Mesa Verde and Capitol Reef National Parks are less than five hours apart if you go the fastest way, but there’s plenty to see in between, so we made it a two-day transit. The first stop was the Four Corners Monument, about an hour and a half from Far View Lodge. It’s the location where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet, the only spot in the United States shared by four states. The Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department maintains the site and charges $5 per person for access (cash only). The exact meeting point is marked by a bronze disc surrounded by a large circular plaza with seating and flags of the states and native nations represented. Outside that is a row of market stalls where Native American artisans sell crafts. We expected Four Corners to be a bit of a tourist trap, but were pleasantly surprised. Most visitors wait in an orderly fashion to take photos of themselves in various positions touching all four states at once. We snapped a couple photos and then browsed around the shops. Aside from a couple t-shirt stands, the majority of the crafts on display are quality, handmade items, with many of the artists working right there while you watch. It’s a good place to pick up some authentic souvenirs and support local crafts men and women.
Continuing west another hour and a half brought us to the famous Monument Valley of Arizona and Utah. Admission is $20 per car for up to four people and $6 for each additional person. Like Four Corners, it’s run by the Navajo Nation so it doesn’t have quite the level of services, interpretive exhibits or programs expected from the National Park Service, but the scenery is truly unique. Giant sandstone buttes rise up to 1,000 feet from the valley floor all around. From the visitor center the famous “mitten buttes” are front and center. A 17-mile unpaved loop road is open to the public to get farther into the valley. It is very rough in places, making it a slow trip unless you’re in a large four wheel drive vehicle. Guided tours in open trucks would be a fun but dusty alternative to driving yourself. Temperatures were hovering right around 100 degrees when we were there on July 2, so any hiking was out of the question. The rock is red, the dirt is red and your car will be red after driving the road, but it’s a great way to get up close to the formations. Many Western movies were filmed with Monument Valley as a backdrop, helping making it he standard landscape people think of when they envision the American West. Director John Ford used the Valley for several of his films and now for $5 you can have your photo taken on a horse at John Ford Point (why did we not do that?). Our next lodging stop was just a half hour away in Mexican Hat, with the skyline of Monument Valley in the rearview mirror nearly the whole time. We’d later come back to this section of Highway 163 to watch the sunset.
When looking for lodging in sparsely populated areas, our normal urban go-tos like Hotwire and Hotels.com aren’t always useful. There is no significant town near Monument Valley, just the pricey hotel in the park, the large Goulding’s Lodge across the highway. A quick search on Google Maps revealed a cluster of reasonably priced lodging at a tiny dot on the map called Mexican Hat. It sounds like a joke, but it’s the town’s real name. It’s named after a rock formation along the highway that looks like an upside down sombrero (in retrospect Sombrero, Utah might have had a better ring to it). We selected the creatively named Mexican Hat Lodge because of its reasonable rates and the on-site restaurant, Swingin’ Steaks. The indoor pool furnished a refreshing dip and a French family of 5 that pulled in at the same time as us provided eavesdropping entertainment in the patio area. After viewing the sunset, we returned for dinner at the Swingin’ Steak. This is a restaurant that truly does one thing and does it well. Basically you just choose what cut of steak you’d like, your preferred temperature , and it comes with beans, salad and Texas toast on the side. Done. A man in a cowboy hat fires the steaks on a grill that swings like a pendulum, passing through the flames repeatedly until seared to perfection. We enjoyed the ambiance of the outdoor seating with a couple Polygamy Porter beers from Wasatch Brewery. If you’re like us, you’ll want to research ahead when traveling in Utah to make sure a restaurant has a liquor license.
