Road Trip: Lost in Southern Utah: Day 2

From Moab to Torrey via Canyonlands National Park, Bluff, Monument Valley, and an unexpected detour on the Navajo Indian Reservation

The Big Spring Canyon Overlook in The Needles of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
The Big Spring Canyon Overlook in The Needles of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.

Canyonlands National Park (, largest of the five parks in Utah, sprawls over 527 square miles, rates several entrances, and is divided into three distinct sections.

Stew and I had already glimpsed the northerly “Islands in the Sky” sector from Dead Horse Point, so as we headed south on Hwy 191, we detoured onto Rte. 211 to see how the eastern, “Needles” section compared.

(The westerly “Mazes” section involves 46 miles of dirt road just to get to the ranger station; its canyons are a day’s hard hike beyond that. We'll save that for another trip.)

Southern Utah Road Trip
Day 1: Moab & Arches NP
Day 2: Canyonlands NP & Monument Valley
Day 3: Capitol Reef NP, Hwy 12, & Bryce NP
Day 4: Bryce NP & Zion NP
Practical info

The road to the Needles wound through majestic mesalands before climbing to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook inside the park, where layers of red and gray sandstone fanned out from the bases of rock columns in hundreds of thin, phyllo-like sheets.

On the way back to Hwy 191, we pulled over to marvel at Newspaper Rock, a black stone surface covered in a mad scramble of petroglyphs, images scratched into the rock over a 2,000-year period by every native group from ancient Anasazi and Fremont cultures to the Paiute and Navajo.

It was an impressive broadsheet of men on horseback armed with bows hunting antelope and buffalo, scattered images of hands, feet, and sacred wheels, and lumbering oversized gods sprouting horns and antlers.

The Valley of the Gods, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and and an intro to Indian territory

We stopped in the one-road town of Bluff above the meandering San Juan River to grab some grub at the Twin Rocks Café and trading post (, a diner wedged up against the base of a curving mesa wall in the shadow of two rock pinnacles.

A friendly Indian teenager named Russell brought us hearty beef stew with Navajo fry bread (crispy, puffy, and wonderfully greasy) and a platter of mesquite-smoked BBQ pork ribs and brisket.

We washed it down with bottles of Eddie McStiff’s raspberry wheat ale, and somehow saved enough room for their specialty dessert, cinnamon ice cream with baked apples on a puff pastry.

I bought a hand-carved Navajo flute at the attached trading post for my musical instruments of the world collection.

Just a few hundred yards beyond the turn-off for the Valley of the Gods, ( the highway devolved into an astounding switch-backed gravel road that took up in a series of death-defying turns up to brilliant Valley of the Gods views. From the top, a dirt side road led to Muley Point Overlook over the tortuously meandering San Juan River.

While we searched for a way down to the lower level of the mesa for a different view, I very nearly stepped right off a 1,500-foot cliff. Strung out on the backside of the adrenaline rush from nearly plunging to my death, I was quite skittish as we wound ourselves down the tight curves of that vertiginous highway and kept whining to Stew to go slower.

Back down in the Valley of the Gods, we took a three-mile detour to Goosenecks State Park (—really just a small parking lot for a (far less dangerous) overlook above those famous, tightly curled "gooseneck" meanders of the San Juan River.

In the dusty crossroads hamlet of Mexican Hat we paused at the San Juan Inn, a little motel complex strung right above the San Juan River, for some bottles of Wasatch microbrew (Provo Girl Pilsner and Full Suspension Pale Ale) and for me to check my email.

A group of Italian tourists sauntered in dressed in their Cowboy best—ten-gallon hats, Levis, and red bandanas around their necks—to slide into some of the booths at the back for lunch and complain to each other about the food (for good reason).

The inn was hard by a bridge over the river, on the other side of which stood a wood sign that read, “You are entering Navajoland.”

Lost in Navajoland

The massive Navajo Indian Reservation—overlapping Southern Utah and Northern Arizona and larger than the state of West Virginia—incorporates the iconic mesas of Monument Valley, backdrop to many a movie from Hollywood's Golden Age.

The scenery was straight out of a John Ford western: an endless expanse of red earth crusted with sagebrush and broken only by dark orange, mitten-shaped rock formations.

The only real details our map showed in this vast no-man's land were the snaking line of Route 163 and a dot just shy of the Arizona state line labeled “Goulding.” This turned out to be a crossroads trading post (—nowadays an air-conditioned gift shop—where we stocked up on silver-and-turquoise jewelry, Indian drums, and other gifts.

As we left, Stew noticed that the map outlined a little dirt road that headed west from Goulding, turned south, and rejoined Route 163 after just a mile or two. Craving a glimpse of the real Rez, the one that lay beyond the gift shop, we decided to take the shortcut. Almost immediately, I saw a modest homestead declaring its Navajo heritage with a dome-shaped hogan (ceremonial mud hut) in the yard. Success!

