Hats Off to Mexican Hat

Hats Off to Mexican Hat

By Brian Higgins
March 22, 2022

Mexican Hat, Utah, might be small, but the surrounding areas play host to some of the state’s most incredible sights. 

Nestled deep in Utah’s Canyon Country on the banks of the San Juan River is one of the state’s most bustling destinations — Mexican Hat. Whether it’s a wild night at one of over five restaurants or a luxurious stay at any of the nearly five hotels, there’s something for everyone. Move over Vegas, there’s a new southwestern party destination. What happens in Mexican Hat stays in Mexican Hat. 

You’re not buying this, right? With a population of less than 100 (21 as of the 2020 census), Mexican Hat is not exactly a place you go to cut loose. The small community is mostly known for San Juan River trips and the nearby rock formation that lends the town its name. It’s not what’s in Mexican Hat that’s the draw though, it’s what’s all around it. A gateway to adventures both rocky and river-y, Mexican Hat is smack dab in the middle of plenty of destinations worth tipping your hat to. 

The Hat

Shaped like an upside-down sombrero, the towering Mexican Hat Rock rests precariously above the town. Those who want to see it up close can check out the quick, moderately rated .07-mile hike that starts on Mexican Hat Road off of U.S. Route 163. Adventurous scramblers can climb right under the hat’s brim, but you don’t have to white knuckle it to enjoy the view. 

What’s the history of the rock? Well, a mariachi band made up of giants was on tour through the Southwest … No, its history is much the same as the other impressive rock formations in Utah: weather + time = cool. The history of the town is a bit more interesting. When an oil repository was found there in the early 20th century it became a boomtown, and has survived booms and busts alike since then, including the massive uranium boom in the middle of the century. Through it all, the Mexican Hat Rock has watched on from its perch, wondering why no one will turn it over. 

The San Juan 

Much like Mexican Hat isn’t the place to go for crazy nights on the town, the San Juan River isn’t necessarily the place to go for heart pumping rapids. Instead, you’ll enjoy gently flowing water, breathtakingly rugged scenery and easygoing sojourns to Native American cultural sites. It’s a perfect destination for vacationing families and those looking to enjoy a relaxing few days on the river. Several local outfitters offer San Juan River trips, which feature included meals, your own inflatable kayak for the occasional Class II rapids and handpicked stops along the way. 

While some guided river trips finish up in Mexican Hat, longer ones continue onward past the town. If you’re looking to go it on your own, Mexican Hat might actually be a good place to put in, because just beyond the town lie the winding canyon walls of Goosenecks State Park. Traversing seven miles of twisting turns in just two miles of overland terrain, this stretch of the river would probably elicit “Are we there yet?”s if it wasn’t so gosh-dang incredible. Speaking of incredible, the San Juan is also home to the ultra-rare phenomenon of sand waves — large waves caused by shifting sands that bring some sporadic excitement to this mostly mellow river.

The Neighbors

Giant trumpet player or not, whoever left their sombrero overturned so long ago probably wished they still had some shade as they explored the incredible scenery of the surrounding area. There are lots of sites to see in Utah’s Canyon Country, all of which have a few common characteristics  — wide open spaces, incredible rock formations and the wonderful sense of smallness that comes with big, beautiful terrain. Southeastern Utah was tailor-made for folks who like getting as “out there” as possible, and since you didn’t stop reading when you found out that Mexican Hat only has 21 people in it, you’ll probably fit right in. 

Whether you choose to make your way to Monument Valley or the similarly scenic Valley of the Gods, you’ll encounter isolated buttes, towering spires and untracked expanses of desert as far as the eye can see. If you feel like you’ve wandered into the set of a western, it’s not just you — many iconic movies were actually filmed in the area. As you travel along on your trusty steed, you’ll also find the aforementioned Goosenecks State Park (which looks just as nice from above) and the sandstone cliffs of Cedar Mesa, host to some of the best backcountry rock art and ancient cultural sites in the state. The Ancestral Puebloans’ cliff dwellings have been kept well intact, so be sure to help keep them that way. After all, if the people who came before you had disrespected the wonders of the area, Mexican Hat wouldn't have a name.