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RVers Explore Mexican Hat, Utah and Ancient Land

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Way down in the southeast corner of Utah sits a little town called Mexican Hat. When we saw it on the map we were intrigued. Our minds conjured up images of handsome vaqueros on horseback, beautiful folklorico dancers in swirling skirts and quiet Spanish courtyards dripping with bougainvillea. So after a trip to Monument Valley, on a whim, we pointed our motorhome to the north along U.S. Highway 163. As we traveled the 21 miles between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat we descended a thousand feet or so to the San Juan River. Before we could blink, we were through the tiny cluster of old buildings huddled along the river that makes up Mexican Hat. Founded in the early part of the 20th century during an oil boom, Mexican Hat now has a population of less than 100 and functions mostly as a stopover point for visitors on their way to Monument Valley or as a base for river expeditions. As we checked in aton the north edge of what could hardly be called a town, we saw a number of RVs rushing past on their way to the well-known national parks up the road. Was this a waste of time, we asked ourselves? Was there anything worth seeing here? As we set up camp, the sun was sinking low on the horizon and the skies were filling with storm clouds promising rain but also a splendid sunset. The happy sound of laughter and country music emanated from a funky old motel next to the RV park and the tantalizing aroma of beef cooking on a barbecue sent our appetites soaring. Walking over to check it out, we found a little outdoor restaurant called Swinging Steak. Business at the bar was brisk and we watched as a couple of people arrived on horseback and tied their mounts right next to shiny Harleys. No, they weren’t our conjured vaqueros, just a couple of thirsty guys in dusty jeans looking for Coronas. A young man dressed in cowboy garb was cooking steaks on a swinging grill and stirring up a pot of ranch-style beans. We seated ourselves and chatted with the young cook. His grandmother had built this swinging grill years before, he told us, as she found it to be the best way to cook a perfect steak. Guess she was right, as we have had few tastier than these.

The next morning we decided to explore part of thea loop drive northeast on Highway 163 to the town of Bluff, then head up U.S. Highway 191 to Blanding and, from there, west over Bicentennial Highway 95 toThen we intended to travel south on State Highway 261 back to Mexican Hat. And thus began our adventure into an ancient land far older than the Spanish culture we’d fantasized about. It’s a land filled with 250-million-year-old rock formations, mysterious Anasazi ruins and remnants of long-ago Mormon pioneer families, all but undiscovered by crowds of tourists. Thank goodness we discussed our travel plans with our campground host as there was nothing on the map to warn us that the southern part of Highway 261, called the Moki Dugway, was not recommended for a large motorhome. As we discovered later, even road signs do not adequately warn of the danger of such an attempt. Revising our plans, we decided to explore the southern portion of our planned loop while continuing to camp in Mexican Hat. Rain played soft staccato notes on the roof of our coach as we slept, but morning dawned clear and sunny. Setting out in our 4WD dinghy, we stopped just north of the campground at the enormous red sandstone formation for which Mexican Hat is named.

Looming tall above the landscape with its brim of 60 feet in diameter, it certainly takes no imagination to see the gigantic hat. Continuing north about 10 miles on Highway 163, we turned west on the 17-mile (County Road 242) dirt road leading through the little-known Valley of the Gods. Though the drive time through the valley is estimated at two hours, it took us most of the day as we stopped to take pictures and short hikes around the massive rock formations. Like a smaller version of Monument Valley, amazing sandstone gleams in brilliant shades of red and purple. In spite of the rain the night before, the road was easily traveled by passenger car, though in wetter times it can be difficult for even a 4WD vehicle. While we had the road all to ourselves, we caught glimpses of a couple of small campers set up in sheltered spots below scenic monoliths. Camping is allowed in the area, administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), although this is not a road to be traversed in anything more than a camper van. You won’t find any services as you travel through the Valley of the Gods so be sure you have plenty of gas, water and food.

