs,” including a collection of dinosaur eggs and the newest research on dinosaur skin and feathers.
The Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum has the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery on display in the Four Corners area. It’s situated on the site of an ancient village; a kiva and other structures can also be seen on the property. Check out their website for the most up-to-date info on events near your trip date.
The Nations of Four Corners Cultural Center is an expansive (and free!) trail system that includes “villages” and structures from the many cultural groups that have called the Four Corners home: Navajo, Paiute, and Ute Indians, along with Hispanic settlers and European pioneers.
On the outskirts of Blanding, Utah:
Little Westwater Ruin (or Five Kiva Pueblo) is an easily visited Ancestral Puebloan site just on the edge of town. Tucked into the rimrock of Westwater Creek Canyon, it’s a steep but short hike right up into the alcove where the majority of the structures sit. This is not a well-preserved ruin, due to its proximity to town and heavy visitation. Please do your part to prevent it from deteriorating further by not climbing on or touching the walls or removing anything from the site.
Bluff, Utah: Things to Do and Places to Explore
Right in town:
The best resource for any self-guided excursions in this region might just be the Bears Ears Education Center on Bluff’s Main Street. Bluff, Utah, is one of the primary service towns for the new (and highly controversial) national monument, and this free education center creates the opportunity for visitors to plan their trip into the monument and learn how to visit it with respect.
The town of Bluff itself has a fascinating history. Founded by Mormon pioneers who arrived as part of the harrowing “Hole-in-the-Rock” expedition, the original 1880 Bluff townsite and several buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. You can download a map for a self-guided history tour here. One of the stops on the tour is the Bluff Fort Historic Site, which has an original historic cabin and wagon used by the Mormon pioneers.
Cow Canyon Trading Post is the place to shop for or simply admire the work of local Indigenous artists.
On the outskirts of Bluff, Utah:
The Bluff Great House is an archaeological site that is remarkable for its connection to the civilization that constructed Chaco Canyon, over 100 miles away. This “outlier” Chacoan-style structure has been largely backfilled during earlier archaeological excavations, but at least one structure has been shored up and roofed, and interpretive signs at the site explain what is buried under the soil. It’s possible to find pottery sherds, too, but please leave all such artifacts where you find them.
Check out the rock art panels at Sand Island, the launching point for upper San Juan River trips. The panels stretch for several hundred feet along the river and include art from 3,000 to 300 years old. There’s also a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campground here with restrooms, picnic tables, and running water.
Pull over for a quick leg-stretching break at Wilson Arch. Visible from Highway 191, it’s also possible to scramble up onto the arch’s base. If you didn’t stop at Arches National Park, this is a great photo opportunity that is way less crowded than the Delicate Arch.
Turn west off of Highway 191 to explore the Canyon Rims Recreation Area. This 100,000-acre-plus chunk of public (BLM) land includes two primitive campgrounds and four spectacular overlooks. The Needles Overlook is especially dramatic, situated 1,600 feet above the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Simply enjoy the scenic drive, or check in with the BLM about hiking and backpacking options.
If you have a few days to really go deep into Canyonlands National Park, the Needles are the closest district to Blanding and Bluff. Check in at the visitor center (34 miles west of Highway 191) to get information and suggestions for hikes and other activities. Backcountry camping permits must be obtained well in advance.
Newspaper Rock, an iconic petroglyph panel and Utah State Historic Monument, is a 12-mile detour off of Highway 191. Follow the shady, winding course of Indian Creek to the well-marked site and marvel at the almost 2,000 years of human expression preserved in the rock.
To the East
Hovenweep National Monument straddles the Utah–Colorado border and includes six prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan villages. Exceptionally well-preserved masonry structures perch on canyon rims, connected by hiking trails and high-clearance 4×4 roads. An International Dark Sky Park, Hovenweep is only an hour’s drive from Blanding and Bluff, but we recommend spending at least half a day to truly get a sense of its scale. The monument has one first-come, first-served campground.
If you aren’t tired of archaeology yet and have a couple of days to fill, the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with an estimated 30,000 sites! Start with a visit to the visitor center and museum, near Cortez, Colorado, to get oriented, and always treat archaeological sites with respect.
