Southern Utah: The Beauty and History of Blanding, Bluff and Monument Valley
May 29, 2017
As much as we enjoyed our time in Moab, it was time to move on. Our next stop was just around 100 or so miles down the road, so we were in no rush to leave. On departure day, we woke up to rain, which we’d prefer not to travel in if at all possible, but the rain stopped by mid morning, which made the traveling part of our trip okay, but would our next camping spot be okay? You see, we were heading to, what the reviews stated, “An incredible boondocking spot, but be careful getting in if the roads are wet, if rain is predicted or if it's rained recently” Great. Hmmm. What to do, what to do?!?
Well, with no back up plan, we figured that we would check it out and would figure out something else if it didn’t look like we could get in. And not soon after our journey started, we had two indicators that our plan was on the right track. The first was a quick glance at facebook where we discovered our friends Kat and Bert, who we met at Usery earlier this year, had posted that they were boondocking in the same place we were heading. We dropped them a quick IM, but they were out exploring and didn’t get it right away. And the second indicator was when, about half way to our destination, we were passed by this very cool Airstream. Since it was heading in the same direction we were, we took it as a good sign that our plan was going to be okay!!
Seriously, how could we go wrong!?!
We were heading towards some BLM land, off of Valley of the Gods road, in-between Bluff and Mexican Hat, Utah. There were some mixed reviews about how big rig friendly it was, but figured we would scout it out first in the truck and make a determination if we would be okay. Valley of the Gods road makes a loop and there are two entrances, one off of highway 163 and one off of 261. The reviews said to enter off of Highway 163, so that’s what we did. After we turned in, we unhitched and I went scouting for a spot and to check out the roads. After crossing over a tricky wash, I drove several miles of the 14 mile road and passed a couple of areas that would work, and ultimately decided that a nice spot about a mile from the entrance would be perfect for us. So I parked the truck in that spot, and contacted Greg to start heading in. As I mentioned, the only tricky part of getting to the spot would be getting through the wash, which had some water in it because of the rain, but if he tackled it real slow, was thinking he would be okay. And he was. Whew!! (As a side note, when we turned off Valley of the Gods Road, there is a hill, and coming in; it’s a decline. No problem if you go slow. Getting out, it’s a pretty steep incline, which was a little harder, but we managed okay with a little extra push on the gas pedal and we didn’t hook up the toad until after we got on highway 163.)
Valley of the Gods Road has been described by some as a mini Monument Valley and our spot was beautiful; one of the prettiest boondocking sites we have had had the pleasure of staying at. While we were there, we did drive the entire Valley of the Gods loop, and most of the spots that can hold any substantive size RV (beyond a tent or truck camper) are found closer to the entrance of highway 163, so that's definitely the way to enter if you are boondocking.)
Our perfect spot!
Great solar spot...and no trees blocking the satellite!!
And some of the other beautiful views along Valley of the Gods Road
After we got settled, our friends Bert and Kat stopped by from their day of exploring and we invited them back down for dinner. They were leaving the next day, so being able to spend some time with them was great. We had dinner, enjoyed some wine (donated by Debbie and Steve) and had a nice evening chatting. We joined them the following morning for a quick breakfast and after a minor issue with one of their tires, they were on their way to Moab, which was their next stop. It was great to see them, even if only for a quick visit!! Love this tribe of nomads!!
So, the red rocks were supposed to be in the background;
still needing some help with the selfie stick!!
We had about four days plotted for our stop, with only really one item on our “to do” list, which was Monument Valley. And because of our limited internet at our previous location, we didn’t do a whole lot of research on other things to do. But with a little internet (and little meaning 3G), we were pleasantly surprised to discover many more things to do and sights to see in in the area. And when I say “area," that was about a fifty mile radius, because we were a little bit in the boonies, surrounded by very small rural towns.
We packed a lot into our short time there, and in hindsight, I'd probably add another couple days to our itinerary here as there were a few more things that we could have tackled, but fortunately this most likely won't be our last stop in this area.
"There's No Time
To Be Bored
In a World
As Beautiful as This"
While our first day was spent tackling some work and other projects, the following day, we headed towards Goosenecks State Park, which is a pretty small state park, on the edge of a deep canyon. It has an expansive and beautiful overlook with the San Juan river twisting and turning through it. Utah State Parks charge an admission, which varies by park and the price to get into Goosenecks was $5.00. While the view isn't a million dollar view, it's definitely more than a $5.00 view....breathtaking for sure! Aside from the view/overlook, the park has some picnic tables and a few camping spots, but overall not much more to it and a quick 30 minute stop.
