Panoramas of Ancient Life
Loop through time along portions of the dramatic Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which intersects with Ancestral Puebloan history of the Four Corners area and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. This is a place where monumental landforms connect with the sky, and vast fields of stars fill the night skies.
On your road trip, you'll see evidence of early cultures who built a life in the ruggedly beautiful Canyonlands region, including the incredible cliff dwellings of Hovenweep National Monument. You'll realize, this was a very different way of life. In these sparsely populated lands, it is easy to imagine this place before humans.
After seeing the Valley of the Gods and massive natural bridges with mythological significance, you'll learn about a more primitive time and place, and maybe learn a little about modern life in the process.
Get Here: Salt Lake City to Monticello area: 5 hours | Total Driving After Arrival: About 10 hours | Driving per day: 1/2 to 4 hours | Most Driving: Day 1 with Four Corners/Hovenweek and getting here and away
EDGE OF THE CEDARS STATE PARK MUSUEM
Photo by Barry Gutierrez
All images by Barry Gutierrez
At a Glance
Human History & Geologic Magnificence
Start: Moab area or Canyonlands National Park
See: Resplendent lands and a window into our past
Explore: The Needles District of Canyonlands and Monticello
Options: The Needles Overlook (S.R. 133), Newspaper Rock, The Dinosaur Museum, Ancient Cliff Dwellings
Scenic Routes: Indian Creek to Canyonlands, Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
Roads: Highway 191, S.R. 211
Night: Monticello or Blanding
Hovenweep and Four Corners
Start: Edge of the Cedars State Park or Visitor Center Trail of the Ancient Heritage Area
See: The quadripoint among tribal lands, ancient architecture and rock art
Explore: Bluff area history and recreation, and prehistoric cliff dwellings
Options: Butler Wash, a trip down the San Juan*
Scenic Routes: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
Roads: U.S. 163, S.R. 162 and 262
Night: Bluff, Mexican Hat or Gouldings
*River option adds at least a full day, with longer river trips available
The Spirit of Monument Valley
Start: Quiet sunrise over monumental buttes
See: Sweeping panoramas in sacred Navajo lands
Explore: Mittens and indigenous lifestyle
Options: Guided tour of Monument Valley Tribal Park
Scenic Routes: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, Monument Valley Scenic Drive
Roads: U.S. 163
Night: Monument Valley Area
Goosenecks State Park, Valley of the Gods and Cedar Mesa
Start: In a faraway land so hauntingly familiar
See: Eye-popping Moki Dugway switchbacks* and remote, dramatic landscapes
Explore: Remote landscapes (PDF), Cedar Mesa, Kane Gulch Ranger Station
Options: ; Grand Gulch Primitive Area (Backpackers)
Scenic Routes: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway
Roads: U.S. 163, S.R. 261, 275 and 95
Night: Mexican Hat, Goulding's or Natural Bridges camping
*Not recommended for large RVs or trailers
Natural Bridges National Monument and the Bicentennial Byway
See: Hite Overlook into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Explore: Massive arches and rugged canyon country
Options: Boating from Hite Marina (depending on water level), public lands
Scenic Routes: Bicentennial Byway
Roads: S.R. 95
For an Extended Stay
You can access Lake Powell and the 1.2 million acres of Glen Canyon National Recreation from S.R. 276, which breaks south from S.R. 95 and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Only an hour south of the adventure-rich Moab area a whole other incredible journey begins. You'll travel through millennia of human history when driving through these unexpected landscapes and hallowed lands as you uncover evidence of ancient peoples and witness geologic magnificence through the lens of another time.
Begin with Cave Spring Trail in Canyonlands, showcasing a convergence of cultures across time with a cowboy camp and prehistoric pictographs. Explore additional short hikes then drive toward Blanding to see the large display of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts and the 1,000-year-old kiva at Edge of the Cedars State Park. Edge of the Cedars is an archaeological gem that cannot be overlooked. Consider a side trip about 14 miles south of Blanding on S.R. 95 to ancient cliff dwellings like Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling on Comb Ridge and House on Fire.
This deep into southeastern Utah, you may not want to leave the Four Corners marker on the table as part of your journey to the architecturally impressive cliff dwellings of Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep is a sentinel of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in a landscape of sage and juniper.
Bluff, Utah, features excellent heritage sites and access to the San Juan River. If you can plan an extra day or more in the region, consider reserving a rafting trip down the San Juan for unparalleled angles on incredible petroglyph panels, wildlife viewings and an all-around unique river experience.
Next, you'll be off to a place that may already define this region in your mind: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Stop the car by the side of the road in Monument Valley. Turn off the engine and step out into the vast expanse of desert, you'll find the stillness and the solitude of the mesas and the canyons remains — just as it has for centuries. John Ford and John Wayne recognized and captured the timelessness of Monument Valley, a place that has persisting elements of the frontier and the mythology of the American West. With Bluff, Mexican Hat or Goulding's Lodge as your basecamp, you'll have close access to all the aura and adventure of the iconic American West. You can drive the scenic byway or explore the Wildcat Trail on your own, but many believe the richest experience is in booking Navajo-guided jeep tours and hikes.
From there, the journey returns to Mexican Hat and on to the 1,000-foot-high overlook into the serpentine San Juan River of Goosenecks State Park. You’ll also have the option to explore the Valley of the Gods, a 17-mile loop across graded gravel and clay showcasing Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths. The drive is possible with a passenger car unless it has been raining. If you drive the Valley of the Gods from the south side, your introduction to S.R. 261 is the white-knuckle-inducing switchbacks of Moki Dugway, a narrow 11 percent grade that is not recommended for trailers or larger RVs. Even as you catch your breath from this stunning ascent up Cedar Mesa, breathtaking landscape awaits in stops along Cedar Mesa on the way to Natural Bridges National Monument.
The spectacular river-carved bridges of Natural Bridges National Monument have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means "rock mounds," massive Kachina means "dancer," while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state (and one of the world’s largest), means "place of emergence." It's the world's largest display of natural bridges.
Continue up S.R. 95, the Bicentennial Byway toward Hanksville for the return trip. The 133-mile high-desert drive crosses some of Utah's most rugged and beautiful canyon country, including a Glen Canyon crossing and views of the remote Henry Mountains.