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Highway 261 Utah

Not Your Average Highway


Karen and I are having a love affair - with a road!!! Highway 261 in Southern Utah.

Definitely not for the faint of heart. 6425 feet above sea level dropping 1100 feet in under 3 miles on hairpin curves at a 10% grade. Did I mention gravel road, barely 2 lanes wide and NO guardrails. 5mph? How about 3mph just to be on the safe side? Stay on the designated roads? OK sure. No problem. Where else would I want to go? Where the "designated road" ends a 1100 foot cliff starts - straight down!! Did I mention - NO guardrails? Oh yes, I did.
Your worst nightmare is that a semi is coming at you from the other direction.

Highway 261 (on Cedar Mesa) is located in southern Utah. It runs 34 miles connecting Hwy 163 just north of Mexican Hat, with Hwy 95, just east of Natural Bridges National Monument. The highway is part of the Utah section of the Trail of the Ancients, a National Scenic Byway. It includes steep switchbacks as it traverses the Moki Dugway.



Hwy 261, Utah - Moki Dugway
View Photo Slideshow

2002

We discovered hwy 261 in 2002 quite by accident.

We left the Moab area, traveled south on hwy 191 and stopped to pick up subs at Blanding. About 5 miles past the hwy 95 junction, just south of Blanding, Karen noticed that hwy 95 connected to hwy 261 which looked like a good road and it would connect us to hwy 163 right at Valley of the Gods where we were going. We turned around, backtracked, stopped for our picnic, and headed west on hwy 95. Then south on hwy 261.

This portion of the hwy is a long flat plateau and we imagined we were driving at the top of the world - we were. We kept seeing signs about curves, switchbacks, no vehicles towing, no trucks, and no busses and we knew we were heading into something very unusual.

When we arrived at the top of the Moki Dugway we couldn't believe the view overlooking the valley - and the road we had to take to get the bottom of it.

We we laughing so hard going down the road the tears were blocking my vision. Not to mention we nearly wet our pants. I actually had to stop and collect myself. Karen's exclamations while she overlooked the "straight down 1100 foot cliff" (on her side of the car or course) were enough to make a hardened trucker blush.

I wish there was a way to put a feeling into a photograph!! Highway 261 is definitely a "feeling". Take a supply of nitro and depends just in case. It never ceases to thrill us to be on this highway; the Valley of the Gods (at the bottom of it) and Monument Valley (a few miles west) just draw us.

Ever since that first time we found this highway, we plan our trip route around it. Sometimes we drive up and down a couple of times before heading off. It's always a sad feeling to say goodbye to hwy 261 for another year.


2003

In 2003 we had to make sure our route included hwy 261 so we could drive "up" it. It was just as much a thrill as the drive down - except the "straight down 1100 foot cliff" was now on my side of the car. Thanks goodness we were driving hugged up to the mountain side this time. If I had been hanging near the edge I don't think I could have driven it without having a heart attack - or at least wetting my pants!!

We met a group of five traveling bikers at the top who were equally as thrilled as us. We took some pictures of them. Unfortunately the pictures were on their cameras and we neglected to get emails so they could send us some.


2005 - We're Back!

We had to miss 2004 so it was 2005 before we were able to get back to hwy 261. We were coming home from our west coast trip across hwy 50 to Ely. It was a new route for us and we ended up on Scenic Route 12 through the Escalantes and Capital Reef National Park spending the night at Torrey before heading out to hwy 261. We approached Highway 261 from the north this year and drove down, up and back down to connect with hwy 163 heading home.

State Route 261 is located entirely within south-central San Juan County, Utah. It runs 34 miles north, from the junction of U.S. Route 163 three-miles north of Mexican Hat, to the junction with State Route 95, just east of Natural Bridges National Monument.

The highway is part of the Utah section of the Trail of the Ancients, a National Scenic Byway. It includes steep switchbacks as it traverses the Moki Dugway.

"Moki" is a local term for the ancient Puebloan people who inhabited the Colorado Plateau hundreds of years ago. "Dugway" is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside. The Moki Dugway is literally carved from the cliff face and talus slope on the edge of Cedar Mesa.

The route connects Utah Highway 95 with US Highway 163 by crossing Cedar Mesa and plunging down the dugway at an 11% grade, revealing sweeping views of Valley of the Gods, stripes of color in the rocks of the San Juan River Canyon known as the Navajo Tapestry, and distant Monument Valley.


2006

It wasn't quite dark, so we decided play around on Hwy 261 before stopping in Bluff, but, true to form, we found somewhere else to explore.

After driving up and down Hwy 261, we went up again because Karen wanted to investigate a road we'd been ignoring for several years. The road is called Muley Point Road and I'm sure it is aptly named. Definitely fit for mules. Oh My Gawd.

