Many of the iconic landscapes of America’s National Parks lie within the Southwest’s Grand Circle. Is there a region in the States with a greater density of natural wonders? Yet the Grand Circle’s parks and monuments are not islands of scenic wonder scattered amongst a desert wasteland. Not even close. The miles of tarmac that link the National Parks pass through terrain as stunning as found within the parks’ boundaries. While cruising the Southwest’s roads there’s a good chance that the next bend in the road will provide a vista worthy of a National Park. The distinction between the scenic byways and the National Parks and Monuments blurs.
It was an inauspicious start of the leg of our road trip from Mesa Verde National Park to Capitol Reef. As we left Cortez Colorado near Mesa Verde National Park a man in a late model pick-up truck with two pit bulls in the back pulled in behind the car that was following us out of town. Near the edge of town, he crossed the solid line against the oncoming traffic, passed the car behind and then us (trailer and all) and immediately slowed down and crept along before turning off. He was sure to turn and flip us a big hairy bird. I guess he didn’t like our trailer, the California plates on the rig, or the mountain bike on the roof. Who knows? All I know is we weren’t going to complain particularly after discovering that a grocery store in Cortez carries a 17:1 ratio of gun to mountain biking magazines. (And yes, I did count.) Perhaps our departure was not a Cortez Chamber of Commerce moment.
Escaping Cortez intact we headed west on US 160 to the Four Corners Monument for a typical tourist stop. After pictorial evidence of our co-occupation of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah was obtained we continued on US 160 and then north on US 191 retracing the path we took earlier in the road trip. With a left turn on to Scenic Byway US 163 near Bluff, the route turned spectacular.
In sight of Mexican Hat’s improbable namesake balanced rock, we turned north onto Utah 261. Our planned route would take us by Natural Bridges National Monument. But there was a problem.
“10% GRADES 5 MPH SWITCHBACKS NARROW GRAVEL ROAD,” declared a big yellow sign alongside the road.
“A gravel road?” I asked Becky as she scrambled for the AAA atlas.
It didn’t sound like something we would want to take the trailer over. Sure enough, another yellow warning sign confirmed our fears:
“NOT Recommended for Trucks over 10,000 lbs G.V.W. RV’s—Buses—Vehicles Towing.”
At least we weren’t driving a bus. Everything else on the sign was bad for us.
Somehow I missed that a section of our route was not paved. Indeed, when Becky fixed our location on the map, there was a tight squiggle of barely visible grey road lines at our location. The map’s legend confirmed that the grey line meant unpaved road. It was hard to see, but the map showed unpaved road for a short distance of our route.
All the same we were locked into the route. It would have been a painfully long detour to avoid this section of gravel road. Once again we would do something that was not recommended. We continued forward on Utah 261 into a section that we later learned is named Moki Dugway.
Moki Dugway is a semi-sketchy road built on the side of a red rock escarpment to take uranium ore from the Happy Jack mine to Mexican Hat for processing. The bottom of Moki Dugway sits near the end of the road through the Valley of the Gods; the top is on Cedar Mesa. A set of gravel-surfaced switchbacks links the paved road at the top to the paved road at the bottom. In between there’s plenty of exposure and no guardrails. But, despite the warning signs, Moki Dugway is not particularly scary. It’s nothing like the road we drove in the Alpes last summer. And though the sign said that the road is narrow, it isn’t. Even the gravel surface wasn’t so bad. We’ve been down rougher paved roads. In fact, it’s hard to figure out why this particular short stretch of road has not yet been paved.
Perhaps the biggest risk in driving Moki Dugway is the distracting scenery. Any exposed road on a red rock escarpment overlooking a place deemed to be the Valley of the Gods stands a good chance of being extraordinarily scenic. Moki Dugway does not disappoint.
On the other side of Moki Dugway, when Utah 261 ended at US 95, we took a left. A short distance from the road intersection is Natural Bridges National Monument. We stopped for a couple hours to explore the National Monument; Natural Bridges is worth a longer visit.
Spectacular scenery continues north on US 95. The highway sits on a shelf between vertical red Wingate sandstone bluffs and the narrow and meandering White Canyon. As it does in Natural Bridges, the steep-walled gorge of White Canyon wanders constantly. Periodically views from the road left us imagining what it would be like to explore this rock-walled slot canyon. Perhaps a future adventure has been hatched.
White Canyon turns away from the road shortly before US 95 reaches the Colorado River. The highway crosses high above the Colorado on a through steel arch bridge. Once this bridge crossed Lake Powell. Now the inlet to the reservoir has receded miles. A cement boat ramp nearby sits far above the fast flowing river water distant from the calm lake waters. Deep sediment deposits alongside the reformed river provide witness to the lake water’s historic extent. Reservoir or not, the area is a striking red rock landscape. Indeed, from Moki Dugway on to the Colorado River, the roadway scenery is as spectacular as any drive we can recall.
Scenic byways are designated by states and the nation. These routes are chosen to be tourist destinations in and of them selves. The officially selected Scenic Byways are the tarmac strip equivalent of the National Park system. And, like the National Parks, the list of Scenic Byways could be much longer. This is particularly true in the Southwest. Indeed, some of Utah’s most scenic roads have not been selected as Scenic Byways.
How do we find Utah’s scenic roads? We look at the map. The AAA atlas does a good job of marking the region’s most stunning roads. If a road in Utah is marked on AAA map with dots, it is worth a detour. Indeed, the AAA scenic roads are worth a special trip. And chances are that the spectacle of traveling a map-dotted roadway in Southwest will rival the awe of the day’s park and monument objectives. Some say that the journey is the destination. In Utah, the roads are the destination. National parks and National Monuments are the dessert at the end of the feast.