In the Heart of Splendor

Welcome to Bluff, Utah

Larry Hiller Sep 1, 2016

You’re sitting on the shady veranda of the Twin Rocks Café. Nearby, two huge sandstone columns soar bright red into a deep desert sky. You’re savoring a sandwich made with some of the best fry bread ever when you hear the distinctive, throaty rumble of Harleys wheeling into the parking lot. A biker gang? Here? As the new arrivals stride into the café’s cool interior, you realize the biker gang is actually a group of middle-aged tourists speaking French, with rented machines and leathers.

Welcome to Bluff, Utah, tucked away in a green valley along the San Juan River in the southeast corner of Utah. The Four Corners Monument lies 48 miles southeast. Monument Valley is 45 miles southwest. Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are about two hours north. No wonder so many overseas visitors pass through Bluff every year. It’s smack dab in the middle of scenery that graces calendars and travel magazines all over the world.

Past Present

Bluff also sits in the midst of what may be the largest concentration of archeological sites in North America. Paleo-Indians roamed here as long ago as 6,500 B.C. A succession of cultures followed, some leaving mere traces, others leaving haunting ruins like those at nearby Hovenweep National Monument. The canyons and cliffs surrounding Bluff hold numerous rock art panels, abandoned dwellings and cleverly hidden granaries. Now the Paiute, Ute and Navajo peoples call this area home.

More recently, this is where the legendary “Hole-in-the-Rock” pioneer company ended up in 1880 after trekking 250 miles over some of the most tortuous terrain on the continent. The group earned its name by hacking and blasting a heart-stoppingly steep passageway down a crevice in a 1,000-foot cliff.

Cultural Confluence

Today, a cemetery dating to pioneer times and the preserved ruins of the Bluff Great House — a Native American dwelling — occupy the same hill overlooking the town. Below, beside the main highway, is a well-researched reconstruction of the old town fort that’s definitely worth a visit. Nearby, lovingly restored old sandstone homes stand shaded by tall cottonwood trees. About half of Bluff’s residents are Native Americans whose traditions strongly influence the vibrant art scene. Local galleries attract work from skilled artisans throughout the area.

The confluence of cultures is evident in Bluff Elementary School. At one recent fundraiser, local children — Navajo, Piute, Ute and white — performed traditional Native American dances and songs. The kids were dressed in a riot of color — beads, turquoise, silver conchos, feathers, velvet shirts and dresses. In a strong clear voice a student sang “The Star Spangled Banner” in Navajo. The finale? A modern dance number performed to “Eye of the Tiger.”

“Bluff has a diverse community, full of rich culture, heritage, traditions and amazing people,” says Barbara Silversmith, principal of Bluff Elementary.

More than Meets the Eye

The town is small, home to some 300 people. Bluff is also unincorporated, operating as a service district of San Juan County, which seems to fit the town’s laid-back appearance. But looks are deceptive. Tourism is this town’s economic lifeblood. It’s taken seriously and managed with professionalism. Steve Simpson, co-owner of the Twin Rocks Café and Trading Post, says, “For a town this size, there is good customer savvy, driven by pride in the community.”

The expertise and pride show in events the town stages. Each January the Bluff International Balloon Festival draws visitors from all over the country, and entrants come from as far away as Great Britain. Every September the Utah Navajo Fair and Rodeo takes place with a parade, rodeo and powwow. In mid-October the town holds the Bluff Arts Festival with a gallery walk, storytelling, film festival and workshops with local artists.

Bluff’s modest appearance also obscures the fact that, according to Simpson, “This is a highly intellectual community. We have a disproportionate number of professionals and Ph.D.s for a town our size, including the area’s leading petroleum geologist and half a dozen professional archeologists.”

Lots to Offer

Tiny Bluff provides access to enough scenic beauties and historic treasures to occupy a visitor for days if not weeks. Skilled guide services like Far Out Expeditions and Four Corners Adventures conduct a variety of backcountry tours of geological and archeological wonders. The nearby San Juan River provides a virtual highway through spectacular geology, with close-ups of rock art and ancient ruins. Wild River Expeditions offers river trips of various lengths and durations.

Lodging options include motels like Kokopelli Inn and Recapture Lodge, a boutique inn called La Posada Pintada, and the visually striking and beautifully appointed Desert Rose Inn and Cabins.

Bluff also offers good dining options. Recently, Duke’s opened at the Desert Rose Inn and is drawing praises from travelers for its made-fresh-to-order breakfasts and dinners. Comb Ridge, a restored trading post, offers lunch and dinner featuring pasta, seafood, burgers and vegetarian/vegan meals in a rustic setting. Cottonwood Steakhouse is open April through October, serving steaks and chops, barbecue, seafood, soups, salads, and homemade pies. And Twin Rocks Café remains a favorite with locals and visitors, serving Navajo- and Southwest-inspired versions of standard favorites.

A Peaceful Place

With all it has to offer, Bluff manages to remain “untouristy.” Quiet. Steeped in history and surrounded by beauty. Charlie DeLorme, Bluff resident and director of economic development and guest services for San Juan County, sums it up: “This is a powerful landscape that is spiritually inspiring,” he says. “People feel something peaceful here.”

Hopefully the French bikers stay for more than just lunch.

Photos by Ethan Kiernan

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