From Colorado into Utah: Abandoned Cliff Dwellings, Monument Valley, and a Town Named After A Sombrero

Having reached the south-west corner of Colorado, we’d already noticed the landscape change dramatically, from mountains and pines to desert and scrub bush.

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First stop of the day was something I’d been looking forward to the whole road trip: Mesa Verde National Park.

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Mesa Verde is home to the incredible Anasazi cliff dwellings, constructed circa 1200 AD (by the time westerners had discovered them, they’d been abandoned for hundreds of years). We decided to take a self-guided tour of the complex known as Spruce Tree, though there are several different cliff dwellings to explore for those with more time.

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When we first saw it from the trail, I have to admit: I had a very strong Indiana Jones moment.

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A closer look:

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We began the walk down to the cliff dwelling, which has been open to visitors since 1908. We passed by this bench which, judging by the sign, I can only assume very people use.

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Despite the number of tourists, walking around the Spruce Tree cliff dwelling was a magical experience. One surprise came in the sudden temperature shift, which was easily 10-15 degrees cooler than the parking lot above. Even better, a pleasant breeze seemed to blow through continuously.

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The third largest of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, the Spruce Tree complex contains over 130 houses, constructed sometime between 1211 and 1278 AD, and was home to about 60-80 people.

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There are also 8 kivas, or underground ceremonial chambers, located at Spruce Tree. Circular in shape, they were accessed by wooden ladders:

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Here, a kiva whose roof has collapsed:

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On the roof of the cave are scorch marks from cave fires that burned over 800 years ago:

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Incredibly, the cliff ruins require very little restoration or maintenance efforts from the Parks Department, having survived for hundreds of years abandoned and forgotten. In fact, the worst damage occurred when western tourists began visiting in the 1800’s and vandalized it.

This stack of unmortared rocks, seemingly haphazardly placed and ready to fall, has actually been in place since cliff dwelling was occupied:

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The cliff dwellings were abandoned around 1300 AD, though no one is certain why. Many believe it may have been due to large scale droughts, though according to The X-Files, the Anasazi were abducted by aliens. We may never know the truth.

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Thoroughly amazed by the tour, we got back in the car. As we maneuvered back down the steep mountain, this photograph sold in the gift shop was continually in my mind:

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Looking back toward Colorado:

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Our major goal for the day was to see Monument Valley, located in southern Utah at the Arizona border. This would mean some backtracking I’d have prefered to avoid, but we decided it’d be worth it. I mean, it’s Monument Valley, right?

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Above, you can see that our route would take us close to the legendary Four Corners monument, where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado all come together to provide tourists with a unique photo opportunity. Below, a family enjoys the wonders of sitting in four states at once.

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Unfortunately, we were not able to enjoy the wonders of sitting in four states at once because the Four Corners was fucking closed the day we stopped by. They’re apparently renovating, though how you could make anything in the above picture any more exciting is beyond me. Disappointed, we moved on…

…but not before stopping at a bizarre out of business roadside attraction: Cowboy Town.

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I have no idea what Cowboy Town was, but it consists of a bunch of storefronts lining the side of the highway similar to the Front Street Museum we visited in Dodge City, Kansas.

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Except, the entire thing is fake – there’s nothing on the other side of the store facades except for a big field.

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Even the hotel is fake, though they added a second wall to complete the illusion.

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The only actual structure is a gift shop at the opposite end, and my guess is the whole thing was built to lure tourists with photo ops. It’s for sale now – any takers?

We continued on into Utah, and soon any green in the landscape began to disappear…

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…while incredible rock monoliths began spouting from the earth:

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To say that our route across the desert was straight would be an understatement:

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However, it was far from boring. Before long, beautiful wind-swept rock formations began appearing within feet of the pavement…

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And then we were surrounded by them:

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Awesome rusting car at the Cow Canyon Trading Post in Bluff, Utah:

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The White Stallion, finally happy to be on level ground:

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The further we got into Utah, the more rock formations appeared on the horizon:

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We passed through the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, literally named after this rock formation resembling a sombrero:

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Ahead, the horizon took on a strange craggy outline as Monument Valley came into view:

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Finally, we arrived!

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Monument Valley, located on a Navajo Reservation (not a National or State Park), consists of a 17-mile dirt road through the rock formations, and here’s where things took an unexpected turn.

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We paid our entrance fee and were handed a dinky photocopied map. We were about to drive in when the woman in the toll booth suddenly added, “Oh, and don’t worry. When you get down there, you’ll see lots of little cars.”

Strange, because I wasn’t worrying until she told me this. When we started our drive, I immediately realized she had lied to us.

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As smooth as the road looks in the above picture, it turned out to be totally impassable – at least, not without significant damage to the car. The road is lined with enormous holes and dips, as well as rock ledges that endlessly scraped against the car’s axle. Yesterday, we had driven Phantom Canyon Road, and the day before, up to Pike’s Peak – both irregularly maintained dirt roads, and both we traversed without issue. However, it quickly became apparent that our car would be destroyed if we ventured any further into Monument Valley.