Muley Road seemed to go on forever and we were thinking this is likely a waste of time, when suddenly the road ended and the world dropped 1200 feet into a magnificent gorge.

We were overlooking part of the Goosenecks of San Juan River in the eastern extreme of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We could see forever and "no railings". Once again I was 100 feet from the edge taking pictures of Karen peeking over the edge.

The next morning we climbed Hwy 261 one more time then north to Hwy 95.


2007

It's amazing that we can travel all the way to New Orleans and then by careful planning find ourselves back on highway 261 on the way home, but that's exactly what we did. It just didn't seem right that we could go away and not visit one of our favorite places. So, although it was a "destination New Orleans" trip - we ended up in Valley of the Gods and highway 261 again. It just felt like we were home.

This year Karen drove it for the first time (she was getting pretty relaxed on it until that point - then she freaked). It was early evening - not much traffic so we were able to stop several times to take pictures. We drove up and down three times before we called it a day.


June 23, 2008
Moki Dugway is part of the 116 miles federally designated National Scenic Byway known as The Trail of the Ancients. The Trail, in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, circles through the ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Country.

It includes Hovenweep National Monument, Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum, Butler Wash and Mule Canyon Indian ruins, Natural Bridges National Monument, Grand Gulch Primitive Area, Valley of the Gods, Gooseneck State Park, Monument Valley, Historic Bluff, Three Kiva Pueblo and Four Corners Monument.

Arriving back on highway 261 is a good feeling for us. As much as it never seems to change - it really never stays the same. Karen even notices when some rocks have moved or a part of the road is changed - sometimes made wider and sometimes missing a shoulder. Highway 261 makes you feel like you are on top of the world - and you are!! We never tire of it.

This year we noticed a wreck over the cliff and we are absolutely sure we never saw that before. Whether it was a prop or an actual accident, it reminds us that although the road is stimulating, exciting and fun to drive - it can also be very dangerous.

Because it was early evening there was very little traffic on the road.  We could stop and view from just about anywhere. After driving up and down a couple of times the sun was starting to set and it was time to call it a day. We planned to visit highway 261 again before we left the area.

June 24, 2008 - Hwy 261 Nightmare!

At the bottom of the Moki Dugway on Hwy261 there is a turnaround where those less adventurous can about-face instead of climbing the butte.  A fully loaded tractor trailer with a secondary pup full of sheep was pulling back onto the road from the turnout so we pulled into turnout to give him room to pass - assuming he had mistakenly taken a wrong road. 

Half way up the butte - we came upon two cars of women and kids, one of which was attempting to back down the treacherous gravel road. A glance to the right gave us the explanation why someone would back up at this point and saw another fully loaded tractor trailer rounding the narrow bend heading in our direction. We were stunned as there was no doubt the clearly marked road restriction signs posted were intended for this type of vehicle. We suddenly realized that the first truck we'd seen at the bottom had not been turning around but had also just come down the hill.&

The truck passed the 3 cars pulled off to the side and Karen yelled at the two men "Are you crazy?" and they laughed as the drove by leaving a cloud of dust. Out came the camera and history is once again recorded.


2009
We're back! Sometimes we have a hard time stopping ourselves from jumping around in our seat in anticipation of the drive on this highway. We certainly have a hard time staying in the car. This year we should have locked Willie in the barn.

The road is always the same but only in the way it affects us. Each year we notice changes - some small some major. Each year we take more and more pictures and we are still in awe of the beauty.

This sign with the first curve in the background is like an open door invitation and the cliffs that follow for the next 3 miles are like comforting arms around us.

2009 - Willie's Cliff Hanger!
We stopped at the top lookout and Karen got out to take a photo using Willie in the foreground. She set him on the abutment, took a few steps and when she turned back, he was gone. A gust of wind blew him over the edge. Sitting in the car and watching the whole scene seemed surreal. The look on Karen's face was priceless.
OK - not funny. We have a problem. Willie is hanging precariously by a twig. If he gets dislodged from the twig (and all it would take is another wind gust), it is game over - 100 feet straight down type of game over. He was out of arm's reach, we didn't have anything long enough to try to hook on to him, and there is absolutely no way either of us is going to crawl down that ledge. After all, we were not going to risk our lives over a stuffed horse.
And then, along came Jones, tall thin Jones
Slow walkin' Jones, slow talkin' Jones
Along came long, lean, lanky Jones
Well, we don't know what his name was but believe it not, this hero cowboy crawled over the barrier and down the edge and rescued Willie. When we tried to stop him, all he said was "I climb mountains - this is nothing". After all was said and done though, he did say "this thing blows over again ladies, you're on your own".

Karen heeded his words and promptly put Willie back on the abutment, but this time where the rocks behind didn't drop off 100 feet straight down.

With Willie safe and sound and our cowboy driving off into the sunset, we bid goodbye to Hwy 261 for another year.


