A Journey of Discovery: Trail of the Ancients

In an earlier article, A Journey Worth Taking: Trail of the Ancients, we introduced the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. We began our incredible journey of discovery east of Monticello and traveled to Blanding and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges at Natural Bridges National Monument and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges at Natural Bridges National Monument and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Trail of the Ancients circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country of southeastern Utah, providing opportunity to view scenic landscapes, archaeological, cultural, and historic sites, as well as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep (also in Colorado) national monuments, Monument Valley, Edge of the Cedars State Park, and Manti La Sal National Forest. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins, and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists.

An extension of this route continues into Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

Moki Dugway consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take your time and savor the sights—and along much of the route…the silence.

From Natural Bridges National Monument where we ended the first part of our 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.

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.

Moki Dugway consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The infamous Moki Dugway is a 3-mile stretch of unpaved 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 our journey 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.

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © 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. 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.

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide open spaces that seem to go on forever. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

We’ll complete our incredible journey of discovery in part 3 of this journey: A Journey of Incredible Beauty: Trail of the Ancients.

Worth Pondering…
In the words of Willie Nelson, “goin’ places I have never been, seein’ things that I may never see again”, exploring our magnificent country, its natural beauty, historic sites, and treasured landmarks.

Leave a Reply