The small town of Bluff is experiencing a canyon country renaissance. A dozen new tourist cabins are going up. A 54-unit resort is being built. A former trading post is a thriving restaurant, and the old Silver Dollar Bar built in 1955 has found new life as a forthcoming Bears Ears Education Center.
Bluff is on the southern end of Bears Ears National Monument and many local residents are proud of it.
The town just incorporated. Soon it’ll have a mayor and city council, and the Silver Dollar Bar, once home to beer and burgers, will now serve up tourist information and cautionary comments about desert hiking and visiting archaeological sites with respect.
Purchased by the Friends of Cedar Mesa, the Silver Dollar Bar once catered to sheepherders, truckers, uranium miners, “just whoever came down the road,” states 84-year-old Duke Simpson. “There was all kinds who came to Bluff over the years.”
As for dancing at the bar, Duke says, “It was Saturday night live” with patrons waltzing into the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Writing about a bar fight in Alaska, Ed Abbey waxed nostalgic. He described it as “Just like down home: The Club 66 in Flag, the Eagle in Gallup, or the Silver Dollar in Bluff, on the edge of the Navajo Reservation – the only bar in Utah where you can hear squaw dance music on the jukebox.”
“I went in and ordered a hamburger,” Simpson told me, “and the old man who was cooking tipped his head back and spit on the grill to make sure it was hot enough.
“Then he plopped down a beef patty and proceeded to cook the burger. But after watching his grilling style, I declined the sandwich.”
The Silver Dollar catered to locals and the occasional tourist willing to risk dusty, dry roads to get to Bluff.
“Everyone going through Bluff just kept going,” remembers BLM River Ranger Larry Beck. “A few river runners stopped in, but it was lonely at the counter, often only me and the bartender.
“I used to walk to the bar and then walk home. I liked to joke that when I left Bluff that the poor bar might go out of business with my departure.” That was in the 1980s.
Over the years, Bluff’s three bars disappeared as restaurants developed to serve beer and wine.
The tourists passing through are now staying. Bluff is emerging as a vital destination between the Grand Canyon, with its five million annual visitors, and Arches and Canyonlands national parks, with two million tourists.
National monument status for Bears Ears, even with President Trump shrinking it by 85 percent, has brought a whole new generation of canyon country hikers trying to avoid crowds and to find wilderness values of silence, solitude, and darkness.
But there’s no information center. No local source of maps, directions, suggestions, though the San Juan Record reports that visitation to southeast Utah BLM lands is up 35 percent.
To the north in Monticello, on its new campus, the Canyon Country Discovery Center orients travelers to the entire Colorado Plateau. The Bureau of Land Management has an office in town, but no place to host displays or to engage visitors.
In Blanding, the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park does a superb job of interpreting Ancestral Puebloan artifacts with engaging exhibits on historic and prehistoric themes, but it functions as a museum not as a public lands visitor center.
Up on Cedar Mesa, volunteers at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station do their best to answer questions, but in their small space, they are frequently swamped.
So the Friends of Cedar Mesa are raising funds and have donated labor to do what the federal government does not have the budget or the staffing to accomplish.
Meanwhile, Bears Ears National Monument status and boundaries are in turmoil. President’s Obama’s 1.35-million-acre monument has become “Trump’s small units” of two areas – a Shash Jaa’ Monument along Comb Ridge north to the Bears Ears buttes at 9,058 feet and the famous climbing sandstone spires in Indian Creek Canyon.
Tribes, environmental groups, and partners in the outdoor recreation industry are suing over President Trump’s action.
“Right now, it feels like the Bears Ears Education Center is one of the only positive things happening for the monument,” said Amanda Podmore, assistant director of Friends of Cedar Mesa.
“The incredible national support we’ve seen for the Center indicates people’s hunger for positive, proactive actions to take on behalf of public lands.”
“It’s exciting to turn this historic bar and community space into a venue where visitors, locals, and friends from everywhere can ‘belly up’ for information about how to visit Bears Ears with respect.”
Indeed, in true western fashion, the outside of the building facing the highway has glass block walls so patrons inside could not be seen. Most laborers in the working West heading to a bar had spent plenty of time outside, so the last thing they wanted was a window with a view.
They wanted to see cold beer and an array of whiskey bottles. At the old Silver Dollar, the bar is still there, as is the back bar with its wooden drawers and refrigerated cases.
Over the years, the Silver Dollar became a private residence with the nickname of the Nada Bar, or not-a-bar. Children and adults playfully placed painted handprints all over the ceiling and front of the bar.
Why not? Handprints are found in canyon alcoves and above room blocks and habitation sites across the Southwest, so why not in a saloon?
Former owner Kyle Bauman is pleased with the sale and says his vintage bar building “was handed off to an organization which will continue the tradition of a community-based location for keeping the community united in art, information, and adventure.”
The 3,800 square foot building on .43 acres is being transformed, as is Bluff itself. Extra rooms will become office space, meeting space, and staff living quarters. There’ll be outdoor patios, courtyards and parking in the back.
“The Nada Bar, now the Bears Ears Education Center (BEEC), has a long and endearing history to many Bluffoons. It went from being a low-rent rez-border-town dive to an unofficial community center after Kyle Bauman bought it and had to post on the door ‘Not a Bar.’
The goal for the project is $840,000 for the building purchase, renovations, bathroom and electrical upgrades, solar installations, and staff salaries for a three-year start-up period. Friends of Cedar Mesa have raised $600,000, with $100,000 coming from the outdoor supplier North Face.
“We are extremely grateful and excited to have received such broad support for our efforts to create the Bears Ears Education Center,” adds board president and local guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt.
So stop in and watch the transformation. If you can swing a hammer or apply a paintbrush, please do so.
The Bears Ears Education Center will host its grand opening the weekend of September 22 and 23, but like all non-profit organizations, there will be plenty more to do.
So come to Bluff for the grand opening of the Center in September, but also think about volunteering your time and talents so the thousands of visitors coming to San Juan County to visit Bears Ears will appreciate real Western hospitality.
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Andrew Gulliford is a historian and award-winning author and editor who divides his time between the mountains near Durango, CO and the canyons near Bluf. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.