June 23, 2010

After all these years, we think we finally got the picture that really portraits the feeling of hanging on the edge. Karen literally stretched her arm out the window and in front of the windshield and aimed it where she was looking. That is a straight 1000 foot drop over the side of that gravel edge. No guardrails, no trees, no fencing, not even a convenient boulder placed to discourage gawkers. 8 years of going up and down this road and my stomach still flips like a pancake on a hot griddle. And I love every minute of it !!!

We didn't spend too much time dawdling in the Valley and hit Hwy 261 around noon - plenty of time to catch the Halls Crossing Ferry across Lake Powell. We stopped several times to take pictures and this time we were careful to make sure Willie was not going to leap over the cliff.

At the top of Hwy 261 we passed a car from Alberta and couple of miles down the road curiosity got the better of us and stopped, flagged them down to find out where in Alberta they were from. Edmonton. We didn't chat with them long as traffic was coming up behind us on the highway. Felt funny seeing another Albertan that far from home - and what were they doing on "our" road anyway?


May 13, 2011 - Spring Breakout

I wasn't in so much of a hurry that I would miss Hwy 261. After lunch and gas at Monument Valley I arrived at Hwy 261 from the west. Willie wanted to get out at Willie's Overlook - but I locked him in the car. There was no way I could take pictures and hold him at the same time!!

With my Hwy261 fix complete, the push was now on to get home. I arrived at Torrey about 5 pm. I was tempted to stop for the night but decided to spend the next 4 hours of sunlight putting on miles. I stopped at the Chuckwagon Store to stock up on snacks. It was dark when I finally reached Ogden.

June 15th, 2011
Our intention this year was to head in a south/east/south trend and that lasted until we reached Cortez, Colorado. There we had to make a decision - continue with the south/east/south route or hightail it to our favourite road - hwy 261. A quick stop at McD's, a hamburger and smoothie later, the decision was made. Let's take the 80 mile trip to Bluff and hwy 261.

Painted Desert

Once we reached Bluff, we checked in at the Desert Rose Inn and went to Twin Rocks Cafe for supper and of course, shopping, then went to play on hwy 261 until dark.

We stopped to catch a picture of the painted desert. Just as Karen snapped the photo a group of bikers whizzed by. It turned out to be a great picture.

We were on the road well over 1/2 hour before seeing any other vehicles. We stopped several times to take pictures. We hung on to Willie though with a death grip. Going over the cliff is not an option for him any more.

We played till dark and then it was finally time to go back to the Inn We had a lot of time to make up and needed an early start in the morning.

Catching the moon on the way back to Bluff seemed like a fitting end to a great day.


May 8, 2012 - Spring Breakout

I Love This Road!!

It wouldn't be right if I didn't play on hwy 261 for a while.

I drove down, up, and down again before saying goodbye and heading to hwy 163. I'm by myself this year with Willie riding shotgun.

There were some changes that I noticed. The area where there is a large pull off just after the turn seems quite a bit smaller this year. Couldn't swear by it, but I think it was missing a large chunk.


June 26, 2013 - We're Back

We have more pictures of hwy 261 that any other place we're travelled. With the exception of 2004, we have been on this road every year since 2002. I've been on it several times on extra trips. We don't even try to explain any more how this road makes us feel - it just does.

The Moki Dugway was constructed in 1958 by Texas Zinc, a mining company, to transport uranium ore from the "Happy Jack" mine in Fry Canyon, UT. to the processing mill in Mexican Hat.

Willie's Cliff

We stopped at the top to let Willie view the cliff he dangled from in 2009. We put him in a different position (one that had a ledge on the other side) and held on to him tightly just in case he decided to take a flying leap for old times sake. It was a very wide ledge - I was actually standing on the other side of the guard rail.


May 17, 2015 - Back Visitng an Old Friend
I felt like it had been a long time since I'd been on highway 261 and it wasn't until I got home and started to post this that I realized I had not been there since the spring of 2013. Two whole years without a highway 261 fix! Yikes!

Hwy 261 Utah

Gee, I wonder why I opted for this route. Hwy 261 is officially known as Moki Dugway, part of the Trail of the Ancients. Turning onto hwy 261 from hwy 163 makes my heart start to beat a little bit faster. I absolutely love this road. I love the rush it gives me. Hwy 261 isn't just a road - it's a feeling. For 14 years now, we have been trying to capture on camera what it feels like to be on this road - without success. Anyone travelling up or down it leaves with the same sense of bewilderment and awe. It is simply WOW! Highway 261 Utah

Trail of the Ancients

The Trail of the Ancients is a National Scenic Byway located in the states of Colorado and Utah. The route highlights the archaeological and cultural history of southwestern Native American peoples, and traverses the widely diverse geological landscape of the Four Corners region. It was the first National Scenic Byway that was designated solely for its archaeological sites. The entire route is approximately 480 miles long.


 

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