The Heart of the Southwest: Monument Valley Road Trip

Length: About 260 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Spring to autumn. Lodging: Available in several nearby towns, but

Length: About 260 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Spring to autumn.

Lodging: Available in several nearby towns, but reserve in advance.

Words to the wise: On Indian reservations abide by local customs. Ask permission before taking photos; never disturb artifacts.

Nearby attractions: Grand Canyon National Park, near Flagstaff, AZ. Petrified Forest National Park, near Holbrook, AZ. Zion National Park, Springdale, UT.

Further information: Utah Travel Council, Council Hall, Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City, UT 84114; tel. 801-538-1030. Arizona Office of Tourism, 1110 W. Washington, #155, Phoenix, AZ 85007, 866-298-3312,

Listening to mission bells while dozing beneath a shady cottonwood tree … watching the last glimmer of daylight as it turns a distant mesa from fiery red to faded umber … hearing the call of a coyote beneath a full desert moon. The pleasures of the Southwest are simple and subtle yet deeply satisfying. And they are found in abundance along this drive through the Arizona–Utah border country.

1. Dinosaur Tracks

The land of the Navajos is one of timeless splendor and quiet grandeur. Both of these virtues are embodied in the dinosaur tracks that can be seen just a few miles west of Tuba City as the drive heads northeastward on Rte. 160. The fossilized footprints bear silent testimony to the reptiles who once lumbered across Jurassic sediments that have long since turned to sandstone. Farther along, the drive passes two more ancient landmarks: massive twin buttes called the Elephant Feet. Also composed of sandstone, these monuments were worn by time and the elements into the wrinkled, leathery finish that inspired their name.

2. Navajo National Monument
With the bulk of Black Mesa brooding to the south, Rte. 160 forges northeast into Navajo country. No less than today’s travelers, the Navajo people, too, have played the role of stranger in these parts. Long before they arrived, some four centuries ago, this was the home of the mysterious Anasazi people, possibly ancestors of the modern Hopis. A remnant of this lost tribe can be seen at Navajo National Monument, which sprawls across broken high country at the end of Rte. 564, a nine-mile drive through pygmy junipers and piñon pines.

Here, in the clear, dry air nearly a mile and a half above sea level, the remains of Anasazi pueblo villages slumber beneath beetling ocher cliffs, accessible to hikers by trails through steep terrain and sand. Note that backcountry travel requires ranger guides or permits.

Clustered within a great cavern in a canyon wall, the 700-year-old ruin called Betatakin contains inner walls still sooty from cooking fires long since extinguished.

Another site, Keet Seel, is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest. It welcomes only those visitors hardy enough to venture eight miles on foot or horseback from the Navajo National Monument visitor center.

3. Agathla Peak

At the wind-scoured little town of Kayenta, veer north on Rte. 163 and traverse a mile-high valley where ravens often can be seen wheeling overhead. Before long, as if to announce the approach to Monument Valley, a sentinel pierces the desert sky: to the east stands Agathla Peak (Spanish explorers called it El Capitán), a great black thunderhead of a mountain believed to be the core of a prehistoric volcano. Across the road, on the west side of the highway, another monolith commands attention—the sandstone needle of Owl Rock, which soars from the edge of Tyende Mesa.

4. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Even if this is your first trip to the Arizona-Utah border country, you probably aren’t seeing Monument Valley for the first time. Chances are good that a man named John Ford has already shown it to you. Beginning in 1938 with his landmark film Stagecoach and continuing a decade later with his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), the celebrated director used this setting so often that it came to epitomize the rugged terrain of the Old West.

Within this vast tableland—punctuated by spires, buttes, and pillars—lies the 30,000-acre Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Visitors can explore the area on a well-marked, scenic 17-mile route. (But be forewarned that a guided tour will save your car a good deal of wear and tear, since the road is unpaved and rutted.)

However you experience it, the valley is a wonder to behold, a harsh yet hauntingly beautiful landscape. View it in early morning, when shadows lift from rocky marvels with names such as Rain God, Thunderbird, Gray Whiskers, and Spearhead. Admire it in springtime, when tiny pink and blue wildflowers sprinkle the land with jewel-like specks of color. Try to see it through the eyes of the Navajos, who still herd their sheep and weave their rugs here.

Spaced grandly apart on a wide-open range, these stark buttes and sculpted pinnacles form one of the most dramatic assemblages of rock formations to be found anywhere on earth. The ingredients of stone, water, and time combine here to form a whole that’s infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Goosenecks State Park
This stretch of Rte. 163—called the Trail of the Ancients in honor of the vanished Anasazis—cuts across Monument Valley at the Utah border on its way to the little town of Mexican Hat. Named for a rock formation there that resembles an upside-down sombrero—a whimsical footnote to the magnificence of Monument Valley—Mexican Hat is the nearest settle-ment to Goosenecks State Park, just ahead and to the west via Rtes. 261 and 316.

The Great Goosenecks of the San Juan River are what geologists call entrenched meanders: by anyone’s definition they are a prime illustration of the unhurried power of natural forces. Look down a thousand feet or more at the waters of the San Juan River. The lazily looping pattern of the river’s gooseneck turns took shape over 300 million years, with the result that in six meandering miles, the San Juan makes a westing of barely a mile and a half on its way to Lake Powell.

