Goosenecks State Park and the Natural Bridges National Monument

Bluff, Utah

By —— Bio and Archives--April 14, 2011

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imageThough small and isolated, historic Bluff in extreme southeastern Utah was first settled by tough, persevering Mormon pioneers in 1880. Sleeping in the shadow of 300-foot sandstone bluffs along the elegant San Juan River, this quiet, polite community, like the hub of an old wagon wheel, lies at the center of stunning natural beauty that regularly draws outdoor adventurers and casual tourists in manageable numbers.

South and west of town is John Wayne country, the Navajo Nation’s incomparable Monument Valley. To the west, plunging Goosenecks canyon carved by the meandering turns of the San Juan beckons, and beyond those sharp bends are deep, inviting, long and narrow canyons named Slickhorn and Grand Gulch.

The Valley of the Gods is a wide-open staggered plane of isolated pillars and lofty columns. Farther north beyond the sheer switchbacks of the Moki Dugway are the natural wonders of Natural Bridges National Monument, the cool, pine-laden Abajo Mountains, and the ancient Anasazi ruins at Hovenweep National Monument.

It’s a land of twisted canyons and red cliffs and juniper-covered mesas and smooth slick-rock and red soil and some brown dirt and some white rocks and plenty of clean, fresh air. Good country, every inch of it.


Gliding into Bluff at 60 miles an hour it’s difficult relating to the staggering degree of effort and skill it took Bluff’s original settlers to simply get here in the first place, let alone carve out a life. That original contingent’s six-month epic journey known today as the Hole-In-The-Rock Expedition of 1879-1880 accomplished the seemingly impossible when 70 families set out from Parowan on a 250-mile slog dragging wagons and pushing livestock as they traversed some of the most inhospitable, treacherous, rocky, bumpy, steep and deadly terrain this country has to offer - building a wagon road from Escalante as they went along. If you’ve spent time in southern Utah’s rugged back-country you know exactly what I mean.

Of all the obstacles encountered, passing down through a near-vertical hole in towering sandstone cliffs was the most challenging undertaking as they had to blast and cut and drill and heave and ho, all the way to the Colorado River and back out. But those early Mormons were determined, driven in great measure by their faith, and in due time formed the sleepy community you see today.


To get an idea of early life in Bluff, make sure to visit Bluff Fort. Not an old military fort in the traditional sense, Bluff Fort is a fantastic replica of life as they knew it, and it’s open to the public for free. You’ll find one of the original cabins still standing, barely, and rows of expertly crafted log cabins built by the descendants of those early frontiersmen and women. The cabins’ interiors are furnished with beds and tables and chairs, old photographs and recitations of true tales. With old covered wagons parked about the open quad, it really does feel like a slice of the Old West. In more prosperous times (1886-1905) Bluff modernized, building resplendent Victorian Era homes made of hand-hewn red sandstone which remain today, the likes of which can be found all over rural Utah.

The San Juan River corridor and adjoining fertile fields farmed by the white man were also home to Native Americans many centuries ago. Anasazi Basket Makers and Cliff Dwellers dwelled in the region in great number until 1,300 A.D. when they vanished from the scene. Their presence is richly attested to. Ancient burial sites, abandoned cliff dwellings, pottery and petroglyphs are found in abundance along the river and throughout distant canyons. For those interested in such things, the rock art petroglyphs at Sand Island Campground a few miles west of town are mandatory viewing. A few yards back from the river, a long sandstone wall is adorned with hundreds of chipped and scratched prehistoric drawings that are 800 to 2,500 years old, images like the fabled Kokopelli, the ancient mythological humpbacked flute player.


Sand Island is also the put-in for floating the San Juan River, and hasn’t changed all that much since I drifted those lingering 50 or 60 miles down to Piute Farms, oh, so many years ago in the distant days of my youth. Known for having the steepest gradient in North America, according to some, with little technical whitewater to contend with and layers of geologic strata bending the horizon, a San Juan River expedition is a wonderful way to spend a week or more, and highly recommended.

Aside from all the cheap beer we guzzled along the way, and other unmentionable ingestibles, two highlights of that trip have yet to fade from my foggy memory. The first, a twilight zone of ancient cliff dwellings near the water’s edge, little stone huts with collapsed walls buttressed beneath an overhang. And all over the ground, 800-year-old sandals, withered and weathered, and small ears of corn and pottery shards scattered about.

