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Riding the Desert in Utah

Here I am inside Monument Valley Tribal Park.

Here I am inside Monument Valley Tribal Park.

Photo Credit: Kenneth W. Dahse

Kenneth W. Dahse
February 11, 2003
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel

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For those born and bred in the lush, green areas that represent much of the United States, riding into the arid regions of northern Arizona and southern Utah can be quite a shock to the senses. This is especially true during the summer months, when the sun beats down from the blue sky with the intensity of a blast furnace, and the heat rolls off the sand and rocks in waves. Nevertheless, the desert lands offer riders spectacular scenery and challenging roads.

Entering the Navajo Nation we stopped at the Four Corners Monument, where you can stand in Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico simultaneously. From this spot the stark beauty of the desert spreads out like a multicolored quilt in all directions. At Four Corners and other areas throughout the Navajo Nation, Navajo artisans have set up rustic shops with hand-crafted jewelry, food and other trinkets.

Navajo girls in native dress in Monument Valley Tribal Park.

Navajo girls in native dress in Monument Valley Tribal Park.

Leaving the Four Corners, we cruised deeper into the Navajo Nation to Monument Valley. There are two campgrounds here. Mitten View is in the Monument Valley Tribal Park. The other is Gouldings Monument Valley Campground (435-727-3235). Both are nice, but my riding buddies and I stayed at Gouldings, which has an indoor pool, showers, a laundromat and a small store. The campground is named after Harry and Leone “Mike” Goulding, who settled in the valley and opened the trading post in the ‘20s.

Since the 17-mile-loop road through the Monument Valley Tribal Park is unpaved, we weren’t sure if we’d be allowed to ride through on our street bikes. Fay and Tito, two Navajo concessionaires, told us we could, but to be careful because the road could be challenging for motorcycles in spots. You can take a self-guided tour through the park, or Navajo guides will drive you in 4x4s or lead you on a horseback riding tour.

“Native cow” in Monument Valley National Park.

“Native cow” in Monument Valley National Park.

Early the next morning, we fired up our bikes and bounced down the dirt road into the park. We quickly discovered that Fay and Tito weren’t exaggerating. In some places the loose sand was an inch or more deep. Nevertheless my Honda Spirit 1100 and the two Kawasaki Vulcan 750s handled well under our commands. Overall, the road was in decent shape, rideable by experienced riders on all types of bikes.

There are 11 numbered scenic stops along the route. Even though it is a park, Navajos live within the boundaries, some just like they did hundreds of years ago in hogans (circular log and earth huts). One resident, Calvin Butler, was kind enough to let me photograph him in front of his hogan. It’s considered disrespectful to photograph Navajos without their permission. If they allow you to do so, it’s customary to make at least a dollar donation per person, or more if requested. Although the loop road is only 17 miles long, we spent more than fours hours touring the valley. The expansive view of giant monoliths and mesas is awe-inspiring. My favorite overlook is John Ford’s Point, from which he filmed many a panorama for his westerns.

There are several loop rides that can be taken from Monument Valley. The first is about 350 miles long and brings you deeper into the reservation to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This picturesque canyon houses ancient Indian ruins which can be viewed from the rim roads. Navajo guides will escort you into the canyon proper.

View from Gouldings Lodge.

View from Gouldings Lodge.

Heading west on Route 264 brings you to the Hopi Reservation, which occupies a large tract in the center of Navajo Nation. Information about Hopi activities can be obtained at the Hopi Indian Agency in Keams Canyon (928-738-2228), or from the Hopi tribal headquarters in Kykotsmovi (928-734-3000). The Hopi Villages of Oraibi and Walpi, built high on a narrow, rocky mesa, are of particular interest due to their traditional Pueblo architecture. Oraibi is thought to be one of the oldest cities in the country, and most of the inhabitants of Walpi are ancestors of the inhabitants that began building the town in 1680. Unfortunately, photography is not permitted on the Hopi reservation.

The second circular ride is north into Utah and is about 200 miles. Due to a severe thunderstorm, it took us two attempts to complete this one. June to October is the rainy season, which usually consists of scattered afternoon thunderstorms that only last a short time. However, the day we took this ride, a severe thunderstorm bore down across the valley at us. We were on top of a mesa with no shelter in sight. Lightning struck the ground like exploding mortars and a wall of water marched our way.

Navajo Home-hogan.

Navajo Home-hogan.

“Maybe we should retreat,” Vinnie suggested, and I agreed. We fired up the bikes and rode down the dirt road to the valley and shelter in Mexican Hat. Sky-to-ground lightning and thunder exploded all around us, a curtain of blinding rain encircled us and strong winds whipped us back and forth. We had to struggle to keep the bikes upright.

We were about five miles from Mexican Hat when the first drops hit us, and within seconds there was a deluge. Streams appeared from nowhere and liquefied sand turned the roadway into a red river. We found shelter in a store in Mexican Hat, and after two hours the storm had passed.

We had better luck the next day. The ride from Monument Valley to Mexican Hat, population 100, is beautiful. The high desert land with its red sandstone, buttes and monoliths tickles the senses. Mexican Hat is so named for the 2,500-ton boulder that resembles a sombrero. It sits on a 200-foot cliff just north of the town. Mexican Hat is the real west and so far hasn’t suffered the yuppiefication that many other western towns have.

Gerry and Ken at an abandoned homestead in Utah.

Gerry and Ken at an abandoned homestead in Utah.

