Beauty on a Grand Scale: Scenic Driving Bluff to Monument Valley
This stretch of road on U.S. 163 is beauty on a grand scale. While the landscapes to the north and east are characterized by dramatic ancient bucklings of the earth and by intricate, mazelike canyons carved by the persistent action of rushing waters, the country encountered on the drive between the town of Bluff and Monument Valley drive is more spacious and more serene in its magnificence. Rather than narrow canyons and steep, confining barrier reefs, U.S. 163 traverses land that is broad, open, and windswept. It is hot at the height of summer in this corner of the state. Otherwise, no real seasonal distinctions can be made, and driving poses no impediments for any sort of vehicle.
Bluff is a peaceful place whose biggest attraction is San Juan River excursions. The town has a nice little historic loop on the right just as you enter town. Note especially the Bluff library, a fine old stone building. The Bluff City Historical Preservation Association publishes an excellent tour brochure describing historical houses and other sites in Bluff with a guide to nearby rock art sites. Don’t miss the Twin Rocks Cafe, incredibly situated just underneath a couple of rock spires. The tour brochure is usually available there.
At nearby Sand Island Recreation Area, 2 miles past Bluff, an excellent Anasazi petroglyph panel features five representations of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute-player. Watch carefully for the Sand Island Road, on the left, just before the major turnoff for Mexican Water. The small, basic (no drinking water) campground here fills up quickly.
About 3 miles west of Bluff, U.S. 191 makes a sharp left turn and heads south to Mexican Water, Arizona. Continue straight on U.S. 163. The highway crosses Comb Wash, revealing the dramatic cliffs of Comb Ridge, a huge redrock escarpment running north–south. This eroded monocline begins just south of the Abajo Mountains (west of Blanding) and runs 80 miles south to Kayenta, Arizona. After driving through the gap in this striking formation, it is definitely worth stopping to look back and study the impressive natural barrier more carefully. Just past Comb Ridge, you climb out of the ravine and begin to see the outline of the Monument Valley’s dramatic formations way off in the distance.
Valley of the Gods
It’s about 16 miles from Bluff to the eastern entrance, on the right, of Valley of the Gods, a highly recommended side trip. Valley of the Gods is like a miniature version of Monument Valley without people. Its mesas and spires are formed of the same Cedar Mesa sandstone as the somewhat larger formations at Monument Valley. The 17-mile loop drive on (mostly good) dirt road is suitable for all but the most low-slung passenger vehicles in good weather. Definitely consider driving this beautiful, lonely loop—though not in a large RV and not dragging a trailer. Stay away after heavy rains.
Valley of the Gods is also a very good place to camp if you are entirely self-sufficient. There are no established campgrounds and no facilities, but there are plenty of places to camp in the wild. It is incredibly quiet, and watching the moon rise here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The loop finishes on Highway 261 (paved) just south of the descent from the Moki Dugway and north of the turnoff for Goosenecks State Park. Highway 261 will take you south back to U.S. 163, but there are some things to see along Highway 261 so consider taking more side trips.
To see the impressive Muley Point overlook’s expansive views, turn right on Highway 261 off the Valley of the Gods scenic drive and immediately climb the 1,000-foot graded gravel road up the Moki Dugway. (If you haven’t taken the Valley of the Gods option, turn right off U.S. 163 and head north on Highway 261 for about 9 miles to get here.)
Just at the crest and right before the pavement resumes, look for the turnoff to the left. Trailers and large RVs will find the long climb to Muley Point nerve-racking, but the steep switchbacks and unbeatable scenery make this one of the most thrilling drives in the state.
Goosenecks State Park
The turnoff for Goosenecks State Park is on Highway 261 about 8 miles south of the Moki Dugway on the right (on your left if coming up from U.S. 163). It would be a shame to miss this fascinating attraction. The overlook at the park will reward you with one of the most impressive views of entrenched river meanders in all of North America. The San Juan River snakes for more than 5 miles here in its deeply cut canyon to cover just 1 mile as the crow flies. There is a nice picnic area with a few primitive campsites (free) here but no water. When done with these side trips, return south to U.S. 163.
The namesake formation for the town of Mexican Hat is actually about 1.5 miles north of town on the left, well marked and with good dirt roads leading right to it. Local legend tells of the love of a young Mexican vaquero for a Native American maiden who, alas, was already married to an evil old medicine man. When the medicine man learned of the affair, he turned the vaquero to stone. If the rock doesn’t seem to look much like a sombrero to you, it might help the illusion to consider it to be upside down, suggesting the medicine man first turned his rival on his head. Behind the sombrero is an interesting geologic formation called the Navajo Rug, a wavy pattern in the cliff strata.
The little town of Mexican Hat has depended largely on several minor oil and mining booms; today it benefits from the fair stream of tourists to this remote corner of Utah. This is home base for several land and river tour companies and makes a good base for exploring the surrounding wilderness areas, though lodging is scarce.
Entering Navajo Land
From Mexican Hat, cross the San Juan River and, as the sign says, you are entering Navajo land. The Utah section of the 25,000-acre Navajo Nation is home to a small portion of the Navajo’s nearly 300,000 members. While the Navajo have long been considered one of the most peaceful of the Native American nations, during the middle part of the 19th century they were a fierce and powerful people who caused more trouble for the invading white Anglo-Americans than almost any other indigenous group.
In 1864, after a long period of hostility between the Navajo and white settlers, the Navajo were forcibly evicted from their home in the Four Corners region and made to march east across New Mexico. When these attempts at forced relocation ultimately failed, the Navajo were allowed to return to their traditional home.
Today the Navajo are a friendly, hospitable people, proud of their desert home, rich culture, and beautiful crafts. The Navajo Nation depends greatly on tourism, and they are happy to share their land and demonstrate their culture. Still, the perpetual wave of tourism must at times seem annoying; perhaps some feel somewhat uncomfortable with the idea that the homeland for which they struggled so hard remains subject to constant invasion, albeit of a more friendly sort.
As soon as you climb out of the San Juan gorge, the views of Monument Valley spread out before you, turning your front window into an oversize, moving postcard. The next 25 miles are among the most attractive highway stretches in the entire country, memorialized in many films over the years.
After 21 miles you reach the well-marked turnoff on the left for the tribal visitor center at Monument Valley. This intersection is like an open-air shopping mall for souvenirs — most, except for the glorious handmade rugs, made in China or Mexico — and Native American art and food. From here it is 4 miles to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The Monument Valley visitor center and scenic drive are actually on the Arizona side of a dividing line that is only nominal on the reservation. Good literature on the park and the drive is available at the visitor center. On the unpaved roads of the scenic drive, high-clearance vehicles are recommended: Those who travel by tour bus, motorcycle, low rider and most regular passenger vehicles, however, will find this scenic drive inaccessible. There is a park entrance fee ($20); it is definitely worth a visit. The visitor center parking lot teems with local jeep tour companies, eager to whisk you off on guided tours of varying duration and difficulty. The valley’s more out-of-the-way spots can only be reached with a guide, but you can hike the Wildcat Trail to get an up-close view of some monuments.
Scenic driving information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press).