Moki Dugway: On the Edge

Don't lock your brakes on the loose gravel or you will take off like a Norwegian ski jumper
Don't lock your brakes on the loose gravel or you will take off like a Norwegian ski jumper says,

The Mokee (or Moki) Dugway, located on Utah Route 261 just north of Mexican Hat, Utah is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of 3 miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11% grade), which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the valley floor near Valley of the Gods.

The site fails to mention that the road is 6,425 feet above sea level. Mainly one lane with cliff-edge pullouts sans guardrails. That a sign on UT-261 reads, “NOT Recommended for Trucks over 10,000 lbs., RVs, Buses, Vehicles Towing.” That it’s in a deserted area. Knowing all this, Magellan could hardly wait to drive it.

Me, not so much.

Phrases like “staggering serpentine of switchbacks” spelled SSS to me. “Remote red rollercoaster” (what’s with this alliteration?) layered a three-fold burden of fear on my psyche. And who wants to go to a place described as “hairpin heart-pounding hell?”

Magellan always takes the wheel of Rove-Inn on roads like this. He’s an excellent driver having learned on snow and ice and driven all over the world. So you’re probably wondering why I’d worry.

I don’t. Except every time we’re about to launch down (or up) a road like this, a wee corner of my cranium poses this question: “What will I do if we have an accident, Magellan is hurt and I have to finish the drive?”

People steer this road, 40,000 of them a year, for the joy and thrill and the panoramic views of Valley of the Gods, beginning at the top and continuing at every turn as you descend and travel another 17 miles in the valley. Although no longer part of Bears Ears National Monument, the isolated mesas, towering pinnacles and mushroom buttes of the Valley of the Gods are protected by the Bureau of Land Management.

If you think driving it nowadays is risky imagine this climb in the time of the Ancestral Puebloans. They carved Moki steps, shallow hand-and-toe holds into the cliff edge to create a trail, an almost vertical climb to reach Cedar Mesa.

Moki Dugway was built in 1958 by a mining company named Texas Zinc for trucks to transport uranium ore from its Happy Jack Mine in Fry Canyon on Cedar Mesa to a processing mill in Halchita near Mexican Hat (the town is named for the shape of a nearby towering rock). The unusual name Moki Dugway has a more pedestrian etymology. The Spanish called the Ancestral Puebloans “Moki” and the word “Dugway” is a term to describe a road carved from a hillside.

Now, to our drive. We’d read that Muley Point Overlook, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, was a must-see. So at the top before the Moki Dugway, Magellan took the unmarked turnoff onto a five-mile mile gravel road to an existentially provocative view of the Goosenecks State Park, the San Juan River and the distant Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation. And the pantone shades of geology: umber copper, persimmon, gooseneck grey, desert ochre…We however, were taking Moki Dugway to Butler Wash, an ephemeral tributary of the San Juan River where the Ancestral Puebloans farmed, leaving behind archaeological treasures, rock-art panels and ancient ruins, an outdoor museum that runs for 17 miles on Comb Ridge.

Photographing Magellan dangling his legs over this precipice was scarier than the ride down Moki Dugway! Because really folks, the dangers of Moki Dugway are over-rated. Yes, it would be torturous if you met an idiot driver or were tailgated by one. (Or had to follow a bad driver down the switchbacks. We were relieved when the driver of an RV stopped at the pull out at the top.)  Moki Dugway would be nerve-wracking in the dark. Life-threatening in a flash flood. But for us on a sunny day in April—breezy. For Magellan, I mean.

Back to that question: What would I have done if I had to finish the drive?

It’s only three miles long top to bottom, so chances are I’d have a short drive, right? And everyone would be travelling slowly—one guy said three miles an hour was his speed. I’d put on the flashers, shift Rove-Inn into DSC (a first for me) and yoga breathe to keep my knees from shaking. One thing I know for sure. If I were behind the wheel, Magellan, no matter how much he was bleeding or how many bones were broken, would snap to attention, all his senses revving to life. “Careful on this corner,” I can imagine him saying. “The road narrows ahead and the edge drops off.”


UPDATE: August 27, 2021: “The Lost Canyon,” how drought is shrinking Lake Powell, one of the country’s largest reservoirs, revealing a hidden Eden, by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, August 16, 2021.

7 Responses

  1. Well you did not have to go so far if you wanted an interesting drive, how about “The Hill” on highway 20 from the Caribou Plateau down into Bella Coola.

    The actual hill drops 4,020 feet in 19.4 km, on grades of up to 15% according to the information sign at the truckers’ brake check area at the top of the hill, but driving both uphill and downhill, there are sections of descent and ascent respectively. There are some short one-lane sections, and there are many pull-offs. There are some huge unprotected drops off the side of the roads (that is, there are no guardrails). (From Explore North)
    This is all gravel and the scenery is outstanding, if you pull off and look, not to be done while driving the road. For a bigger thrill try it in fog, snow, rain or a combination of the three. Only been up and down once, quite a tour. And they say I am from the highlands of Scotland, not quite a comparison.
    “O Canada, Oh Yea“

    1. OMG, you are prescient. Magellan has been talking about this for three years!!! Ever since Tulum where we met a guy from Bella Coola,”Bear,” who told him about it. And I thought it was 15 km—not 19.4! What were you driving? What season?

    2. The Bella Coola hill is definitely on my bucket list. And Spice will probably take her bucket. It sounds a lot like the “Puke Road” connecting Roses with Cadaqués where Salvador Dali had his home in Spain.

  2. A scary road for sure Gloria, but the scenery and the colours are fantastic. It’s the drop offs that always have me hanging on for dear life and leaning away from the edge. Your photography gives such a fabulous feeling for the area.

    1. If you’d been there, your photos would be worthy of National Geographic—but TY and I do like the one of Magellan over the abyss.

  3. Wow – Quite the road! Missed that turnoff when we came back from Palm Springs through Utah last year……Don’t think the Acura would navigate this road the same way the “Rove-Inn” did.

    1. Probably not the best choice if you’re trying to make good time getting back to Canada. And your Accura would handle the 80 mph speed on the I15 a lot better than Rove-Inn with her rooftop “wing.”

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