5 not to miss places for a Southeastern Utah itinerary is part two of a series on exploring Southeastern Utah.
There was more to see in Utah than we could manage in a few days. Allowing at least a week to explore Southeastern Utah and the surrounding area including southwestern Colorado and northeastern Arizona using bluff as a base would give you a much better feel for what the area has to offer. Book a few guided day excursions like our San Juan River raft trip if they’re in your budget. Because we had only a few days to explore we missed a lot of places we would have loved. Here are our not to miss places to put on a Southeastern Utah itinerary.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Natural Bridges National Monument, an hour northwest of Bluff, is a small site encompassing three natural sandstone bridges formed by erosion caused by running water over millennia. A loop drive takes visitors past the bridges, named Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo, paying homage to the Hopi peoples. For an even closer look, there are hiking trails to the bridges. There’s also a trail to the Horsecollar Ruin, an ancestral Puebloan site that was abandoned around 1,300 AD.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park straddles the Utah/Arizona border. As we drove past the site, a part of the vast Colorado Plateau located on the Navajo Nation 50 minutes southwest of Bluff, we shot a few photos from the road. Sadly, we didn’t have time to explore this rich scenic area. The valley, which the Diné (Navajo for The People) call Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (“clearing among the rocks” or “valley of the rocks”) is known for its stunningly unique rock formations, created by over 50 million years of erosion, ranging from 400 to 1,000 feet in height. You may recognize the distinctive red rock landscape from films; it’s shown up in a lot of westerns starting in the 1930s. Drive the scenic 17-mile route (about a two to three hour drive) through the park or book a tour with a Navajo guide. Some places can only be accessed with guides. Choose your guide carefully; all guides aren’t created equal. We’ve heard stories from people who have had great guides and ones that weren’t so great.
Canyons of the Ancients
There are a few worthy sites in Southwestern Colorado. Hovenweep (you can read about it here) is at the top of our list. The place we missed that we’d definitely add to our itinerary is Canyons of the Ancients. The site, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a short 50 minutes from Bluff and can be combined with a visit to Hovenweep (see part one of this post) or Yucca House (see below). This area is largely undeveloped; the BLM website suggests an orientation stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center, north of Cortez, Colorado to get oriented. This is a bit out of the way. A phone call to the Heritage Center garnered the information that they’ll mail you a map and site information if you contact them. Roads can be a little treacherous in winter; if that’s when you’re traveling check with them before going. While much of Canyon of the Ancients is hiking trails with thousands of archeological sites that are hard to access, you can easily get to a few sites including Sand Castle Pueblo, Lawry Pueblo and Panted Hand Pueblo. You can reach Sand Canyon Pueblo, dating from 1,250 AD, via an easy loop trail from the parking lot. Most of the site is rubble, but if you feel like taking a hike, you can reportedly see cliff dwellings under alcoves along the 6.5 mile trail. At Lowry Pueblo, circa 1060 AD, you’ll see a great house and a great kiva after is a short hike from the parking lot. Painted Hand Pueblo, circa 1,000 AD has the remains of a round tower.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park, about 45 minutes northwest of Moab, sits on a mesa on a gooseneck 2,000 feet above the Colorado River. It and offers spectacular scenery and views of Canyonlands and the river below. The name, legend says, refers to wild mustangs penned in a makeshift corral set up by cowboys on this remote promontory and then left to die of thirst. This is said to be one of the most photographed scenic vistas on earth.
Canyonlands National Park, the largest in the state, is spread out over three areas: The Needles. Islands in the Sky and The Maze.
As we mentioned in section about Newspaper Rock here, we easily could have visited The Needles portion of the park had we realized it was farther up that road. That’s where a little advanced research would have come in handy. While we did research much of the trip, we didn’t do well here. We hear from people who have been that it’s worth the trip.
The Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands, about 40 minutes northwest of Moab, is a vast mesa overlooking the Colorado and Green Rivers. The easiest way to see the area is via a 20 mile paved road offering pullouts overlooking spectacular vistas. If you have a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle and a sense of adventure, explore the 100 mile loop White Rim Road. Beware- if you get stuck, a tow, according to the park’s website, can cost over $1,000. There are also hiking trails from easy to expert.
The Maze, the most remote area of the park, is hard to access and reportedly easy to get lost in. If you are an experienced wilderness hiker, you may want to explore it. If you don’t know the area, experts recommend that you blok a knowledgable guide.
Bears Ears National Monument west of Blanding just north of Bluff was designated a National Monument at the end of December. There’s not much information on it available. If you’re planning a future trip, check on it as there may be more information available.
Using a guide
While it’s great fun to explore on your own or with guidebook in hand, if it’s in your budget one of the best ways to experience the area is with a knowledgable guide. Using a guide who knows the area well is a great way to learn about the rich history and geology. It’s important to do your research and read reviews; some guides offer better experiences than others. Look for someone who’s personable and well-versed in the history, geography and geology of an area; it will enrich your experience. Since we didn’t have time for tours we explored on our own. We would have gained a lot more knowledge and had a richer experience with the right guide. Our day on the river with Marcus, our wonderful Navajo guide, was one of the best days we ever had. Besides, a guide who knows the area, especially if you’re going off into the wilderness ensures that you’ll find your way back.
We had great fun exploring Southeastern Utah and the surrounding area. Bluff was the perfect base. We’re sorry we didn’t have time to explore these not to miss places for a Southeastern Utah itinerary. We hope to get back in the near future. If you want to read about the places we did get to, they’re in part one of this post.