A Journey Worth Taking: Trail of the Ancients

Far too often we consider the roads that we travel purely as a means to get from point A to point B. Most spend far more hours in their cars commuting and running errands than truly enjoying what lies beyond the edge of the asphalt or concrete.

But once you hit the road in your recreational vehicle, why not get off the roads most traveled and take in the breath-taking splendor of America’s system of scenic byways?

Heading west from Blanding on SR-95 the landscape was vast, open and colorful. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading west from Blanding on SR-95 the landscape was vast, open and colorful. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Scenic Byways Program recognizes over 100 outstanding byways that celebrate the pride and diversity of our communities as well as the stunning landscapes that have shaped our lives.

The Trail of the Ancients, a federally designated National Scenic Byway 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.

Heading west from Blanding on SR-95 the landscape was vast, open and colorful. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading west from Blanding on SR-95 the landscape was vast, open and colorful. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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

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

Attempt this 482-mile drive (366 miles in Utah; 116 miles in Colorado) in a single day or two and you’ll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you’ll never appreciate it at 65 miles per hour. Instead, take a week or more, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A nine mile one-way loop drive connects pull-outs and overlooks with views of the three huge multi-colored natural bridges. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start at any point along the route.

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway enters Utah east of Monticello on U.S. Highway 491 and continues to the junction in Monticello with U.S. Highway 191.

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges here and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Owachomo is the smallest and thinnest of the three natural bridges here and is commonly thought to be the oldest. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Turn south onto U.S. 191 and travel to Blanding where you’ll find Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, a good stop for an introduction to the Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) pre-history of the area. Visitors can walk the paths through the ruins and climb into the kiva via a ladder, just as the original residents did.

Exceptionally rare and well-preserved artifacts are at the heart of the museum exhibits.

From Blanding the route follows U.S. Highway 191 south to the junction with Utah Highway 95 and continues west on Highway 95 to Utah Highway 261 passing Butler Wash Ruin, Mule Canyon Ruin, and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Butler Wash Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views.

Eight miles further west along Highway 95 brings you to Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Adjacent to the road, the site contains dwelling units, a reconstructed open kiva, and round tower—all made of stone.

Natural Bridges National Monument sits high on Cedar Mesa, 6,500 feet above sea level. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument sits high on Cedar Mesa, 6,500 feet above sea level. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument about 35 miles west of Blanding. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa a nine-mile, one-way, paved loop road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons with scattered ancient cliff dwellings and three of the world’s largest natural stone bridges. Bridges differ from arches in that they are created primarily by stream action; whereas arches are created primarily by rain and wind.

The bridges in this monument are all easily viewed from overlook areas along Bridge View Drive, or you can hike down into the canyon and walk under them. Interpretive signing is present at each overlook.

Horsecollar Ruin Overlook Trail is mostly level and leads over the mesa to the edge of White Canyon. The small cliff dwelling is unique in that it is still plastered. The doorways to the two granaries are shaped like the horsecollars used in harness equipment.

Sipapu is the largest of the three bridges in the Monument. It is considered middle aged. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sipapu is the largest of the three bridges in the Monument. It is considered middle aged. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet, but an overflow area on the edge of the park has plenty of room.

We’ll continue the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway in part 2 of this journey: A Journey of Discovery: Trail of the Ancients.

Worth Pondering…

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, French novelist

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