This trip we did as a combo between car and Harley Davidson. We drove the car from Denver to Albuquerque, and did a loop on motorbikes from there, and then we drove back to Denver again. The trip was in Easter, so mid-April, and we found that this is borderline early for this route. More ideal would be May-June and September-October, to get a bit warmer weather. Then again we had the roads for ourselves, not many other road warriors along the route. We also knew that it would and could be a cold trip, so we had packed accordingly with plenty of long woolly undergarments, Gore-Tex and layers of insulating clothes. First part of this High Desert Adventure is live on the blog where we drove from Denver via Great Sand Dunes and Taos Pueblo to Santa Fe where we spent two glorious days before heading to Albuquerque to pick up our Harleys.
Santa Fe to Gallup
An hour’s drive south of Santa Fe is Albuquerque. We only passed by to pick up our Harley Davidsons from Eagle Rider Albuquerque to do our loop from there. We left our car in their carpark, unloaded and stored much of our luggage at their premises. As usual our bikes were ready outside, with nametags, and both had 0 miles on them. Brand spanking new Ultras for everyone! After checking out we headed out for the highway once more and started riding west towards Gallup. The I40 is not so much to write home about, but you are riding on Route 66, just before the town of Laguna you can get off I40 and continue for a bit on the old part of Route 66.
Just by the off ramp they have great burgers, if you feel like some food. Stop in Laguna by the mission on the top of the hill on your left when you drive through the small town. It’s a great photo op.
The old Routhe 66 basically follows the I40 more or less the whole way, but without all the roadtrains and traffic. Just before McCartys you need to cross over the I40, the road has a dead end further up, so make sure to do this crossing. Afer McCartys you ride through an old lava field with black lava rocks all around the road. After a short while you will drive through Grants, it has a cool main street with many old motels and neon signs.
After Grants you can just join the I40 until you reach Gallup. Also an old Route 66 town, it has some interesting bits, but many shops are closed, and it has a bit of a run down feel about it. We decided to stay at the historic El Rancho Hotel with its many stories about Hollywood actors staying there in the golden era of movies. The hotel itself has lost all of its golden era, and is now not much more than a second rate dodgy motel. Stay for the cool lobby, and to see the old motel signs on the road around El Rancho.
Gallup, Canyon De Chelly to Monument Valley
This is a long day riding, with epic roads, vistas and changing scenery. We did a lot of research to find what was the nicest way from Gallup and north via Canyon De Chelly to Monument Valley. We ended up riding out of Gallup and opting for the US491N to Yah Ta Hey, doing a left onto NM264W to Window Rock. We did not stop at Window Rock, to have more time later in the day. About 1 hours drive on Indian Route 12 north, stay right at Fort Defiance to continue at the 12 North to Navajo. Continue north to the intersection at Tsaile. This whole route from Gallup to Tsaile will take you past buttes, lakes and high alpine areas with spruce trees and bushland. It was good roads for motorbikes and a great stretch of road with plenty of scenery to take in while riding. And it seems like this route is not that often done by cars or bikes, most people opting for the more eastern route of Highway 191 from Chambers to Chinle.
From Tsaile you do a left on Indian Route 64 West. After a while you will be driving along the northern rim of Canyon De Chelly. You won’t see the canyon itself from the road, but there are 3 turnoffs that should be taken on the way. The two we stopped at and had our breath taken away at was Mummy Cave Overlook and Antelope House Overlook. When you get to the visitor centre you take a left and enter the South Rim Drive, and from here you get an even more impressive look at the canyon from the road, with several spectacular vantagepoints along the way. We wish we had more time to visit the canyon itself, but this would have taken a full day, so not this time unfortunately. It looked otherworldly. Spider Rock is especially cool, a 229-metre spire of rock in the middle of the canyon.
Canyon De Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America, dating back around 5000 years. It is within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, and the valley itself has ruins from both Navajo settlements and previous Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi). The canyon itself consists of three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto and Monument.
Fill up on lunch and gas in Chinle and head north on US Highway 191. Soak in the landscape on the way, for us this is what riding in the western USA is all about, desert, buttes, red sand and long straight roads that end somewhere beyond the horizon. Ørjan had a bit of a moment on this stretch of road, blasting music on the Harley to make the soundtrack to the miles going by. Pink Floyds Comfortably Numb came on, and that guitar solo, it was a tearjerker. That’s what riding the landscapes of the great highways of the USA can do, you may start crying at any moment out of sheer sensory overload. Depending on how often you stop for photographs, it will take between 1 and 2 hours north to the intersection at Mexican Water, here you will take a right turn, and there is a gas station with a diner not long after the crossroads. Just up the road, do a left and turn on to the 191 North again. The sign will say Bluff and Mexican Hat. This stretch of road is just as epic as the last one, with twisting turns along canyon floors, straight lines to the horizon, and vistas where there should have been cowboys riding the crest of that ridge to make it even more epic. Watch out for horses along the road and on the road, there are many pf them roaming the plains, they all belong to the local Native American Tribes of the area. You will get to the crossroads where you need to turn left onto Highway 163 towards Mexican Hat.
From here it’s a little more than an hour to Mexican Hat and the reason for taking that last stretch of road. You could also take a left at Mexican Water and go to Kayenta and then end up in Monument Valley. BUT by going the way we went, you will get that epic Monument Valley view from the road, after you have gone through Mexican Hat. It’s the quintessential US tourist brochure view, the road with the buttes in the background makes this the best place to enter Monument Valley Continuing from the photo madness, drive into the park itself. This park is owned by The Navajo Nation, so you pay the fee to get into the park to them, not the NPS. There is a hotel on the rim itself, there are cabins and there is a campground.
If you have a car and enter the park, you can drive into the park itself on the dirt road that starts just left of the hotel. We have done this on previous visits, and it is something you should do, so many great spots for photos and walks in the park. This time we had our Harleys, so no driving into the park. We arrived and checked in to our cabin overlooking the buttes. We made it in time to the sunset, and it was spectacular! In front of our cabin we had proper stallions roaming, the buttes in the background and the sun setting behind them. Alcohol is not permitted on Tribal lands, so no chance of a beer after a long day’s drive. We had an ok dinner at the hotel, then got back to the cabin to rest and sleep since we had a very early start the next morning.
Monument Valley monrning tour with Frank
We got up before the sun, since we had booked a guided trip into the valley itself with the local Navajo tribe. Frank the Navajo was our guide. A very calm man, full of knowledge about the lands, his family still lived in the park itself. He took us beyond the road for the other visitors and showed us parts of Monument Valley not accessible to others than those few who book the tour. Of course, we got to see John Ford point, that’s a must, but we had a very special and different trip with Frank.