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Monday, December 14, 2015

Moki Dugway and the Hawaiian Rolls of Muley Point

The view from the top of Moki Dugway, Cedar Mesa in the distance.

State Route 261 is part of Utah's Trail of the Ancients, an official National Scenic Byway. Just outside Mexican Hat, the road's southern end starts out benignly enough. Flat, straight highway rolls out along the high plains, Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods monoliths off in the distance to either side. A large mesa looms ahead, and as you get closer you think "Geez, I wonder how the road gets around that thing?" But the road doesn't veer off, it keeps heading straight for the cliffs. That's when you notice the warning signs start to pop up: Unimproved Road Ahead, Sharp Curves, Steep Grades. Hmmmm, you think. Am I'm supposed to drive straight up this monstrous thing?

Hmm, this looks serious...

Is there even a road up there?
I guess we're going up.
Moki Dugway was built, as most things in this part of the country, as an access road for a mine. It's 10% grade is dug into the mesa side, clinging to the edge like a crooked red snake. It's actually well maintained and fairly wide; not the nail biting, corrugated stomach churner in which some of the other western states seem to specialize (I recall one Forest Service road in the Sierra foothills we followed that ended badly: a one lane, blind corner cliffside nightmare. It was one of those experiences where upon reaching the end you realize you haven't taken a full breath since you took that first wrong turn. But that's another story.)

We put the truck into low and started crawling up the grade, pausing at the wide switchbacks to take photos of our friends' vehicle as they ascended ahead of us. The views were stunning, made all the more dramatic by the gathering rain clouds across the valley. Almost to the top, evidence of a vehicle that didn't take the 15 mph speed limit seriously lay crumpled at the bottom of a culvert, the crushed and rusty car mashed up against some rocks at the bottom. For most of the three mile length and 1200 foot elevation, the Moki Dugway has no guardrails. It's best to take it slow and pay attention to the road.
Craig and Rasa's truck above us on the switchbacks.
Looking back, halfway up.
Another view

Look carefully down this ravine; an old car lies crumpled against a rock.

At the top, we took the first left to explore the Muley Point area and try to find the "Hawaiian Rolls" our friend Craig had found on Google Earth. This area is known as Cedar Mesa.

Navigating our way through the free range cattle, Cedar Mesa Road.

The top of the Cedar Mesa is dotted with scrubby sagebrush and juniper, it's reddish sandstone base mostly flat. There are several unmarked roads leading off the main drag; we decided to go to the point first and explore the most promising side trails on the way back.

The manly men of Muley Point (Craig in green, Mark in black)
At the official Muley Point terminus, we parked our trucks and looked over the edge, nothing but a few randomly placed rock cairns to mark the cliff's edge (you gotta love the personal responsibility inherent in BLM land exploration). We looked down at the crumbled sandstone of the cliff face and realized we were looking at pieces of the square blocks that formed the whole mesa. The blocks we were standing on were starting to separate, leaving wide cracks we could squeeze through and climb down the face a little ways. As we edged through the cracks we found petroglyphs carved into the desert varnish. Symbols of horses, snakes and human figures adorned the walls; it made us feel a little better about being down between these massive rocks. We would live to explore another day!

The "rolls" crack off occasionally and fall down the cliff, as seen in this photo. Doesn't seem like much, until you consider those trees on the cliff top are full size, at least 20 feet tall.

Mark entering one of the cracks between the rolls.
Here he is at the intersection of four rolls.

One of the petroglyphs between the rolls.
The view from the void left by a falling roll. (The grey thing on the left is my knee. It's a little unnerving to look through a wide angle lens at the edge of a sheer drop–objects are closer than they appear as the saying goes–so I found it prudent to kneel.)
For scale, Mark is standing on top of the roll closest to the camera (waving from the middle right third of the photo). I didn't notice it was hanging in space until we got home and downloaded the photos.

We took some pictures and poked around before heading back down the road. Craig had some GPS coordinates for the "Hawaiian Roll" photo location we were trying to find.

There is another road that follows the base of Cedar Mesa's cliffs for miles. Next time...
Me atop Cedar Mesa, Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley and  Goosenecks State Park behind me.
A quick lunch stop with a marvelous view, Cedar Mesa.
The sandstone on Cedar Mesa has eroded in an interesting way. Over time, the stone has fractured into even squares and wind and rain have rounded the tops, forming what looks like tightly packed rolls. At the edge of the mesa, they occasionally crack off like a rotten tooth and tumble down the cliff, exposing the neighboring tooth and it's smooth sides. Standing right on top of one you might  not realize what's going on. Climb up a rise (or better yet get into an airplane) and view it from above and the series of squares are obvious, delineated by dark cracks where seeds lodge, water collects, and bushes and trees take hold, increasing the separation of the squares.

The "Hawaiian Roll" photo that started this whole quest.
(photo credit: Adriel Heisey)

We drove down a long dirt road and found the approximate location of the aerial photo that had so intrigued Craig. We wandered out on the rocks, jumping over large puddles that had formed during those big thunderstorms we'd driven through the day before. It was a great place to poke around, with beautiful views on both sides of the narrow plateau.

The views from Cedar Mesa are stunning. Notice the red tinge on the cloud's belly, a reflection of the red rock below.
Yucca flowers
The rains had left ponds on top of the mesa.

A tree does it's best to widen the cracks between rolls.
We discovered this sign at an overlook on the Valley of the Gods side of the mesa. I
 could certainly see why Eva liked to spend time here.
On the way back along the cliff edge, the storm that had been in the distance was getting a bit too close for comfort. Being exposed on a huge piece of flat rock wasn't the smartest place to be, so we drove back toward the main road. Bumping along the narrow single track, we followed the cliff edge and looked down into the valley below. We were almost even with the cloud underbellies, and they were turning a weird black tinged with red, a reflection of the sandstone below. As we paused to take a picture a huge clap of thunder struck, shaking the truck on it's axles. Time to hightail it back to camp.

We could almost feel the electricity gathering for the next lightning strike.

A rainbow appeared as we made our way down Moki Dugway.
On the way back down, the clouds parted and a huge rainbow appeared, the end of which seemed to come right down on our camp in Valley of the Gods. The saying goes there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow; if there is we didn't find it. But an adventure like this is worth more than gold in my book, so in a way I guess, it's true.

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