 Finally exiting at the west entrance off Highway 261, we traveled north a few miles to check out the infamous portion of the gravel road known as the Moki Dugway. Built in 1958 for the transportation of uranium ore to the processing mill in Mexican Hat, it was never planned for regular public use. Now Richard is no wimp when it comes to driving difficult roads, but by the time we traversed the sharp hairpin turns with a 10-percent grade ascending 1,000 feet in less than three miles, we knew there was no way a motorhome of any size could navigate this road. And even though we have read reports of short camping vehicles making the trip, we would definitely discourage any attempt. Upon reaching the top we took the remote five-mile dirt road traveling west to Muley Point, which we’d heard had been listed by National Geographic as one of the most outstanding views in America. We were not disappointed as its magnificent overlook peered deep into the San Juan River Canyon and on to Monument Valley 25 miles or so in the distance. Several small RVs were dry camping in the surrounding desert and from the look of the bicycles they had with them this must be a popular place to ride. Retracing our route down the Dugway as we returned to our campsite in Mexican Hat, we stopped at Goosenecks State Park and the overlook of the Goosenecks of the San Juan River. With an elevation of 5,000 feet, a high viewpoint located there provides a spectacular look at the serpentine ridges formed by the San Juan River 1,000 feet below in what is known as the deepest entrenched river meanders in North America. Like a snake it coils back on itself for a distance of six and a half miles while only advancing one linear mile. Located at the end of Highway 316, Goosenecks is a wilde­rness park encompassing 10 acres. Only primitive camping is available and sites are first come, first served. Back at the motorhome we pulled our dinners out of the freezer but once again the smell of those steaks was too enticing. A person could get fat camping here very long.

 The next day we moved camp a few miles up Highway 163 to Cadillac Ranch RV Park in Bluff, a small town on the edge of the Navajo Nation. At first glance it doesn’t look like much, but look again. Settled by the famous “Hole in the Rock” expedition of Mormon pioneers in the 1880s, its history goes back to ancient Puebloan people who made their homes first in pit houses and then in cliff dwellings. Two miles west of Bluff, at Sand Island Campground, located on BLM land beside the San Juan River, an amazing wall of pictographs tells the story of their lives. To see more of the ancient Puebloan culture of this region, a side trip to the east will take you to the hauntingly mysterious ruins of Hovenweep National Monument. You can either make that a day trip or spend a night or so at the campground located there. A drive through Bluff’s historic district reveals an interesting story of pioneer life and the endurance needed to thrive in this faraway outpost. While in town be sure to eat at Twin Rocks Trading Post, where you’ll find not only a feast for the tummy but for the eyes as well with the beautiful museum-quality art, jewelry and rugs made by Navajo, Hopi and Zuni tribes. Moving farther north to Blanding, the hub of the great Southwestern Indian tribes with Navajos to the south, Paiutes to the west and southwest, and Utes to the east and northeast, we found an area rich in the history of the earth and the changing cultures of the humans who lived here. A good place to start is at the visitor center (which doubles as a Pioneer Museum), and then the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, built next to an Ancestral Puebloan Indian ruin. With its fine collection of Anasazi pottery and other artifacts, the museum tells a fascinating story of ancient settlements in the Four Corners region. A stop at the nearby Dinosaur Museum takes you even further back with its wonderfully re-created dinosaurs telling their own stories of that time period. In 1879 Mormon settlers arrived, adding another dimension to the rich historical character of the area. Lunch at Old Tymer Restaurant, with its displays of antique farming implements, introduced us to a new treat – “ribbon fries.” Moving west along Bicentennial Highway 95, the northern part of our loop, we stopped at two interesting ancient ruins. Butler Wash Indian Ruins, about 10.5 miles west of Blanding on Highway 95, has cliff-type dwellings located under rocky overhangs in a lush green valley along the river. An easy half-mile hike allows closer views. Eight miles farther west along Highway 95 brings you to the Mule Canyon Indian Ruins at milepost 101. Just a quick roadside stop, the site includes the walls of a square lodge and a round tower – all made of stone. Just a few more miles and you’re at Natural Bridges National Monument, about 35 miles west of Blanding and the end of our route. Located atop a 5,500- to 6,500-foot mesa, a nine-mile paved road winds through the park, revealing spectacular views of deep pinyon-filled canyons full of ancient cliff dwellings. Trailheads for short hikes lead to archaeological sites or to the base of three giant natural stone bridges. A small campground is limited to RVs less than 26 feet, but an overflow area just outside the park has plenty of room. Park rangers will point you in the right direction. As you can see, we didn’t find any Mexican vaqueros, no colorful dancing girls and definitely no Spanish courtyards during our trip to Mexican Hat, but what we did discover was even more fascinating – an ancient land of incredible beauty. Valle’s RV Park,Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway,Natural Bridges National Monument.For More Information Cadillac Ranch RV Park www.cadillacranchrv.com. Natural Bridges National Monument www.nps.gov/nabr. Utah Travel Guide www.go-utah.com. Valle’s RV Park , 800-538-6195,, 435-692-1234,, 800-200-1160,, 435-683-2226.

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