Goosenecks Scenic Overview
Our next stop was Natural Bridges National Monument, but not without a little adventure first! We were traveling down highway 261 (the other entrance to Valley of the Gods Road) and yea, we saw the signs about the road not being recommended for vehicles over 28 ft, 10,000 lbs, etc. but didn't quite understand it as it seemed like a nice paved road, but just past the State Park, the road turned to an unpaved road. That unpaved road is called the Moki Dugway and is a graded dirt switchback carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It is three miles of a steep, unpaved, very curvy road, with a 11% grade in spots. The Moki Dugway was constructed in the 1950's to provide a way to haul ore from one mine to another. Uh, okay, now I get it!
After the three miles of white knuckle back and forth and not looking down, we reached pavement and normal roads. Whew!! (One of our Facebook followers, Jeannie Travels clued us in to the name of this road; prior to that, we were referring to it as THAT crazy a$$ road, not knowing it actually had its own special name!!)
Unlike our Moab adventure, at least we did this road in the daylight!!
Needless to say, after the challenging drive, we were excited to get to Natural Bridges National Monument. Upon arriving, we stopped by the Visitor's Center to get some general information and show them our National Parks Pass (otherwise the cost is $10). The park has some hikes, which provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the natural bridges, or the other option was driving the scenic loop, which is what we opted to do since we had Hobie with us (dogs aren't allowed on the trails). To drive the loop, walk to the scenic overlooks and snap some pictures, we spent a little over an hour at the park.
Sort of like Where's Waldo? Where's the Natural Bridge?
Sipapu Natural Bridge: The largest of the three bridges
Here's a close up of the bridge: Height: 220 feet, Span: 268 feet,
Width: 31 feet , Thickness: 53 feet
Horse Collar Ruins, at the base, covered by the shadows of the afternoon sun.
A close up of the shaded Horse Collar Ruins
Kachina Bridge, the second largest of the three bridges
And a close up of Kachina Bridge: Height: 210 feet, Span: 204 feet,
Width: 44 feet, Thickness: 93 feet
And our favorite (and smallest) of the three bridges, Owachomo Bridge.
We were surprised that it was the smallest because it really looked larger than the others.
And a close up of Owachomo: Height: 106 feet, Span: 180 feet,
Width: 27 feet, Thickness: 9 feet
On the road in to Natural Bridges, we saw a sign for Bears Ears, which since we've been in Utah, we have been seeing a variety of signs in the local communities, some in support of the Monument, and some opposed. (President Obama declared Bear Ears a National Monument right before he exited office and there is obviously a lot of controversy around it.) We wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so we turned off onto the dirt road and drove the six miles to Bears Ears.
We actually drove more than the six miles thinking that there had to be more to it,
but didn't see anything else. This is it. Bears Ears.
So, after doing a little research, turns out there is a lot more to Bears Ears National Monument than the two buttes as it encompasses about 1,350,000 million acres and is largely undeveloped and contains a wide array of historic, cultural and natural resources. The monument is co-managed by the Bureau of Land Management and United States Forest Service, along with a coalition of five local Native American tribes; the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni, all of which have ancestral ties to the region.
The current Utah governor has asked President Trump to rescind the designation of Bears Ears as a National Monument and it's currently under "review," whatever that means. Not to get political, but do believe it's important to preserve some of this important history that our National Parks and Monuments provide and honestly don't know enough about the situation at Bears Ears to say whether it is the right thing for the community. Whatever the outcome, we just hope the history is preserved.
After a quick drunch (dinner/lunch), we debated whether we wanted to tackle one more adventure, or call it a night....and adventure ultimately won.
Next stop, after about another hour drive, was Hovenweep National Monument. By the time we arrived, it was almost sunset, so the Visitor's Center was closed, but the park was still open (it closes at sunset). And aside from those staying at the small campground, we were the only ones there. Awesome!!
Hovenweep National Monument contains six separate prehistoric ruin villages, located in Utah and Colorado, dating from the Pueblo period of the mid thirteenth century. Seeing as it was late in the day, we were only going to tackle the main ruins which were located in an canyon, just a short walk from the back of the Visitor's Center. And from our research, these are the best preserved and easily accessed ruins.
