By WARREN RESEN – North American Travel Writers Association
Photos by Jeanne O’Connor
Blanding, UT — Southeast Utah is the gateway to much of the splendor for which this part of the USA is famous. The ever- changing high desert scenery and the national parks are here. This is a place where people come for vacation and to see and experience the wonders of nature.
Vacations are special times to which people look forward each year. Lots of money is spent by tourists supporting local economies. Millions of digital pictures are taken for mementoes and to show the folks back home. The most precious commodity for tourists, though, is time. It is something not to be unnecessarily wasted.
As a travel writer, my time is precious, too, trying to cover as much ground as possible to bring readers information and helpful hints. So when I take the time to do the tourist thing and am thwarted by lack of proper information which wastes my time, in this case information supplied by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), I attempt to point out the things you should avoid so as not to waste your time.
Arriving in Blanding early one weekday morning, I went directly to the Visitors Center for information and talked to a polite lady behind the counter, who apparently had very little concrete information about attractions beyond a 10-mile radius of the town and practically nothing about accommodations outside of the city. So she piled me with maps and brochures, including an area discount book inside of which were offers that had expired months before, and sent me on my way.
My credo has always been for travelers to do their homework so they will be prepared to see and do the things most interesting to them during their limited vacation time. I thought I had done just that before heading out from my motel, armed with brochures, for a day of sightseeing.
Using state and local maps and brochures supplied by the BLM, we plotted our activities starting with the nearby Natural Bridges. It was a drive through breathtaking scenery of mountains, mesas, ever- changing colors and straight-line roads practically devoid of traffic.
After Natural Bridges we headed in the direction of Valley of the Gods, something my wife really wanted to see, an attraction promoted by the locals and in brochures at the Visitors Center published by the BLM. Nothing had prepared us for what lay ahead.
After driving for miles on a paved road to reach the West Entrance of the Valley of the Gods, the paved road ended at the edge of a mesa far above the valley below. Ahead of us was an unpaved 2.2 mile stretch of a gravel washboard road going down at a grade of 10 percent with multiple switch backs. This section of “road” is called the Moqui Dugway. I elected not to make this drive with my new sedan. Nothing in their printed brochure alerted us to this situation.
The second unfortunate occurrence on leaving the first one that day was a failed visit to Hovenweep, the ruins of an ancient people, ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. The ruins were abandoned over 700 years ago. The site was 20 plus miles off the nearest highway and the colorful brochure says they can be reached by a paved road. In this case “paved” was used in its broadest sense.
Following a BLM directional sign, we turned off the main road. After bouncing along the “paved” road for many miles without seeing another directional sign we gave up. Having wasted the afternoon on this useless venture, we headed back to our hotel more than 50 miles away in Blanding.
Next day we headed for the East Entrance to the Valley of the Gods. Driving US-163 at 70 mph, we passed the almost invisible sign to the unpaved entrance road to the Valley without seeing it.
Eventually we realized our mistake and doubled back. The 17-mile loop road around the named monoliths is graded gravel and clay accessible only in dry weather. Taking this road into the park for about four miles was more than enough in my new car. I made a U-turn and left, telling my wife that the following day in Monument Park, in the neighboring state of Arizona, would make up for this unfortunate experience.
We did our homework but were blind-sided by the Bureau of Land Management’s printed brochures. My recommendation is to by-pass this “attraction” and stick with Monument Valley. It is easier to reach, has optional modes of transportation through the park and is much more majestic then the Valley of the Gods. Monument Valley is on Navajo land. They control and manage the attraction. Golden Age Passports are not accepted and there is a nominal fee per person.
Another grievous lack of proper information postulated by the BLM is their description of the degree of difficulty of hikes. They are obviously meant for someone in peak physical condition, used to high altitudes and rough terrain. Easy, Moderate and Strenuous labels applied by the Bureau to the hikes to them means something quite different to Flatlanders from Florida struggling to negotiate uneven paths at 5,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level.
Now, what is the lesson to be learned from our experience? Do your homework. If you are on vacation you usually don’t have a lot of time to waste. And, unless you are an off-the-road person with a bent for visiting historic markers, out-of-the-way ruins or piles of stones, stick to the popular attractions close to the main roads. There is a reason for their popularity.
There was a highlight for us during this early part of our long road trip. It was stopping in Bluff Fort, UT and visiting the re-created historic Mormon Village and meeting the wonderful, warm, friendly volunteers keeping alive the history of the hardships faced by some of the early settlers of this area. In comparison, the major hardship today’s travelers face is finding a hot spot for computers and phones.
(1) The back roads of New Mexico, Utah and Arizona are more suited to 4WD vehicles. You will not be happy or comfortable on the unpaved roads in your family sedan or RV.
(2) If you will be spending time touring Utah and like a beer, wine or something stronger with dinner, bring your own supply.