Southeastern Utah – National Parks Road Trip – Day 15 – Natural Bridges, Hovenweep & Four Corners

The Spanish Valley is south of Moab, and our initial scenery leaving in the morning.  As we made our way down US 191 we passed a natural bridge arch before coming to a giant rock with ‘Hole In the Rock‘ painted in 30’ letters on the side of it. Apparently it is a 5000 square foot house someone carved into this giant rock, but we were too early in the day for them to be open, so we continued on our way.

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South of Blanding we reached Utah 95, a narrow state highway  that runs out through the desert up and down small hills. As I turned onto this road a dirty old 4 wheel drive pickup passed me, which of course I took as a challenge to keep up with. It is 38 miles from Blanding to Natural Bridge National Park, and according to the GPS should’ve taken us 45 minutes to make the drive, but following Deliverance Boy I did it in 30 minutes.

Once we did land at the park headquarters we received instructions from the ranger on the best option for a couple of hours of time that we had. As with many parks they have a auto tour loop that we took, providing views of three natural bridges and as well as a view of Native American ruins. The trails were steep and strenuous so we skipped the longer hikes and soaked in the view from the overlook. The first natural bridge named Sipapu was large and had a lot of rock above it with trees and a river below it.

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Our next stop was at the Horsecollar Ruin overlook. Here pottery was once found that dates these ruins between 1 AD and 13 AD. The ruins were well preserved but accessed was denied to them. These ruins are considered to be the best preserved ancient Puebloan ruins ,mostly due to their isolation. Horsecollar Ruin earned its name because the doorways to two structures resemble horsecollars, the site was abandoned more than 700 years ago.

We moved on to see the Kachina Bridge where the White Canyon and Armstrong Canyon meet. Kachina Bridge, known as the middle bridge which spans the canyon equally from both Owachomo and Sipapu bridges, is named for the petroglyphs of dancing figures resembling Kachina dolls. Kachina Bridge is larger than Owachomo but smaller than Sipapu. Owachomo Bridge is a natural bridge 180 feet high and spans 106 feet across thin stone and is older than any other bridge. Erosion through the years has thinned the span of the bridge. It was beautiful and we were happy to see it since it will not last forever.

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Leaving Natural Bridges we continued south on Utah 261 another nondescript highway across the desert – for about 30 miles – then you come to the Moki Dugway, a dangerous road to drive made of dirt and gravel carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of 3 miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11% grade), which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the valley floor near Valley of the Gods. A nerve racking but really cool drive down the mountain side.

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Just beyond Moki Dugway we arrived in the Navajo Nation to the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, where we stopped for lunch at the Olde Bridge Grille. The town is named after a large flat rock 60 feet in diameter perched precariously on a much smaller base at the top of a small hill. The village itself is small, home to fewer than 100 people We had a burger and vegetarian taco on Navajo bread. The Navajo bread was delicious.

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Just south of Mexican Hat is the Monument Valley, a place of mammoth rocks in the desert with beautiful thin spires on the Arizona border. The rock formation resembled a city from a distance and it is also the site where Forrest Gump stopped running in the movie of the same name, which of course I needed to recreate, much to the amusement of the European tourists parked along the road. Returning back through Mexican Hat we had gone just a few miles before we were stopped by the Sherriff’s Department while a Toyota commercial was being filmed on the road ahead.

By mid afternoon we arrrived at the Hovenweep National Monument. There are Pueblo ruins of a culture there that thrived from 1 AD to late 1200 AD. A variety of structures, including multistory towers are perched on canyon rims and balanced on boulders. We hiked the Little Run Trail to tour the ruins at Little Ruin Canyon which is made up of Square Tower, Tower Point, and Twin Towers. Towers at Hovenweep were built in a variety of shapes- D-shapes, squares, ovals and circles.

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These towers had different purposes, including tool and grinding work areas, kivas (for ritual/social functions), living rooms and storage. We started at the overlook to see the stronghold house which is the upper story of a large structure with well-shaped stones. Then we climbed down the trail for a close-up view of more buildings. The Holly group is at the head of Keeley Canyon. The five buildings at the site are known for a rock art panel that has been interpreted as a summer solstice marker.

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The Hackberry group was a medium sized Pueblo III village in the east fork of Bridge Canyon. The Horseshoe House is a D-shaped structure containing three rooms surrounding a possible central kiva. The architectural style suggests ceremonial or public use

As we hiked the loop we saw Rim Rock House that had peepholes built into the walls; the purpose of these peepholes is unknown. We continued down the trail to Hovenweep House which is one of the largest structures in the community. Next we saw Hovenweep Castle in the Square Tower Group. The Cajon Group is at the head of Allen Canyon, is primarily a remains of a tower, estimated to house 80–100 people, that was constructed on a boulder that sits below the rim of the canyon

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Cutthroat Castle group is in an offshoot of Hovenweep Canyon. Cutthroat Castle, the largest of the remains, is on the north side of the stream. Cutthroat is unique among the units due to the lack of a spring, the numerous kivas and the fact that much of the architecture sits below the rim.

Goodman Point group contains small and large clusters of pueblo buildings built partially underground.

Finally the Square Tower group, with the largest collection of pueblo buildings at Hovenweep. These towers still have lintels showing that these were some of the most carefully built structures in the southwest

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Leaving Hovenweep we passed Palomino horses roaming freely on our drive to the Four Corners. We arrived at the entrance to the Navajo Nation being required to pay the $5 entry fee per person to enter their tribal lands to get to the Four Corners monument. Prior to the trip I had read that with modern survey techniques the actual marker is really not at the point of the four corners, the original surveyor, using 19th century tools, missed where the spot should have been by about 1800 feet. The marker was placed in its current position and accepted by the U.S. Congress. From that time forward, the marker has been the legal divider among the four states.

We took turns standing on the spot of the Four Corners at the center where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet, contorting ourselves to place a body part in each quadrant of the circle. After our Twister exercise we strolled the booths of vendors with their souvenirs that surrounded the monument. There was no food available here so we went to headed back onto the road to Cortez, Colorado, where we came upon the Sky Ute Casino on a suggestion that someone had given us. The large casino had a restaurant but it was an hour wait before we could eat so we drove on to Cortez to spend the night.

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Checking into our hotel we found a nice casual restaurant called Destination Grill next door. We sat on the deck in the cool evening and enjoyed a very good dinner.