Here are some shots of Little Ruin Canyon.
Not the best time of day for good pics unfortunately.
Twin Towers (left), Rim Rock House (mid-back right) and Eroded Boulder House (far right)
Eroded Boulder House
And a close up of the Boulder House
While our arrival time was unintentional, it was a nice, non-crowded way to explore, and something we will have to keep in mind as we visit other places....especially as the summer, typically the more crowded months, are upon us!
The next day, we were on our way to Blanding, and as we were driving through the small town of Bluff, population 300+ , we thought it would be cool to check out their historical "loop" which is visible from the highway. The loop is basically one block by one block and we were surprised to see a Visitor's Center, so we stopped. When we walked in, we were greeted by a nice gentleman who started telling us a little about the area and asked us if we wanted to take the tour and before we knew it, the picture frames on the wall started talking to us.
The three picture frames in the middle were videos of those portraying some
of the founders of Bluff...and as part of the presentation,
they talked to each other and set the stage for the rest of the presentation.
Sounds corny, but very well done.
We then moved into the next room, where the guide talked about how Bluff came to be. It was an expedition, or mission where the Mormon church recruited (of sorts) numerous families (ultimately 250 people in 83 full-sized wagons), to relocate from the Salt Lake City area, to this corner of southeast Utah.
Can you imagine packing all of your worldly possessions into a wagon
and heading cross country? Okay, so our idea isn't original, but a lot easier today!
Next, we moved into a room that resembled a small church, with pews and a small organ, and briefly wondered if we were being recruited into the Mormon church.
Hmmm....what did we get ourselves into?
But, all was good, and in this room they played a video with the remainder of the story. Their route, which started out fairly benign, eventually led them to a 1200 foot cliff off of the Glen Canyon. In an attempt to cross the canyon, they discovered a steep crevice that served as the only breech in the canyon walls, which was their only way through. Turn around or go through?
They decided to blast and chisel through and after about six weeks of intense labor, they were able to move their convoy through the steep slopes, some reaching 45 degrees, and eventually settle in what is now known as the town of Bluff. What turned out to be a six-week expedition, turned into six months, but they made it!!
Sometimes we take our roads for granted.... A picture and a painting of the Hole in the Rock and what they actually had to go through to get to their destination.
One of the original wagons...hard to believe that it survived after that ride!
And part of the original settlement in Bluff
Overall, while we had no idea what we were getting into at one point, it was one of the best presentations we've seen at any visitor's center anywhere, hands down. And really gives us appreciation for some of these crazy a$$ roads we do encounter in our travels!
Next up, Blanding and Edge of Cedars State Park, which is home to the largest collection of Ancient relics from Pueblo People (Anasazi) in the region. It's an impressive museum, which also includes some restored ruins from an Anasazi community in the back. The park is basically a museum within the town, surrounded by houses and other businesses, so aside from the museum and a few picnic tables outside, there's not a whole lot more to it. We were fortunate to hit it on a "free day" otherwise it would have been $5.00 each to enter and as a bonus, it was also their annual Indian art market. The extra bonus was a pizza food truck in the parking lot, which of course we took advantage of. For $12, it was a nice size pizza; you couldn't beat it!!
There were many examples of the various pottery in the region.
Early prototype of flip flops
And some of the restored ruins
Sun Marker Sculpture by Joe Pachak, an artist from Bluff, Utah
An instrument for learning about and appreciating factors of nature that power weather, seasons and life on planet Earth.
Greg entering the kiva. Kivas were primarily used for ceremonies.
After scarfing down the pizza, we headed towards Butler WashAnasazi Ruins, which is another Anasazi ruin, located outside Blanding off of Highway 95. While there is a small sign on the road, it was our Just Ahead app that alerted us to the landmark the day prior, and we made a mental note to come back if we had time.
The hike, according to the app was about a mile each way, and was described as moderate. Since our bellies were loaded with a lot of pizza, seemed like a good way to burn that off and Hobie could tag along, so a definite bonus.
The trail leading to the ruins was narrow, parts were sculpted with high grass, parts were rocky, while other parts had a few obstacles and in a couple of places we had to hop over some water, but for the most part, the majority of the hike was fairly easy. The hardest part was getting to the ruins. Of course!!
The narrow path
And one of a few obstacles along the trail
We had to climb up a steep dirt incline, followed by a rock incline and then finally made it to the ruins, which are non-restored and mostly in their natural state. We were able to walk up and get very close to the ruins, so that part was really cool.
