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Perfect Trifecta of Outdoor Drama

Two Valleys and a Goose’s Neck

Gail Newbold | Photos by Kevin Kiernan Sep 12, 2019

The nature in Utah’s southeast corner is remote and stark — tucked off the beaten path traversed by most tourists heading to the state’s five national parks.

But if you’re willing to go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with the perfect trifecta of outdoor drama: Monument Valley, Gooseneck State Park and Valley of the Gods — all within an hour of each other and away from the maddening crowds.

This trio of beauties can be explored in one long day, or in two to three more relaxed days.

monument valley utah
The Mittens in Monument Valley

A Monumental Valley

Monument Valley’s rugged desert scenery has a long and storied movie history, beginning in the 1930s when John Ford began filming Westerns on this Navajo Tribal Park land located in both Utah and Arizona. Its now-iconic sandstone rock formations such as the Mitten Buttes are still featured in TV shows, movies, ads and video games.

See it for yourself up close and personal through the eyes of a Goulding’s Navajo tour guide who will take you to sights not accessible to the general public. We booked the two-hour deluxe tour on a perfect spring morning of blue skies and sun without the blistering heat of summer.

Our guide explained the careful craftmanship required to build Native American hogans without the help of nails, fasteners, wire — “or duct tape,” he added with a laugh. And the structures remain intact for 40 to 50 years. With obvious pride, he said the Navajo Nation once studied the stars and moon and relied on monsoons to irrigate their fields. 

Totems in Monument Valley
Totems in Monument Valley
Artist Point in Monument Valley
Artist Point in Monument Valley
Spring wildflowers in Monument Valley
Spring wildflowers in Monument Valley

He related the history of rancher Harry Goulding and his wife, Leone, whose nickname was “Mike,” and told of how they settled in the valley in the 1920s and traded with the Navajo. We also learned about Bears Ears, the sandstone monuments, Mormon tea, rabbit grass, rock formations, petroglyphs and much more.

“Very little has changed here in 2,000 years,” he said.  

On the drive back, our guide broke into a Navajo tune. “It’s a happy, joyful song,” he said — perfectly mirroring the mood of the day.

Navigating Monument Valley without the help of a guide is very doable on a dirt and gravel road. Allow approximately one-and-a-half to two hours on the 17-mile loop, including stops to view the monuments. Wildcat Trail is the one self-guided hike in the valley and is a 3.2-mile loop past some of the most famous rock buttes. Visit navajonationparks.org for hours and park entry fees.

goosenecks state park
Goosenecks

No Geese in Goosenecks

One dizzying look at this twisting, convoluted section of the San Juan River 1,000 feet below the overlook and it is immediately apparent how Goosenecks State Park got its name. The sinuous river meander resembles the curves of a goose’s neck and is the result of more than 300 million years of water erosion through the geologic layers.

The views are breathtaking but unless you plan to picnic or camp, your visit will probably be fairly short. We enjoyed gazing at the cool green water and feeling a sense of solitude. Getting there is easy. From Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley, it’s only a 40-minute drive northeast on Highway 163, then left on Highway 261 and left again on Highway 316.

monument valley utah
Monument Valley
desert canyon with tree and water
Valley of the Gods

Visit to the Gods

If you’re traveling with kids and want to enjoy another 17-mile loop drive without excessive whining, try playing “name that rock formation.” Even without kids, it’s fun to match the formation with its official name as you drive through the Valley of the Gods. Some fit, others seem like a stretch.

As in, “How did they get a hen out of that one?!” (Official name: Setting Hen Butte.) Or, “Oh yeah, I can totally see that!” (Official name: Lady in a Tub.) We printed out a list of the names beforehand in case cell service was spotty.

scenic desert landscape
Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is sometimes called a mini Monument Valley because of its similar sandstone buttes, monoliths and pinnacles, but on a smaller scale and with fewer visitors. The east entrance is accessed off US-163 approximately 15 miles west of Bluff and the west entrance is accessed off of US-261. We entered from the east after driving 35 minutes north from Goosenecks State Park.

The further into the loop we got, the more beautiful it was. The road is unpaved and we were driving a standard Nissan Altima, so we took it slowly, enjoying the spectacular scenery. The ride took us about two hours but can be done in one. If it’s wet, the road may be difficult to navigate.

Depending on the season, desert flowers may be in bloom. There are no established hiking trails, but feel free to park at the base of whatever rock formation calls to you and indulge in your own walkabout. Admission is free. 

swimming pool and palm trees
The Hat Rock Inn

Where to Stay

For a piece of history with modern comforts, stay at Goulding’s Lodge in the heart of Monument Valley. Resort-style amenities complement a variety of rooms and stand-alone villas, nearly all with views of the valley. A fully equipped campsite and RV park are also available. Optional on-site Goulding’s Tours bring the sandstone and native Navajo culture to life, while the pool and sun deck are welcome after a day in the desert. Guests can also catch a classic John Wayne Western at the theater or tour the museum showcasing the original Goulding’s living quarters, photos, artifacts and movie memorabilia. At the Stagecoach Dining Room, take in panoramic views of the surrounding valley while feasting on southwestern favorites like Navajo Tacos with made-from-scratch fry bread. 

The Hat Rock Inn, conveniently located in the town of Mexican Hat, is a surprising gem. Its exterior looks like any other small-town motel. But inside, the rooms are tastefully designed with clean lines, modern furnishings, new carpet and white comforters. Rooms on the backside have views of the San Juan River backed by red cliffs — especially beautiful when the setting sun casts a coral glow on the water, the white sand gleams and geese squawk nearby. The pool area feels like an upscale resort with its realistic-looking palms, lovely lounge chairs and red rock background.

Dine on the patio of Swingin’ Steaks, just five minutes by foot from the Hat Rock Inn, where a grill full of sizzling steaks swings over a fire. We ate breakfast and lunch at the Hat Rock Café enjoying the friendly owners, a roomful of French tourists and a delicious egg, potato and cheese breakfast casserole.

Sights Along the Way

There’s no need to retrace your steps on this journey. If you’re headed south to Monument Valley from Idaho or Northern Utah, there’s more to see than you’ll ever have time for in the towns of Helper, Moab, Monticello, Blanding, Bluff and Mexican Hat. On your return home, be sure to drive Highway 95, the Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway, to be featured in the upcoming November/December issue of Community magazine.

red rock formation
Mexican Hat
purple flower growing in the desert
Wildflower in Valley of the Gods
lodge beneath red rock formations
Goulding's Lodge

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