Snaking between its eroded walls of sandstone, limestone, and shale, the gorge looks like something akin to the Grand Canyon tied into knots, a reminder that although we might consider a straight line to be the shortest distance between two points, nature couldn’t care less.

6. Muley Point
In this famously vertical landscape, there are six primary directions: north, south, east, west—and up and down. For proof, head north on Rte. 261 beyond the Goosenecks State Park overlook, climbing another 1,000-plus feet, and enjoy what is undeniably one of the most arresting panoramas in all of the Southwest—the lofty view from Muley Point. From the coiling Goosenecks far below to distant vistas of Monument Valley’s ruddy stone cathedrals, the magnificence of the Four Corners region unfolds before you.

Taking the road up to Muley Point means traveling the notorious Moki Dugway, three miles of harrowing, unpaved switchbacks that accomplish an ascent of 1,100 feet via grades of up to 10 percent. All the while, your creeping progress is mocked by the aerial ease of whistling canyon wrens and plunging swallows—no more concerned with notions of up and down than they are with the four points of the compass.

7. Valley of the Gods
Having made it all the way up the Moki Dugway, the next challenge is to make it back down—“Easy does it” is the best advice. At the bottom, instead of following Rte. 261 back to Rtes. 316 and 163, turn east onto a 17-mile rough dirt road that wanders through the heart of the Valley of the Gods.

If nature had needed a model for Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods could easily have filled the bill. As in so much of this water- and wind-sculpted high country, the valley’s medium is red sandstone, a rock that seems almost to seize sunrises. Towers stabbing skyward, rocks balanced precariously on slender pedestals, buttes bearing homespun names such as Rooster and Sitting Hen—all invest the Valley of the Gods with an eerie ambience that lingers in the bones long after you’ve departed.

8. Bluff

At the end of the Valley of the Gods road, turn east onto Rte. 163. Though it’s only 15 miles or so from here to the little settlement of Bluff, traversing this brief stretch must have seemed an eternity to the party of Mormon pioneers who first ventured into southeastern Utah in 1880.

The Mormons came here by wagon train from Escalante, more than 100 miles to the northwest. In the final miles before the pioneers reached the San Juan Valley, they had to surmount the nearly vertical upwarp of the earth’s crust called Comb Ridge. Today, modern travelers on Rte. 163 scale and descend the same barrier with far greater safety and comfort. Still, one can imagine how daunting that 800-foot climb must have seemed to pioneers when it first came into view.

Once across the ridge, the exhausted Mormons found rest on the banks of the San Juan River, at a place they named Bluff. The town never prospered (there are only a few hundred residents today, not counting those buried in the little hilltop cemetery), but it is a pretty enough spot, with sandstone towers—the Navajo Twins—standing guard over the river.

Three miles south, beneath the cottonwoods that line the riverbanks at Sand Island, rafters set out for float trips on the San Juan. Just downstream you’ll find a cliff adorned with Indian pictographs that portray a band of mythological flute players—images that were already centuries old when the first covered wagons rattled into Bluff.

The pioneer spirit that brought the Mormons into this southeastern corner of Utah was still very much alive in 1943 when Fr. Harold Lieber founded St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission two miles northeast of Bluff. A serene spot, the mission is a shady haven built of locally quarried sandstone. About a mile past the mission, you can sample pioneer engineering with a nerve-jangling walk across a swaying, planked suspension bridge five feet above the San Juan River. The adventure is worthwhile: once across the river, a one-mile walk leads to the ruins of a 14-room Anasazi dwelling, built against a cliffside decorated with the ocher-tinted handprints of the Ancient Ones.

9. Hovenweep National Monument
To the Ute Indians, the mesas and canyonlands along the Utah-Colorado border territory north of the San Juan River were hovenweep, a word meaning “deserted valley.” The Utes must surely have wondered who had populated and abandoned this desolate land, where strange stone towers (oval, square, D-shaped, and round) stand in ruined splendor along the canyon rims. We now know that these sturdy structures—clearly the work of master builders—were created by the Anasazis. But their purpose remains a mystery. Some believe they were used for defense; others think they might have been granaries or platforms for observing the heavens.

To reach Hovenweep, among the most remote of the great western monuments, take Rte. 191 north out of Bluff, then swing east on Rte. 262 toward the Colorado border. Another turnoff continues seven miles to the Hatch Trading Post, the last outpost before the 16-mile journey (by dirt road) to the site’s headquarters at the Square Tower ruin. The best preserved and most accessible of these six ancient villages, Square Tower includes the imposing Hovenweep Castle and a ranger station that provides information on tours of the other ruins.

10. Four Corners Monument

From Hovenweep, follow Rtes. 262, 41, and 160 to the Four Corners Monument, the place where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico meet, and the only such four-point border in the United States. Go ahead—climb onto the concrete marker and stand in four states at once. Then look out across the unbroken desert and up at the borderless blue sky. You’ll come away with the sense that nature disdains our attempts to draw lines all over its creations and to parcel tidy territories out of such sprawling majesty.

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