The Heart of the Southwest: Monument Valley Road Trip

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

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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