Butler Wash Ruins
Some of the ruins were in pretty rough shape
We discovered a cob from a corn, and a shard from some pottery, both of which we left behind, but imagine both pieces were really really old and full of a lot of history. There was also a pretty cool cave, which we checked out and then headed back to the truck.
If this corn cob could talk!
And the cave
For the first time ever, we took Hobie off the leash during a hike to see how he would do and he was like a mountain goat hopping over rocks, trees, wading in water, just enjoying life free from leash constraints. He did a great job sandwiched between us as we hiked back to the truck so it gave us a little hope that maybe he could enjoy some closely supervised sans leash freedom on occasion!!
Our final day was reserved for Monument Valley, and in order to get to Monument Valley, we had to pass through the very small town of Mexican Hat. An unusual name for a town, but our curiosity was quickly satisfied as to how it got its name as we entered the town and saw a unique rock formation.
This is the rock formation is on the outskirts of town.
(We also saw signs for Mexican Water; we don’t want to know how that town got its name!!)
Monument Valley is home to numerous sandstone masterpieces that tower between 400 and 1000 feet and is located on Navajo Tribal land. Aside from the popular scenic loop in Monument Valley, which is where many of those structures are located, there are other historical and beautiful parts of the Valley that are only accessed with Navajo guides. So, to celebrate Greg’s upcoming birthday, I had booked us one of those tours and had decided on doing the Mystery Valley tour over the popular Monument Valley tour because it was described as “A relatively unknown destination, Mystery Valley is characterized by labyrinth like side box canyons concealing an abundance of Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs.”
Getting to the park was a little confusing as there is a Visitor’s Center on the main highway (163), but to get to the Navajo Tribal Park, you turn at the Visitor’s Center, cross state line, pay $20 bucks and then you’re at the Navajo Tribal Park Welcome Center. The $20 gives you access to drive the scenic loop, the opportunity to explore the museum area, shop at the gift store, and in our case, meet our tour guide.
Our original plan was to get there earlier than we did, drive the scenic loop and then meet our guide, but somehow the day got away from us and we didn't have time to drive the loop. (We’ll have the chance to hit it again when we drive through later this summer). Upon arriving, we found our tour provider (as there are a few different ones set up on the fringe of the parking lot), met our guide and waited a bit before the start of our tour. It started to look like we were going to be the only ones for the sunset tour, but at the last minute a group of four showed up. Darn it!! Well, luckily, it turned out they wanted to do the extended Monument Valley tour, so they called in another guide to do our Mystery Valley tour, so we ended up having a private tour after all. Sweet!
We hopped in the SUV and headed down the road for our 29 mile round trip tour. We entered a dirt road, passed some ‘no trespassing’ signs and a few homes that were relatives of our guide, and then started to visit some of the more hidden, less visited sites. Our guide, Comasheena, was Navajo and she did a great job not only explaining the sights and some of the history, but she also shared information about her heritage, and best of all, she was also a pro at navigating the sandy, rough roads. It’s easy to understand the requirement to be accompanied by a guide as there would be no way to conquer that terrain without someone who knew where they were going.
Not only were we the only ones on our tour, we were the only ones in the whole area. Not another person in sight. The solitude was somewhat humbling as we went from viewing the beauty that nature created followed by the history that the Anasazi people left behind. Arches, ruins, rock formations, it was truly stunning.
Skull Head Arch
Making the trek up to Skull Head; it was pretty steep!!
Inside of the head
Some of the beautiful views
The sights never get old!
And a cool tree!!
And we ran into this....luckily we were in the SUV....and looks like he just ate!!
Square House Ruins
There were four separate areas of Hideout Ruins....most were fairly hidden,
which is probably how they got their name!!
There were several areas with various petroglyphs throughout the valley
And a lone skull...cow?
Half Moon Arch
Long House Ruins
Mini Hands Ruins
Look real close at the rock wall and you will see pictographs of tiny hands.
More mini hand pictographs
And, after about three hours of visiting the numerous sites, our tour ended back where it started.
The Mittens, Monument Valley
While we were a little bummed that we missed the main Monument Valley, we felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit some of the places that not too many people get to see.
And while there definitely isn’t not a lot of time to be bored surrounded by everything that Southern Utah has to offer, our next stop will be Page, just across the border in Arizona, where our pace will slow down a bit.