We turned the car around and had a hell of a time just backtracking on our route to the main parking lot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not asking for a paved road to destroy the desert landscape. However, a simple sign warning of the absolutely terrible road conditions would have been nice, instead of the toll booth woman lying about the drive (the only other small cars we saw were having as bad a time as we were). After visiting the gift shop/museum, I started getting the sense the whole thing was a pretty shoddy operation, which is sort of odd for something as famous as Monument Valley.

Regardless, the drive was worth it, if only for the incredible rock formations you can see from the highway.

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We pulled into the town of Blanding, Utah, to spend the night. Fun fact about Blanding: the town was formerly known as Grayson until 1914, when a wealthy easterner offered a 1,000 volume library to any town that would adopt his name. Another town competed with Grayson, and ultimately the prize was split, with Blanding getting 500 books and the man’s wife’s maiden name.

For dinner, we ate at yet another tasty local favorite: The Patio Drive-In, home of the Big B Burger (which was pretty good).

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While waiting for our food to be ready, I noticed this sign put up by an Avon lady:

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And nearly all of the tags were gone! Most amazing thing we’d seen all day.

-SCOUT

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15 comments

  1. OH NO! You should not have judged the road thru Monument Valley based on that first quarter mile down to the floor level. That first bit is a bit daunting, no doubt. But once down on the main level it is just like any other dirt road and quite passable. I’ve been there a couple of times in small cars and had no issues at all.

    It’s a shame you didn’t get to see the rst of the place as it is truly amazing.

    • That’s disappointing to hear. But honestly, the car was absolutely struggling, and if something actually happened, the time and cost of getting it fixed would have ruined the rest of the road trip. Also, from reading online, it looks like people who have taken the drive in the past say it has gotten significantly worse in recent years.

      If we had had a mid-sized car, I think we would have been OK…but our compact was seriously dying on us.

  2. that sucks you had trouble with the monument valley road. i drove it last year with my low-ish compact lexus and it did fine. it was slow, but it made it out ok.

  3. My wife and I spent two nights at that hotel in Monument Valley in March. I know the photocopied map of which you speak. We didn’t attempt to drive the road, in part because snow was forecast for our one day there and we knew our Ford Fusion would only get stuck, so we spent it relaxing in the lobby and catching up on our reading. They told us in the restaurant that the Navajo know those dirt roads well and use them to cut across the desert, rather than taking the long way around on the state highways. Four Corners is something like two hours away on the highways, but a shortcut on the dirt roads through the desert supposedly cuts off about an hour. Unfortunately, we couldn’t do it. But we did walk the three-mile loop around the Mittens, which was a good experience.

    I haven’t been to Mesa Verde, but have seen Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico — much the same, but probably less crowded. They are definitely very cool.

    Loving these updates. Taking me back to some of my road trips and even though we just did one back in March, I’m itching to go again.

  4. I can’t begin to thank you for your blog and this trip. I subscribed about a year ago when I was a little home sick for NYC and found you via a link from the Lost NY page…I smile when my feed shows a post from you and this trip has been terrific to “travel” with you.
    Thank you good Sir and hope our travel bring you to Bryce Canyons and Zion…Travel safe and I look forward to future discoveries from your scouting!

  5. Scout, that Skin so Soft really DOES work. 🙂

  6. @Skin so Soft – yup, we were allowed to buy it in Marine Corps boot camp to keep the skeeters and bugs at bay.

    GREAT TRIP!!! I suppose you’re not swinging through Oregon???

  7. I was in Monument Valley years ago, loved it. I wasn’t driving so don’t remember the road conditions – but if I was I’d be as cautious as you are. Any chance you can drop your car off and rent a four wheeler so you can explore some of the sites?

    For all its faults, Utah is on my list of most beautiful states, or at least, one most varied in scenery – bored now? Drive on for 30 miles for a change. Gorgeous.

    Oh Cowboy Town? There were many of those around when I was a kid – usually set up for movie or tv filming. If you ever make it to Tucson Arizona, check out Old Tucson, the famous filming locale for many of your favorite westerns (tho there are actual buildings, not just store fronts.)

    http://www.oldtucson.com/

  8. Such fabulous photos!! I hope to see all those things in person some day.

  9. Just wanted to say I’ve really been enjoying this travelogue. It’s bringing back great memories of my own cross-country trips from the past 2 years, and inspired me to put a few more places on my “to-see” list.

  10. We went to Monument Valley, I was suprised at there organization — come on it’s MV!! If it was a NP or SP it would be ALOT different. We had a rental car, and v.glad we chose to take a guided tour. We even saw rental RV’s driving down there!!!

  11. The Four Corners monument is in the wrong place, anyway: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30327372/

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  14. Love your road trip pictures.
    It is almost the reverse path I took 15 years ago from Salt Lake down through Moab, Blanding and four corners. I almost got shot byby an over zealous deputy there for driving 10 miles over the posted speed limit.
    But thats a story for another day.
    Did you happen to make it to the Valley of the Gods or the world famous “Hole in the Rock” ?
    My bucket list includes the desire for a night stay at Gouldings Lodge on a future trip.

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