Trail of the Ancients: A Journey worth Taking, Part 2

From Natural Bridges National Monument where we ended the first part of our incredible journey of discovery, the Trail of the Ancient Scenic Byway turns south at the junction with Highways 95 and 261. Along this route you’ll find access to Grand Gulch Primitive Area and hiking trails on the mesa top.

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of gravel road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prior to dropping off the Moki Dugway is County Road 274, a 5-mile remote dirt road leading to Muley Point which has been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. From its magnificent overlook you’ll peer deep into the San Juan River Canyon and onto Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance.

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of gravel road that descends 1,000 feet down tight switchbacks from the edge of Cedar Mesa into the Valley of the Gods. The dugway itself is a historic part of the trail, built during the uranium boom to accommodate ore trucks that traveled from the mines on Cedar Mesa to the mill near the Navajo community of Halchita across the San Juan River from Mexican Hat. Never planned for public use, Moki Dugway is not recommended for RV travel.

From the bottom of the Dugway the route continues past the entrance to the little-known Valley of the Gods and onto the junction with Utah Highway 316 which leads to Goosenecks State Park.

Although Valley of the Gods is not listed as a site on the Trail, it is worth visiting. The 17-mile loop drive on a native surface road leads among sandstone monoliths which have been given fanciful names such as Seven Sailors, Southern Lady, Rooster Butte, and Battleship Butte. The valley allows a close-up look at towers and mesas of multicolored sandstone and other sedimentary rocks in subtle shades of pink, red, gold, orange, and purple. The sandstone monoliths here are reminiscent of Monument Valley. This route puts travelers on Highway 163, between Bluff and Mexican Hat.

Late afternoon light enhances the colors through the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Goosenecks State Park is another adventure in geology revealing the skeleton of the earth in the layers formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below. The Goosenecks of the San Juan River is one of the most striking examples of an “entrenched river meander” in North America. Like a snake the river twists and turns and coils back on itself for a distance of over six miles while advancing only 1.5 miles west as it flows toward Lake Powell. Over 300 million years of geologic activity is revealed from Goosenecks State Park. Located at the end of Highway 316, Gooseneck is a wilderness park encompassing 10 acres.

Utah Highway 261 continues to the junction with U.S. Highway 163 and the town of Mexican Hat. At the junction turn right to enter Mexican Hat and on to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park where sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor.

Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions.

Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in countless Western movies directed by John Ford. An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

The Goulding Trading Post established in 1932 in Monument Valley is worth a visit. A full-service RV park is located nearby. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

After exploring the wonders of Monument Valley retrace your route for 21 miles to Mexican Hat on U.S. Highway 163 and continue east to the pioneer-era town of Bluff on the edge of the Navajo Nation. Snuggled up against the San Juan River, the town was settled by the famous “Hole-In-The-Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s.

Continue past Bluff and travel east on Utah Highway 262 towards the town of Aneth and follow the signs to Hovenweep National Monument at the end of our route.

Known for its square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers, Hovenweep National Monument protects six prehistoric clusters of Native American ruins. Established in 1923, the villages date from the Pueblo period of the mid 13th century. They are spread over a 20-mile area along the Utah-Colorado border. Unlike the large ruins at Mesa Verde, these are approachable and the visitor can wander among the fallen walls and consider the people who built them.

On this note we end our fascinating discovery of an ancient land of incredible beauty.

Worth Pondering…
One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

—Henry Miller

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