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. The first two parts of this High Desert Adventure is live on the blog, from Denver to Santa Fe and from Albuquerque to Monument Valley.
Monument Valley to Arches National Park
We wished we had bought some supplies for breakfast in the cabin at Monument Valley, we only had tea and coffee. Suiting up for the ride to Moab, we knew it was going to be cold. It’s about a 4-hour drive from Monument Valley to Arches National Park. You need to backtrack to Mexican Hat and then on to Bluff on Highway 191 via Blanding and Monticello. This is high alpine area, Monticello being at 2155 metres above sea level. We were glad we had suited up with wool and layers, because we drove long parts of this stretch of road in around 0 Celsius, about 32 Fahrenheit. Luckily, we found the Peace Tree café at the north edge of Monticello for some great food and warm coffee.
The strange thing about driving in the US is that the scenery and temperatures can change very quickly. After Monticello it was not long until that red rock and sand appeared again, and the temperatures went back to a bit more normal. You drive past Wilsons Arch, and not long after keep an eye out for the Hole `N the Rock on the right side of the road. One of those «Only in America» places that has become an attraction. Basically, it’s a house blasted into the rock by an eccentric dude called Albert Christensen. He spent 12 years blasting 50 000 cubic feet of sandstone to make a home for his family. Now there are guided tours, souvenir shops, restaurants and a small zoo at the location. It makes for a different and great place to stop on the way.
Not far up the road you will drive into Moab, somewhat of an action capital of Utah and maybe the US. Mountain biking is king here, and when we rolled into town, it was rock crawling jeeps galore. Thousands of jeeps made to crawl over the most inaccessible of terrain, we felt a bit odd coming in on Harleys. We drove through Moab and headed north of town to enter Arches National Park. The drive into the park is long, and the stops are many. The hikes are plentiful, and the stuff to see is mesmerizing. Do you research and pick your places to see and visit. If you are coming by car, make the time to do a longer trek or two. Being on motorbike you are a bit at a disadvantage to do hikes, it’s not that easy in leathers and wool. Still there are plenty of sights and smaller treks that can be done by everyone. After all, most parks in the US are made for people to drive as close to the sights as possible. Arches is one of Utah’s finest parks, and truly something else.
We spent the night in Moab. It is a very lively town, due to all action and adventure seekers who gather in town, especially at weekends. Plenty of cool bars, restaurants and breweries if you fancy a nice local beer. If you plan on staying here for a night or more, you need to book well in advance, it’s often fully booked due to its popularity with bikers, trekkers and jeepers. We had a good night, and a hearty breakfast at The Big Horn Motel.
Moab to Durango via Mesa Verde
From Moab you backtrack to Monticello, and then do a left on US491 to Cortez. Fun fact, the 491 was once called the 666, signs now taken away. But it’s still the previous Highway To Hell. You feel like you are riding down into the lowlands, the landscape now filled with green pastures with horses and cattle spread out on its emerald green carpet, but do not be fooled. The City of Cortez, where you should stop for lunch and gas, is at 1887 metres above sea level. In Cortez you need to do a left onto the US Highway 160 (hello old friend) and continue down the main street, it’s not more than about 8 miles to the entrance of Mesa Verde National Park.
We have been twice to this park, and it’s spectacular. The park contains over 5000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. The cliff dwellings are what makes this park something else. Built by the Ancestral Pueblo people between 600 to 1300 AD, the villages and houses built into the cliff wall is really unlike anything we have ever seen. It’s a long drive from the entrance of the park to most of the sites, almost 20 miles, over high elevation (2500 metres above sea level, there was snow) and then onto the mesa itself. Check out the NPS site to see what places you want to see, plenty of stops along the road with views of different cliff dwellings. If you want to see them up close, you need to pre purchase tickets (well in advance) to go on a tour with a ranger. We did a guided tour on a previous visit and it was well worth the money. This time we also tried to get tickets, unfortunately they were sold out, but you still get close to the ruins around the park. There are two main road loops in the park (see park map on the NPS page). The Spruce Tree house is on the right loop and maybe the closest you can get to a cliff dwelling without a tour. If you do that loop and stop at the Square Tower house, you also get to see a lot, and you will get a good look at Cliff Palace. If you do the left loop you see less, since you are basically on top of the Cliff Palace and Balcony House.
Return to the Highway and do a right onto US160 East again and head for Durango, it’s about an hour and a half drive from the park exit.
Arriving in Durango late afternoon, most of the shops were unfortunately closed. We chose Durango as an overnight due to the location, and due to the past as a wild west town. The home of the Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, a good old-time steam train is running from Durango and into the mountains. Unfortunately we had no time to do the train. We did however visit some of the more famous/infamous bars and saloons of Durango and spent the night at The Best Western Plus Rio Grande Inn