After a day spent wandering through the dust of canyons and archaeological sites, stop at Sutcliffe Vineyards, just over the border in Colorado. The tasting room of this “idiosyncratic” winery is open from noon to 5 p.m. daily. Its location alone—deep in McElmo Canyon, in the shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain—makes it worth the trip.
Fulfill your dream of standing in four states at once at the Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park. An hour’s drive from Bluff, Utah, this park is on Navajo land. There are no amenities at the park (be sure to bring your own food and water and appropriate clothing for the weather), but there is a vendor market where you can purchase artwork directly from Navajo artisans.
The iconic red pillars and monoliths of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park can be explored via a 17-mile scenic loop drive (permits must be obtained from the visitor center ahead of time) or on a guided tour with a Navajo outfitter.
The world’s first International Dark Sky Park, Natural Bridges National Monument, is also home to three sandstone bridges that stretch across White Canyon. Hiking options include ten-minute strolls to scenic overlooks or all-day excursions into and along the length of the canyon. Stay for the night in the first-come, first-served campground and experience some of the best stargazing in the state.
Explore a “miniature Monument Valley” at Valley of the Gods. Drive the 17-mile gravel loop through an unearthly landscape of red towers and sandstone fins. No permits or fees are required, although there are companies that offer daytime and sunset tours. Dispersed camping is also possible along the road. Please be prepared to carry out all of your waste, including human waste.
Check out one of North America’s best examples of an entrenched meander at Goosenecks State Park. If you’re joining us for a full-length or lower San Juan River trip, this park provides a bird’s-eye view of the canyon you’ve just traveled (or will soon be traveling!). Stare down at the river, more than 1,000 feet below, or stare up into the night sky; Goosenecks is one of Utah’s 21 International Dark Sky Parks.
Depending on which way you’re driving either to or from your river trip, consider Utah State Route 261. Part of the “Trail of the Ancients” Scenic Byway, 261 connects Highways 163 and 95. For much of its 35 miles it cruises through the rolling pinyon- and juniper-covered terrain of Cedar Mesa, but just north of Valley of the Gods, it plunges off the edge of the mesa down the Moki Dugway. Not for the faint of heart, the road switchbacks for three miles to the valley floor, 1,200 feet below. The road is graded and wide enough for even large vehicles to pass, but there are no guardrails, and if you’re driving a big RV or pulling a trailer you should use extra caution.
Bears Ears National Monument: this now-infamous national monument encompasses some of the best archaeological sites and natural wonders in southern Utah. The monument is expansive. Much of it takes careful planning to visit and the locations of many of its sites and attractions are not well publicized. This is somewhat intentional; this protects fragile sites from being “loved to death” and allows visitors to feel a sense of wonder and discovery when exploring the landscape. Mule Canyon (24 miles west of Blanding on Highway 95) is a good place to start, with two forks and at least eight archaeological sites to explore. Comb Wash and Butler Wash, on either side of the iconic Comb Ridge, also have good options for dispersed camping and numerous canyons to hike. These roads can be impassable after storms, so watch the weather and plan wisely.
“Visiting with Respect” When visiting Bears Ears, or any archaeological sites, it’s important to remember a few key points to visit with respect: 1) never touch or climb into archaeological sites, 2) stay on the trails to avoid destroying fragile biological soil crusts, 3) carry out all waste (even human, pet, and food waste), and 4) tag responsibly! Publicizing the locations of special or sacred sites on social media can lead to their becoming over-used or vandalized. Learn more about how to protect and enjoy this incredible region here: https://bearsearsmonument.org/visit-with-respect/.
If this is your first trip to Bluff or Blanding, Utah, you’ll quickly realize that the attractions highlighted above are just the tip of the (sandstone) iceberg! It would take a lifetime to explore all that the Four Corners Region has to offer, and you might not make it even then. Start with just a couple of sites, or plan to spend an entire week. Either way, you won’t be bored, and we just bet you’ll be back.
Susan Munroe is a reader, writer, traveler, and river guide. She moved to Utah from New Hampshire for the mountains, but it was the allure of the desert and its rivers that have truly kept her transfixed. More than ten years after she first came to work for Holiday River Expeditions, she still can’t get enough of life on the water. Susan spends her winters skiing and working in Salt Lake City, Utah, with frequent trips to southern Chile to run the Río Baker and support the work of the educational kayaking exchange program Ríos to Rivers. See more of Susan’s work here: www.susanmunroe.com