The second memorable moment was a long hike and climb up stunningly beautiful Slickhorn Canyon, a superb display of towering red walls that extend up into Cedar Mesa for 10 miles, a veritable pocket of heaven on earth graced with hanging gardens, dripping waterfalls, columbine flowers and clear pools of clear water. The meandering trail climbs and twists and turns and dead-ends at yet another pond where you dive in, swim across, climb out the other side grinning and giggling as you stare dumbfounded at the overwhelming beauty, inhaling the rich texture of the aesthetically divine, walking single-file with your friends and circling massive sharp-edged boulders under a deep blue sky, in perpetual awe, grateful.


Goosenecks State Park off Highway 261 near Mexican Hat is another essential detour if you’re in the neighborhood. Admission is free here as well. Accessible from a short paved road, the Goosnecks were carved over 300 million years by the meandering San Juan as it makes its way to Lake Powell and the Colorado River. Quite the phenomenon, the river and canyon doubles back on itself repeatedly in tight S-curves, taking five back-and-forth miles to cover one linear mile. It’s a chasm in every sense of the word, plunging 1,000 feet straight down, so don’t slip, and stay behind the rail. And bring your wide angle lens if you have one. It’s quite the sight.

Heading north on the 261 the drive continues past the overstated Valley of the Gods, a term more suited for Monument Valley down in Navajo country. The Valley of the Gods is a wide open area of reddish-brown dirt bisected by a 17-mile-long gravel road I have yet to traverse but have studied from atop the Moki Dugway. A drive up the Moki along Highway 261 is not for those fearful of plunging two-thousand feet to their untimely death or those who get dizzy and pass out going around sharp mountain bends. I’m not sure what a dugway is, but if it’s anything like a road, this one cuts back and forth in a dizzying series of sharp switchbacks across the face of a sheer wall of sandstone that makes up the 2,000-foot-high south rim of Cedar Mesa.


From up here you can see to the ends of the earth, and down onto the undeveloped Valley of the Gods, the eerie “gods” being freestanding pillars and columns with names like Rudolph and Setting Hen Butte and Lady in the Bathtub, scattered haphazardly throughout the valley. From this distance it looks like great mountain bike country; relatively flat with occasional steep inclines, basically empty and peaceful with free BLM camping and lone canyons for exploring on foot.

Somewhat remote but nonetheless popular, Natural Bridges National Monument five miles west of the 95/261 junction is a fine specimen of natural stone bridges cut by free-flowing streams; three bridges to be precise, big ones, named “Sipapu,” “Kachina” and “Owachomo.” The park consists of a large juniper/pinion-covered mesa encircled by deep canyons. A one-way paved road loops along the outer edge of the mesa with convenient parking lots and overlooks strategically placed for views into the maw called White Canyon, and additional views of stream beds and those big holes in the walls and high-desert vegetation that greens up the bottom land.


Some of the hiking trails are relatively easy, others more demanding, like the trails leading to Kachina and Sipapu. Not designed for the morbidly obese heavy-breathers with sweaty palms, these trails leading down into the canyon require some dexterity, sufficient lung capacity and a bit of hand-eye coordination as the way demands climbing up and down steep sections with handrails and ladders; very long ladders as I remember, with big painful drops.

But if you can get down in there, and back out, it’s worth it. Few crowds during optimal hours, there’s an enclosed quietness, a deep, shady canyon carved out of the shockingly white Cedar Mesa Sandstone with small streams undercutting overhangs and still ponds that run not all that deep and sandy beaches. White Canyon is a pleasant break from all of that red Entrada we love so much. This white canvas comes streaked with a “desert varnish” tapestry of browns and blacks and orange and shades of red.

Like I said, it’s all good country; every square inch of southeast Utah, every canyon, every bluff and mesa, except where they’re drilling for oil and gas or scooping up uranium. If you’re on vacation you want to avoid those blemishes. But if you’re in the neighborhood with some vacation time on your hands and a yen for outdoor adventure, or just crave some drive-by pleasantries, come pay your respects. It’s good stuff, all of it.


John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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