By Paul Rubio
Near the Utah-Arizona state border, Monument Valley (navajonationparks.org) has long served as Hollywood’s quintessential Western back lot, beginning with John Ford’s Stagecoach in 1939 and continuing to more modern blockbuster films such as Mission Impossible II and Back to the Future III. This vast expanse of unique sandstone formations and historic home to the Navajo Indian Nation rises dramatically from the ground, far and away from any major town or airport in a place void of most links to modernity. Connecting this time warp to a lucrative tourist industry, the Gouldings Lodge (gouldings.com) offers dining, overnight accommodations, day tours and activities
to dutifully experience Monument Valley.
Goulding’s safari-style tour trucks navigate the bumpy, roller coaster trails through the Valley with the help of an experienced Navajo driver and guide. The open-aired truck makes stops at superlative locations to photograph the most famous rock formations like the Three Sisters, the Eye of the Sun, Submarine Rock, and the Mittens. Inside the Valley, descendants of domestic sheep and horses from the conquistadors’ days roam freely. Those hoping to explore the valley on their own should think twice. Most rental vehicles struggle to handle the terrain, and the majority of the Valley is restricted to use by official tour and park vehicles. Through Gouldings, it’s possible to arrange Monument Valley activities in advance, like the tour described above, horseback group rides, and also ATV or hiking excursions to other near sites outside of the Monument Valley Preserve.
While Monument Valley consummates a childhood fantasy of playing “Cowboys and Indians,” getting to this clandestine destination is half the adventure. When planning a Utah tour de force, the most logical and spectacular way to reach here is via Bicentennial Scenic Byway 95, coming from Hanksville, 45 minutes east of Capitol Reef National Park. Pictures, pit stops, deep thoughts and all, this drive could easily take all day. Indeed, it’s likely that you will hope this road trip will never end.
Carved through the pinnacle of southeastern Utah’s Canyon country, the Bicentennial Scenic Byway showcases the diversity of the state’s landscapes. The byway passes through Bridges National Monument, the world’s largest display of natural bridges clocking in at 225 million years old, as well as the aquamarine oasis of Lake Powell. Veering south at Highway 261, the valleys of Southern Utah paint a jaw-dropping panorama as you descend the Moki Dugway, an 11 percent grade, gravel zigzagged road lowering 1000 feet to the valley floor. It is here on Moki Dugway that the greatness of the Monument Valley first comes into view.
But the sights don’t end yet unless your early end game is the town of Bluff at the Desert Rose Inn (desertroseinn.com) for a comfortable respite from the day’s driving and sightseeing. Whether overnighting in Bluff or heading all the way to Gouldings in the same day, take a short detour west before reaching the town of Mexican Hat (appropriately named for the rock formation that forms a figure resembling the profile of a Mexican sombrero on the head of a serape-covered person) and you’ll soon arrive at Goosenecks State Park (utah.com/stateparks). Over 300+ million years old, the San Juan River has carved out a stunning display of a rare labyrinthine geologic formation known as “entrenched meander.” As you exit your vehicle and grow mesmerized by these natural “goose necks,” not having seen more than a dozen vehicles in the entire day, enjoying nothing but the sounds of wind and rock in a land void of radio and cell phone coverage, the epiphany hits. Utah’s sandstone-strewn canyon lands have become the pages of your personal Choose Your Own Adventure Book, each detour or turn another page number, leading you to our bespoke conclusion. The Earth seems limitless and inviting and somehow all yours.
To learn more about travel in Utah visit www.utah.travel.