The Colorado Plateau of southeastern Utah has that classic desert beauty. Red cliffs and sagebrush are everywhere to be seen. Buttes are slowly dissolved by wind and rain. It’s beautiful but harsh, and you would never guess that an ancient civilization once thrived here. Concealed within the folds of this giant petrified sand dune are deep-cut canyons. Three rivers glide through here — the Colorado, the Green, and the San Juan. Their canyon bottoms are literally an oasis. Lush floodplains have the perfect microclimate for growing corn — America’s O.G. (original grain).
Ancestral Puebloans, aka Anasazi, genetically modified some grass and — POP — they made corn. And they loved it. Hundreds of stone granaries were built to store this precious resource. The Ancestral Puebloan left in a hurry around 1300 A.D., but you can still find ancient corn cobs kicking around archaeological sites. This road trip takes you on the Utah section of Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. It’s ancient, it’s scenic, and definitely worth it.
YES YOU CANYON!
Head south from Moab on Highway 191 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Take a minute to read the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock state historic site. Hundreds of mysterious figures have been pecked into the panel wall. Everybody and their bighorn sheep left a mark here.
If wrinkles are beautiful then Canyonlands National Park is a supermodel. The earth here is straight-up creased. Red rock canyons go on forever like the infinity mirrors in rich people’s bathrooms.
If wrinkles are beautiful then Canyonlands National Park is a supermodel.
The park has four sections: the Needles, Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Green and Colorado Rivers. Most roads here require high-clearance 4x4 vehicles, but we’ll focus on the paved road to the Needles District. Stop by the visitors center for maps, backcountry permits, and water. This area offers excellent trails: Chesler Park, Druid Arch, and Devil’s Pocket Loop are moderate hikes that will take all day. Cave Spring and Pothole Point are quick and easy on the little kids. Hike the Confluence Overlook to watch the Colorado and Green Rivers becoming one if you’re into that sort of thing.
MAGICAL HISTORY TOUR
Wondering what happened to all those artifacts the Ancestral Puebloans left behind? Well, the city of Blanding has hit the archaeological jackpot. The Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum houses the largest collection of ancient pottery in the region. Fully intact cookware looks like it was made yesterday. Some potters even left their fingerprints behind. Don’t miss the Macaw feather sash, proof that bedazzling was important to prehistoric people, too. The museum doubles as an archaeological site with an Anasazi village dwelling and a restored kiva to climb in.
Grab some brochures and maps before you go. Ask on-site BLM staff questions about Bears Ears National Monument, too.
If you have time, check out Hovenweep National Monument. These masonry “castle” structures show off the fine stone-setting skills of the Ancestral Puebloans. Set on a rim, the towers are freestanding and not wedged into an alcove like many dwellings around here. Stick around for sunset when the stone turns fiery orange and sassy pink. Stay for the night at the campground and enjoy those International Dark Sky Park stars.
Get back on the 191 and drive the quick and easy road to Bluff. Getting here in the 1800s was not quick and easy for the Latter-day Saint pioneers. It took them months to ease their wagons through this treacherous country. After they arrived, they immediately built Bluff Fort because they had never heard of “taking a break.” Get a sense of their sheer will to live at this recreated pioneer village. Eat some ice cream from the Co-op while you wander the collection of antique wagons.
Bluff is also home to the Bears Ears Education Center. Learn why Bears Ears National Monument is important to Native Americans and how to treat it with respect. Commit all of that information to memory, you’ll need it later.
TAKE ME TO THE RIVER
The giant stone sombrero formation of Mexican Hat is pretty hard to miss. But you have to look a little harder to see the muddy San Juan River. It likes to hide in those steep canyon cliffs. In summer, you can take a dip in the water to rinse off all that road-trip back sweat, but we strongly recommend a river trip to really soak it in. Give yourself a few days to float through the canyon and sleep on the beach while your guide practically spoon feeds you dutch-oven dinners. The San Juan rapids are mellow enough for small kids to get their faces splashed but not pee their pants in terror. Trips are booked through Wild River Expeditions. Be sure to reserve your spot a few weeks ahead of time as space is limited.
A MONUMENTAL DECISION
You’re back in Mexican Hat after the river trip of a lifetime. Now what? Here you have a choice. Go to Monument Valley or ... actually just go to Monument Valley. You’ve seen it in movies, on calendars, and on screen savers, but being there in person is special. On a sunny day, the red sand reflects onto the clouds, giving them a pink underbelly. The red sandstone buttes really work it during sunset.
Monument Valley Tribal Park is run by the Navajo Nation. Hire a local guide for the best experience. This is also a great place to buy handmade silver and turquoise jewelry from Navajo silversmiths. If you stuck around for the starlight, sleep the night at Goulding’s Lodge, a historic hotel and trading post just outside the park.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Back in Mexican Hat, get gas and head over to Goosenecks State Park for a quick overlook of the San Juan River. Watch it meander like a lost snake through deep cliff walls. Stretch those legs for a bit then get back on the 261. You’ll pass Valley of the Gods, a mini Monument Valley, and great backcountry territory.
Now is a good time to kick your tires and check your brake lines for tampering by an assassin. It’s gonna get real. Drive straight into the mesa. No, it’s not a dead end. It’s the Moki Dugway, a road built in 1958 to haul ore. Sharp eyes can see the camouflaged switchbacks cut through the cliff. This road takes you 1,200 feet to the top Cedar Mesa Plateau, the home of Bears Ears.
Creep your way to the top, but definitely look down. It’s okay to eat your stress-ball wad of Twizzlers now. You are surrounded by Juniper and Pinion Pine forest. All around you are entrances to canyons used by Ancestral Puebloans to get from river bottoms to high-elevation hunting grounds. Look straight ahead and you will see the two Bears Ears buttes close together as they stand out against the blue sky.
Bears Ears National Monument is managed by a coalition of the Forest Service, BLM, the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. All of these tribes consider this place to be extra special. If you find any artifacts here, please leave them be. Taking a few things to put on your mantle is disrespectful and illegal. Even moving a pot shard renders it useless to archaeologists. Leave it where it is. If you have to take something as a memento, let it be the sand in your underwear.
Most of the hikes around here are long backcountry walks and require a permit.
If you’re looking for shorter hikes or easily accessible archaeological sites, wait just a min. We’ll get there.
Do you have scenery exhaustion yet? Do you feel desensitized to beautiful rock formations? Well punch yourself in the face and wake up. Natural Bridges National Monument needs your full attention. Three bridges in one canyon make for a compact sightseeing extravaganza.
Drive the loop to see Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo span from one side of the canyon to the other. Take the short and scrambly Sipapu Bridge Trail, or hike along the bottom and hit all three bridges, a lovely way to spend the day. Although nighttime is prime time around here. It’s not a bad idea to wait for sunset and experience some of the darkest skies ever recorded. This monument was the world’s first International Dark Sky Park. Stargazing programs run throughout the summer. Wrap yourself in a blanket and let a Ranger endarken your mind.
Head east on State Route 95 and watch for a turnoff to Mule Canyon Trailhead. The trail will take you up to the House on Fire dwelling, so named for the dramatic exterior decorating. It has drama, plumb masonry and the trail is only 1.9 miles roundtrip.
The last stop on our trip is Butler Wash Ruins. It’s a short walk to the overlook from the parking lot. Set in an alcove, the dwellings are intact but inaccessible to the average Joe. The original residents used ladders to get in — and to lock corn thieves out.
We hope you enjoyed your trip! Here’s some homework. Go home, genetically modify grass into an edible crop, and start a new civilization in your basement. Let us know how it goes. Good luck!
See you next time!