The Trail of the Ancients, a Beautiful Drive

While spending June in Dolores, Colorado, we had what Bill calls a “target-rich environment”. So much to see! The Trail of the Ancients is a designated National Scenic Byway that runs through Colorado, Utah and a bit of Arizona.  The total route is 480 miles long.  We spent 3 separate day-trips exploring it.  Even so, we “left some for next time!”  The blue pins on the map, below, show the stops we made on this very long day.  The other colors are separate day trips.

Day 1 – Loop through Southeast Utah

Bluff, Utah

This trip starts at Bluff, Utah on Highway 191.  Bluff is a cute little town that was originally founded by Mormon setters relocating from south-central Utah. Their trip through “Hole in the Rock”, a pass just over what is now Lake Powell, is the stuff of legends.

In fact, the reconstructed “Fort Bluff” was built to tell you all about it!  This is a really well-done outdoor museum where you can get a feel for the life of these very industrious pioneers.  One of the reasons the Mormon Church encouraged this settlement was to try to encourage peace between the two warring tribes in the area.  So they parked the fort right in between them.  Gutsy!

Fort Bluff, Utah, reconstructed
Bluff Fort has been reconstructed to draw us into the pioneer lifestyle.

Sand Island Petroglyphs

This road is called the “Trail of the Ancients” because of the numerous ruins and artifacts of the ancient Anasazi culture, sometimes known as the Ancestral Puebloans. Just outside of Bluff, we stopped for a few minutes at Sand Island to see the Petroglyph wall.  There is a boat launch and swim area here that was quite busy the day we saw it.  But up on the bluff, with fairly easy access, you can explore several panels of petroglyphs.   These are some of the oldest petroglyphs in the area.

Sand Island, Petroglyph
Character found at Sand Island Petroglyph site
Sand Island Petroglyph
Petroglyphs appear to tell of a hunt. Artists over several centuries have drawn here.

Learn more about the Anasazi culture

Get a list of Anasazi sites to visit

Goosenecks State Park

Continuing West and South on Highway 163, we follow the Trail of the Ancients and take the turn to Utah 261.  Very quickly you see the sign for Goosenecks State Park and turn off on Utah 316.  Drive for 3.6 miles to arrive at the entrance to the park.  The fee is $5 per person (no passes unless you are a Utah resident).

Surrounding the small parking and picnic area are the amazing goosenecks of the San Juan River.  This is called an “entrenched river meander”.  The geologists tell us that the area was a flat basin, much like the Mississippi.  Because it was so flat, the river meandered all over the place.  Slowly, slowly, even for geologic time, the area was lifted up.  But the river kept its level, cutting through the rocks as needed to keep flowing to the sea.  It’s hard to imagine how many years that would take!

A twist at Goosenecks State Park
Goosenecks State Park. There are several twists visible from this location. Bring a wide-angle lens!

Valley of the Gods

Returning to Utah 261, you will drive through the edge of the Valley of the Gods.  There is a dirt road through it, that we chose not to take.  But it looked like a fun drive.  As usual we “leave some for next time!”  To continue on the Trail of the Ancients, stay on Utah 261 and head north.

Road through Valley of the Gods
It’s a JEEP road!

WARNING:  there is a piece of this road that runs for about 4 miles, where trailers and vehicles over 10,000 lbs are PROHIBITED.

Please note that this is a car trip, not a motorhome tour.  Having done my due diligence there, I still have to say that this was the prettiest part of the drive.  The views from the top of this gravel road, after four or five switchbacks, were worth the effort, even if you don’t like roads made for jeeps.  (I actually like roads made for jeeps, but that is probably fodder for a different blog.)

My camera is a very nice Canon 40D with a 28 mm lens.  Even so, there is no way my photos can even come close to this view.  Ah, dreaming for a truly wide-angle lens.

Valley of the Gods View
View from the top of the ridge. Valley of the Gods.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges canyons
The canyons at Natural Bridges are amazing!

The next stop along the Trail of the Ancients was Natural Bridges National Monument. The drive from Gooseneck State Park to Natural Bridges took a little over an hour.  This is pretty country, even if you aren’t a fan of desert scenery.  The “exposed geology” is truly amazing.  Your drive along highway 261 takes you to Utah Route 95.  Head west until you get to Natural Bridge road and follow that into the park.

Natural Bridges National Monument allows for some very nice views from the top of the canyons that cut through this land.  The main attractions here are the “Natural Bridges” that the park is named for.  There are three rock bridges on the paved loop through the park.  For each one, you can park and walk down to the viewpoints.  The paths are paved, average about .5 miles each, with quite a bit of slope.  You will get your exercise on these!  But worth it.

A Natural Bridge at Natural Bridges National Monument
One of the three natural bridges at the park.

One walk that was very important to me, was the path to “Horsehoe Ruins”.  This was .3 miles one-war, over uneven ground, and a bit of a slope.  But the view of some amazing cliff dwellings was worth the work!  Bring in some binoculars (or for me, a telephoto lens) to get the best view as the ruins are across a small canyon.

Horseshoe Ruins at Natural Bridges National Monument
Horseshoe Ruins are named for the building on the right where two circular buildings were created next to each other.
Horseshoe Ruins at National Bridges National Monument
The other half of the Horseshoe Ruins. Bring binoculars!

Heading back to camp.

By the time we left Natural Bridges it was after 3pm and we were pretty tired.  The trip back to Dolores took us through Blanding.  We drove by Edge of the Cedars State Park, Hovenweep and Lowry Pueblo.  We went back another day for Edge of the Cedars and Hovenweep.  I am looking forward to Lowry Pueblo, next time!

One warning as you travel this route.  Restaurants and gas stations are few and far between.  Between Bill, Tucker (the pup) and myself, we went through almost two gallons of water.  Pack lunches and snacks.  Options are truly limited, except in Bluff and later in Blanding.

What a day.  This is a drive for the record books!

Days 2 and 3 – We left some for another day!

We spent over a month in the Dolores area.  Even then, we didn’t catch it all.  Stay tuned for more great road trips along the Trail of the Ancients.  Be sure to subscribe to the Intentional Traveler Blog if you would like to follow us!

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Looking forward to days 2 and 3!


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