Nine miles northwest of Mexican Hat off Route 261 is Gooseneck State Park (Route 316). From its clifftop overlook, you can see the scenic “gooseneck” canyons of the San Juan River. From the cliff-edge to the river is more than a 1,000-foot drop and the limestone formation is 300-310 million years old.

As Route 261 snakes its way up the face of mesa, the pavement ends and the road turns to dirt. The top of the mesa offers a panoramic view of the high desert land below. If you turn left where the pavement begins again, a four-mile dirt road takes you to the Muley Point Overlook. Muley Point offers a spectacular panorama of Monument Valley to the south, and Navajo Mountain to the west. From there it’s a short ride across the forested mesa to Natural Bridges National Monument. This small park has three natural bridges, though the best views of them require hiking.

Arches National Park, Utah.

Arches National Park, Utah.

After leaving the Monument, we headed east on Route 95 to Route 191. Along scenic Route 95 are several Indian ruins, some of which are over 900 years old. At Route 191, we headed south toward Bluff. Founded in 1880, it’s the oldest Anglo community in the county. Like its name suggests, the town is surrounded by red sandstone bluffs, and has many sandstone Victorian homes built by the original settlers that are still in use today.

The ride from Bluff to Mexican Hat is through a red sand desert of gullies, bluffs and sagebrush. Before reaching the sombrero town, we passed the entrance to Valley of the Gods, a miniature Monument Valley of rock monoliths. Since this dirt road is far less traveled than the Monument Valley Tribal Park road and more challenging, we bypassed it.

The next day we left the Navajo Nation and rumbled north to Moab. Several interesting sites on the way include Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding, which has artifacts from four cultures that influenced southwestern Utah—the Ute, Navajo, Spanish and Anglo. Afew miles south of Moab are Wilson Arch and Hole in the Rock, a 5,000-square-foot home carved out of sandstone. Tours cost $2.75 and last 10-15 minutes. Sitting atop a small hillside, Wilson Arch caresses the sky with its massive frame.

Twin Rocks Café, Bluff, Utah.

Twin Rocks Café, Bluff, Utah.

Arches National Park, depicted in naturalist writer Edward Abbey’s nationally acclaimed book, Desert Solitaire, is even more impressive than his descriptions. The Entrada Sandstone, a 300-foot thick layer of rock, was deposited here as sand more than 150 million years ago. The erosion of that rock created the thousands of arches, spires, monoliths and canyons that can be viewed today. The road through the park is about 40 miles round trip, but to truly experience the park, you must hike. Most of the trails are easy to moderate; the heat, however, can be a major factor.

It’s difficult to believe that anyone could successfully ranch here, but the remnants of the Wolfe Ranch prove otherwise. John Wesley Wolfe, a Civil War veteran, settled here in the 1880s and operated the ranch for over 20 years. A primitive log cabin, root cellar and corral remain.

Dead Horse State Park, Utah.

Dead Horse State Park, Utah.

The trail to Delicate Arch begins at the ranch. It is three miles round trip and climbs 480 feet. There isn’t any shade, but if you have time, it’s well worth the effort. Hike it late in the day and bring plenty of water.

Early the next morning under cloud-covered skies, we rolled out of Moab to visit Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. Wild mustangs were once herded into the natural corral of Dead Horse Point, and some were inadvertently left to die of thirst, giving the spot its name.

At the Point, you’re 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. A spectacular panorama of sandstone cliffs, canyons, buttes and pinnacles unfolds before your eyes. You can see below to Shafer Trail, where Thelma and Louise drove off the cliff. A ranger told us he was there during the filming, and saw the director send a second Ford Thunderbird over the cliff because he wasn’t happy with the first take.

Standing in four states at once at Four Corners.

Standing in four states at once at Four Corners.

From Dead Horse Point State Park, we rolled to Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky section. This broad, level mesa is wedged between the Green and Colorado Rivers with vistas that stretch across canyons to the horizon 100 miles away. Some of the overlooks require short hikes but are well worth the time if you want to feel the rugged, “…splendor of the landscape, the perfection of the silence…” as Edward Abbey observed when he visited the island.

There are trails into the canyon and miles of dirt roads that can be explored for a few hours or several days in 4x4s. One, the White Rim Road, is over 100 miles long. Primitive campsites in the canyon require reservations (435-259-7164).

As we descended from the mesa to Moab, the clouds cleared and the pounding heat hit us like a slap across the face. We escaped to the coolness of the La Sal Mountains. This 65-mile loop ride takes you on scenic Route 128, which crawls its way alongside the Colorado River. It’s like motorcycling through the Grand Canyon, and continues another 25 miles or so beyond the La Sal loop turn off.

A map of the route taken.

A map of the route taken.

The La Sal Mountains is an open range area, and cattle wander wherever they want to, including all over the road. Vinnie, in mechanized cowboy mode, took great glee in rounding them up out of our way. Fortunately for Vinnie, none of the cows protested by ramming him and his iron horse.

The next day we rode north into cooler climes, but I couldn’t help but feel depressed about leaving this firey land. The spectacular beauty of giant monoliths, flaming rock formations, gullies and canyons were forever burned into my mind, and the memories of all the friendly people we met washed over me like a soothing mountain stream. I promised myself I’d return to the desert lands again.

(This article Riding the Desert: Red fire on a rockin’ ride was published in the February 2003 issue of Rider magazine.)

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