Trail of the Ancients – UT
- DesignationNational Scenic Byway (2005)
- Intrinsic QualitiesArcheological
- LocationCO, NM, UT
- Length182.7 of 480 total miles
The Trail of the Ancients passes through the unique geology of the Colorado Plateau high desert, offering a rich but fragile mix of natural resources. The stunning rock formation, Shiprock, is a central scenic point that is visible from most places on the Trail of the Ancients. The visible cultural heritage of the Four Corners area boasts numerous archaeological sites, modern communities, and Indian lands. Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a world heritage site, is the centerpiece of the New Mexico segment of the byway. Scenic turnouts along the Trail of the Ancients reveal vast valleys, towering mountains, badlands, clear blue lakes, raging rivers, and gentle streams.
Story of the Byway
Just south of Moab and Arches National Park visitors can travel through time along portions of the dramatic Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway (U.S. 191, 163 and S.R. 261, 262), which intersects with Ancestral Puebloan history of the Four Corners area. On their road trip, visitors will see evidence of early cultures that built a life in the ruggedly beautiful Canyonlands region, including incredible cliff dwellings, learn the Ancestral Puebloan history at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, and explore the ruins of the fascinating Hovenweep National Monument. Visitors should take the scenic drive through Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park then tour the Valley of the Gods and plan a stop at the remote and spectacular Natural Bridges National Monument.
The Utah portion of the Trail of the Ancients is located in San Juan, Utah’s largest county, which is almost the size of New Jersey. Between the Needles District of Canyonlands and Four Corners there are vast lands of incredible wilderness, national forest, the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and beautiful rivers that converge within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell. As visitors travel along the byway, they will find a seemingly infinite number of important archaeological sites and plenty of welcoming gateway towns to help you navigate it all. The area of the Trial of the Ancients is said to boast the largest site density for Native American Artifacts in North America. Locals say if you walk down any one of the magnificent canyons, you’ll find something, whether it be a ruin or an artifact. As visitors drive along the Trail of the Ancients, they will see many marked sites along the road such as Butler Wash or Mule Canyon; however, there are many other hidden gems that take just a little more research.
Those who travel along the byway say that they are awestruck by the types of rock formations that can be found nowhere else in the world. In between the many friendly towns, visitors will be struck by the grand serenity of nature. Even though there are often many travelling along the byway, the scale of the wild can make visitors feel as if they were the only ones in the world.
Must stops along the way are the Natural Bridges National Monument and the House on Fire ruin. Visitors in the summer will be able to enjoy the National Bridges National Monument’s dark sky program, the first Dark Sky Park in the county. Twice a week, rangers will bring out telescopes and allow visitors to explore various star clusters, planets, and the moon. One of the most popular ruins in the area is along Highway 95 between Blanding and Natural Bridges called the House on Fire. The ruin is built into the Cedar Mesa sandstone, and at certain times of day, the lighting makes the entire ruin appear to glow, transforming the Mesa overhang into smoke and flames. The hike to the ruin is a 3 mile trip with little changes in elevation, so it’s a good choice for families as well.
Continue onto route 262 from the Utah-Colorado border. The byway in Utah is a loop, like the wheel of the wagon. The byway extends like spokes to reach many of the historic and natural sites. Once visitors reach US 191, they will continue north toward Blanding and follow the byway counterclockwise. The spokes extend to the Natural Bridges, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the Four Corners Monument.
Points of Interest
The sandstone ridge in a geologic monocline that begins in the Blue Mountains to the north and ends near Kayenta, AZ. Visitors can find scenic areas, archeological sites, and camping.
Butler Wash Puebloan Cliff Dwellings
This site was possibly inhabited by people from Mesa Verde or the area around Kayenta, AZ and was active during the 1200s.
Valley of the Gods
Visitors can visit this rugged landscape to view the numerous monoliths, which look best in the early morning or evening.
Five Days on the Utah Trail of the Ancients
Begin with Cave Spring Trail in Canyonlands, showcasing a convergence of cultures across time with a cowboy camp and prehistoric pictographs. Explore additional short hikes then drive toward Blanding to see the large display of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts and the 1,000-year-old kiva at Edge of the Cedars State Park. Edge of the Cedars is an archaeological gem that cannot be overlooked. Consider a side trip about 14 miles south of Blanding on S.R. 95 to ancient cliff dwellings like Butler Wash Cliff Dwelling on Comb Ridge and House on Fire.
This deep into southeastern Utah, you may not want to leave the Four Corners marker on the table as part of your journey to the architecturally impressive cliff dwellings of Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep is a sentinel of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in a landscape of sage and juniper. Bluff, Utah, features excellent heritage sites and access to the San Juan River. If you can plan an extra day or more in the region, consider reserving a rafting trip down the San Juan for unparalleled angles on incredible petroglyph panels, wildlife viewings and an all-around unique river experience.
Next, you'll be off to a place that may already define this region in your mind: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Stop the car by the side of the road in Monument Valley. Turn off the engine and step out into the vast expanse of desert, you'll find the stillness and the solitude of the mesas and the canyons remains — just as it has for centuries. John Ford and John Wayne recognized and captured the timelessness of Monument Valley, a place that has persisting elements of the frontier and the mythology of the American West. With Bluff, Mexican Hat or Goulding's Lodge as your basecamp, you'll have close access to all the aura and adventure of the iconic American West. You can drive the scenic byway or explore the Wildcat Trail on your own, but many believe the richest experience is in booking Navajo-guided jeep tours and hikes.
From there, the journey returns to Mexican Hat and on to the 1,000-foot-high overlook into the serpentine San Juan River of Goosenecks State Park. You’ll also have the option to explore the Valley of the Gods, a 17-mile loop across graded gravel and clay showcasing Cedar Mesa sandstone monoliths. The drive is possible with a passenger car unless it has been raining. If you drive the Valley of the Gods from the south side, your introduction to S.R. 261 is the white-knuckle-inducing switchbacks of Moki Dugway, a narrow 11 percent grade that is not recommended for trailers or larger RVs. Even as you catch your breath from this stunning ascent up Cedar Mesa, breathtaking landscape awaits in stops along Cedar Mesa on the way to Natural Bridges National Monument.
The spectacular river-carved bridges of Natural Bridges National Monument have Hopi Indian names: delicate Owachomo means "rock mounds," massive Kachina means "dancer," while Sipapu, the second largest natural bridge in the state (and one of the world’s largest), means "place of emergence." It's the world's largest display of natural bridges. Continue up S.R. 95, the Bicentennial Byway toward Hanksville for the return trip. The 133-mile high-desert drive crosses some of Utah's most rugged and beautiful canyon country, including a Glen Canyon crossing and views of the remote Henry Mountains.
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