We continued on, jouncing down the dirt road, watching dust devils spin through the sage, bearing left at each fork we came to in order to loop back to the highway, and dodging the flocks of tumbleweed that occasionally attacked our car. I guess it wasn’t until half an hour had passed with no sign of the highway that I finally tossed the useless map onto the floorboard and declared, "That's it; we're lost!"

"We can't be lost," said Stew, gripping the wheel as the road turned into sifting sand and our rental sedan's back tires slewed around wildly. He steered back onto solid dirt. "At every fork, I've gone left."

Suddenly, the desert seemed vast indeed. I found myself grateful that at least we’d been smart enough to follow basic desert driving rules and had stocked our truck with three gallons of water.

"So this is it," I said grimly. “I'm going to die in Monument Valley like the bad guy in a bad John Wayne movie."

That's when the cavalry arrived.

Or, more accurately (and ironically), the Indians.

An elderly Navajo couple drove up in a cloud of dust and a battered white pickup.

We asked the driver if this road would take us to Route 163. He thought for a moment then drawled, "Oh! Now that's a looong way." He thought again and said, "Best go back up here, about two, three miles. The dirt road on the right will take you to the highway."

His directions were good. After another long drive during which the only thing we passed was a red-capped Navajo riding bareback, we finally spotted a line of electrical poles and the glittering of moving windshields that marked the highway.

(There's a longer version of this story here.)

Beer, cowboy hospitality, & the glittering firmament

It was getting late, and we needed to make tracks halfway across the state to the crossroads town of Torrey, where I had booked one of the four Cowboy Homestead Cabins (, each of which came with a outdoor grill. (Based on our experience in Moab, we knew we’d be getting in well after the Utah dinner hour.)

We backtracked up to Blanding, the last real town, stocked up on groceries, and and sped west.

The long night drive up Rte. 95 to Rte. 24 was strangely relaxing. In four hours we passed maybe a half dozen cars. I had read that this stretch of highway around Natural Bridges National Monument ( had the lowest level of light pollution in the entire Lower 48.

It was a cloudless night, and at the top of a mountain pass we pulled over to lie on the ground and stare up at more stars than I’ve ever seen before. It didn’t take long for us to exhaust the handful of constellations we knew by name, so we just lay there in silence until the cold seeped into our bones and we had to get back in the car.

By 11pm, we had arrived in Torrey, unpacked, fired up the barbecue, and were grilling our steaks, pork chops, red pepper, zucchini, and onions. The smell lured Greg Daussin out of his cabin next door.

Greg, a Utahan from upstate, had stayed here each spring for the past decade, and was happy to share local travel tips along with a beer or two while his two dogs romped at our feet and begged for scraps.

He and Stew discovered a shared love of rock climbing, and we sat up until 3:30am talking politics, trading climbing stories, and slowly emptying the cooler.

Day 2 details


• Canyonlands National Park (435-719-2313,, Moab, $10.
• Valley of the Gods, (, Bluff
• Goosenecks State Park (, Bluff
• Monument Valley:
• Navajo Nation:
• Natural Bridges National Monument (


• Goulding’s Trading Post (435-727-3231,, 100 Main St., Monument Valley, Navajo Indian Reservation.


• Twin Rocks Café & Trading Post (435-672-2341,, 913 E. Navajo Twins Drive, Bluff.


• Cowboy Homestead Cabins (888-854-5871 or 435-425-3414,, 2100 South Rte. 12, Torrey, doubles $59 [note: those are 2005 rates].


• From Moab to Pinnacles section of Canyonlands NP: South on Rte. 191 to Rte. 211 (heading west). All the way to end of road at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

• From Canyonlands NP to Monument Valley/Navajo Indian Reservation: Back down Rte. 211 to Rte. 191. South on Rte. 191 to Bluff. West/southwest on Rte. 163, through Mexican Hat, to Goulding at the Arizona State Line. Lots of dirt roads off to the west of Goulding (which roads, I couldn’t tell you; we were, after all, terribly lost).

• Monument Valley to Torrey: Back up Rte. 163, detouring just north of Mexican Hat down the three-mile-long Rte 316 to Goosenecks State Park. Continue back up Rte. 163 to Bluff, then north again on Rte. 191 to Blanding. Backtrack from Blanding south on Rte. 191 a few miles to Rte. 95 headed west (then northwest). Follow Rte. 95 aaaaaalllllll the way to Hanksville, where you pick up Rte. 24 headed west to Torrey.

» Day 3: Torrey to Bryce Canyon via Capitol Reef NP and the unbelievably scenic Utah Route 12

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This article was by Reid Bramblett and last updated in December 2008, based on an article written for Budget Travel magazine in 2005, reproduced here by permission.
All information was accurate at the time.

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Copyright © 1998–2013 by Reid Bramblett. Author: Reid Bramblett.