The small town of Bluff is a great base for exploring southeastern Utah. It was convenient to almost everywhere we wanted to go. We were planning a road trip from Santa Fe to San Diego. One of the things we really wanted to see was Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Looking a detailed Grand Circle map it became clear that Utah was the best gateway to the North Rim for us. We’d long wanted to visit Utah’s National Parks and Monuments so we expanded the focus of our trip.
Why Bluff is a great base for exploring southeastern Utah
We looked into using Moab as a base but it was a bit too far north for much of what we wanted to see and it looked very touristy. But we had no idea where else to stay. We found Bluff by a serendipitous accident. My Itchy Travel Feet’s October Newsletter was about Utah travel. Bloggers Donna and Alan Hull had stayed in Bluff and loved it. A call to the San Juan County toruism office resulted in an invitation to visit as their guests. We were in!
We arrived in Bluff just as the sun was going down and fell in love. It’s a small town; bigger than blink and you missed it, but not much. What we loved most was we could base ourselves in one place and see most of what we wanted to in the eastern part of the state. The downside: we had no clue how much there was to see and didn’t get to see it all. We hope to get back. Bluff is within two hours or less of a lot of atractions we wanted to see; the landscape is so incredibly stunning we didn’t mind the drives. We hope you enjoy reading about our Bluff adventure.
Hovenweep, close to the Colorado border is about a 50 minutes from Bluff and makes an easy half-day excursion. On our way from Durango to Bluff we stopped at Mesa Verde, the ancestral Puebloan site west of Durango. The cliff dwellings there are spectacular, but the site was so crowed, even in late October that we were glad to leave. The first time we went, a few decades ago, in late March, it was much less crowded.
Hovenweep was a welcome respite from the crowds. Because it’s a bit out of the way and less known it doesn’t get a lot of visitors. And, the best part: admission is free. This site, once home to over 2,500 people, is made up of six “villages” built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. A fairly easy well-marked loop trail takes you through the site. Depending on your walking speed it takes about 90 minutes to two hours. Arriving fairly late in the day we only had time walk a small portion. What we saw was wonderful! Passing cliff dwellings and towers (the site has both square as well as round towers similar to those found at Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico), we encountered a few hikers on the trail, but mostly we had the place to ourselves. Being in a place this special and this old that once home to a spiritual people is a great opportunity for quiet contemplation. We highly recommend a visit here.
San Juan River float trip
If you’ve always wanted to raft Grand Canyon but don’t have the time (trips run from three to 18 days) or the nerve and not a fan of camping, a quiet one-day float trip down the San Juan River with Wild River Expeditions is a great alternative. While the cliffs along the 26-mile stretch aren’t nearly as imposing as Grand Canyon, they’re beautiful. We shared the six-man raft with Marcus, our Navajo guide and raft master, and a German travel-writer couple who were working on a guidebook of the southwest. As the current is slow that late in the season we mostly motored down the river. We stopped twice for side trips and once for a pit stop on our eight-hour, 26-mile mile journey. The rest of the time we floated past stunning scenery while Marcus provided a riveting running commentary. With 17 years of experience he knows the geology and history of this portion of the river well. You can read about our day on the river here.
When I mentioned to Charlie DeLorme, Economic Development Director for San Juan County, that we were blown away by petroglyphs we saw on our San Juan River rafting trip. He said if we enjoyed the Butler Wash glyphs, we should definitely head to Newspaper Rock. We planned to visit Arches National Park the next day so this short detour would easily fit it into our itinerary. The petroglyph-coverd rock panel carvings span a 1,500 year period. The older art is attributed to the ancient Puebloans who were in the area as far back as 2,000 years ago. The most recent rock art is attributed to the Utes who still live in the Four Corners area. Admission to the site is free. These amazing rock carvings are on the way to The Needles section of Canyonlands National Park. We didn’t have time to do both. Our suggestion: combine Newspaper Rock and The Needles into a day trip. We wish we’d had the time to get to The Needles. Next trip!
Arches National Park
Did you ever go someplace that made you ooh and aah constantly – so much that you almost lost your breath? That was Arches National Park for me. I know I wasn’t alone. Steve defines his experience as feeling awe, and he doesn’t say that a lot. We stopped at a pullout to look at some of these extraordinary rock formations called “hoodoos.” A woman from New Jersey got out of her car and exclaimed “Holy cannoli!” I knew exactly how she felt. The scenic drive was so spectacular we pulled over frequently to take photos. You can’t see most of the arches without at least a bit of hiking. People talk about Sedona’s vortex energy. I had an emotional reaction to the energy at Arches that I haven’t experienced at many other places; it was almost overwhelming. If you want get in some hiking allow at least a half-day or more at the park.
Bluff is a great base for exploring Southeastern Utah! Charley Delorme says Bluff is like Sedona was 70 years ago before it was “discovered.” While it’s not in a steep canyon like the Arizona town, there are comparisons starting with stunning the red rocks. If you want to base yourself in a small town to explore this area, we recommend staying in this lovely, mostly undiscovered town. Our biggest regret: we wish we had more than enough time to spend in the area. We’ll be back!
Author’s note: Our trip was partially hosted by the San Juan County Economic Development Office. We were grateful for their hospitality. All opinions are our own.