Our day of travel between Mexican Hat and Capitol Reef National Park was a spectacular one. Some of the highlights were expected, but there were some surprises in store for us as well. We grabbed a light breakfast from a convenience store and headed out early, knowing we had a lot of stuff to see throughout the day. After passing the rock formation that gives Mexican Hat its name, we stopped just a few miles north of town to eat with a view at Goosenecks State Park. It is a small park with no real facilities other than an overlook and a few places to park campers, but there is a great view of a section of the San Juan River where it has doubled back repeatedly carving a series of switchbacks in a deep, narrow canyon. Speaking of switchbacks, we departed the park and turned northwestward toward our next planned stop, but after driving several miles across Valley of the Gods on Utah 261 we were pointing directly toward a seemingly impenetrable wall of rock. A sign warned us of “narrow gravel road next 3 miles” but we looked ahead and could not figure out where this road was taking us. Is there a tunnel? A sudden turn to the left? Nope, we had just come face to face with the Moki Dugway, which somehow went unnoticed in all our planning. Just before arriving at the base of Cedar Mesa, the highway degrades to a rough, dirt/gravel surface and begins climbing 1,200 vertical feet in a dizzying series of switchbacks. At the top there is a panoramic view of Valley of the Gods below and Monument Vally on the southern horizon. Turns out, the road was built by a mining company in the 1950s as a shortcut to get ore from the Mesa top to the processing plant near Mexican Hat. It’s a shortcut worth taking, but may be impassable in wet or snowy weather.
After a quick cruise through open range atop Cedar Mesa (complete with cows crossing), we arrived at Natural Bridges National Monument. Utah’s first national monument, created in 1908, contains three examples of water-carved natural bridges, each in a different phase of its life cycle (youth, maturity, and old age). Sipapu Bridge is the largest and best-known in the park and it’s the first encountered on the circular scenic drive. We made the 1.2-mile round trip hike that descends from the White Canyon rim 500 vertical feet down to the dry creek bed. From below the arch towers 200 feet above and provides great photography opportunities. It’s a fairly strenuous hike back out of the canyon, mostly because of the heat that was already cranking up in the morning sun. At Kachina and Owachomo bridges we only stopped at the overlooks. With a thickness of only 9 feet at its center, Owachomo represents the old age phase of bridge making. Eventually with enough erosion bridges like this will collapse under their own weight.
The easiest way to get to the town of Torrey, Utah from Natural Bridges is to head north on Utah 95 and then west on Utah 24, but we had a more compelling plan. Veering west on Utah 276 leads to Hall’s Crossing in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s the location of a historic river crossing, and after the filling of Lake Powell, became the southern landing point for the car and passenger ferry to Bullfrog, on the opposite shore. The boat Charles Hall makes four daily round trips, but it’s important to call or email ahead of time to ensure the boat is running. Having to backtrack would have cost us hours, so we made sure to confirm the schedule and then arrived at the loading point with a half hour to spare before the Noon departure. The half hour ride was a nice break in the driving and we took a lunch break at the Anasazi Restaurant in the Defiance House Lodge in Bullfrog before continuing.
Our next detour leg was to enter the remote southern stretches of Capitol Reef National Park via the Burr Trail. We stopped by the Bullfrog visitor center to ask a ranger about current road conditions and were given a report of “bone dry”. The Burr Trail is a mostly unpaved 68-mile route that can become tricky or impassable after a rain. It follows an old cattle trail used to take livestock from summer to winter grazing grounds. Along its southern section, the craggy, upturned ridge of rock known as the Waterpocket Fold came into view on the left. It’s the main geologic feature that defines Capitol Reef and is an incredible sight to see from any angle. We chose this southern entrance approach because otherwise it’s a long round trip from Torrey that we wouldn’t have had time to make. A few miles after passing the park boundary sign, a left turn leads to a narrow gap in the rock and a set of steep switchbacks that crawl over the waterpocket fold. It’s about 1,000 feet up and pretty rough, but the Mazda 3 handled it like a champ. Beyond the summit, we rejoined a paved road that wiggled its way through forest, then a steep-walled red canyon and then amongst giant lumpy mountains of white rock before emerging at the town of Boulder, Utah. From here, Bryce Canyon National Park (which we visited in 2012 and highly recommend) is just 75 miles to the west and Torrey is about 40 scenic miles to the north along Utah 12, traversing Boulder Mountain and overlooking Capitol Reef the whole way. After a quick visit to the park visitor center to orient ourselves and pick up brochures, we settled in at our day’s destination, Rim Rock Inn, and enjoyed a giant pizza and pitchers of beer at their Patio restaurant. What a day.
Up Next: Capitol Reef