2017-07-24

Riding in the Shadow of Giants: Monument Valley by Motorcycle

Riding in the Shadow of Giants: Monument Valley by Motorcycle:

Monument Valley by motorcycle
Riding through Monument Valley becomes an exercise in kickstand use. Photos by the author.

There I was—three hours into a wonderful ride that I had made many times over the years. The quickest route from my home near Flagstaff, Arizona, to the mountains of Colorado bissects the vast and beautiful Navajo Nation Reservation of the Four Corners region. My familiarity with U.S. Route 160, combined with light traffic and forever views, tricked me into speeds that were a bit north of the posted limit. Intermittent roadside native jewelry stands, cattle and Navajo hogans dotted the roadside. There was no practical reason to leave U.S. 160, which leads deep into Colorado via a very direct path.

Practicality be damned. There is something inherent in motorcycling that reinforces the notion that it’s not just about “getting there.” That’s exactly why, instead of riding straight through the reservation town of Kayenta, Arizona, I would be taking a northern turn into the Monument Valley region. It was a road I had never ridden, leading into a region I had never seen—an enticing combination to any motorcyclist.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
A cow stands guard in a highway underpass on the Navajo Nation Reservation south of Monument Valley.

My tour planning would not usually include a stop at a chain fast food restaurant, but the Kayenta Burger King is anything but usual. It contains a small but striking tribute to the Navajo Code Talkers, who used their native language in a vital service to the WWII war effort. After I finished my sandwich and a little more map study of the new-to-me portion of the Southwest, it was time to head farther north.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
The author takes a walk near the whimsical and aptly named Mexican Hat.

The first miles of U.S. Route 163 made for a strange, wonderful, lunar-esque ride. The immediate surroundings were intriguing and the treeless horizon gave a distant hint of what was to come. From miles away, the sandstone spires of Monument Valley looked miniscule. However, with every mile I rode, the spires steadily grew and I steadily diminished. The towering sandstone mountains have a way of making one feel very small. The road itself is a picturesque mix of wide-open straights and high-speed sweepers. There are some concerns for motorcyclists here. The views are distracting, the road can be sandy in places, and reservation dogs and wildlife are unpredictable. I rode along in awe, but with a heightened sense of alert. I was glad I was on the BMW R 1200 GS, as there were a myriad of enticing dirt side roads that called out for exploration. I sampled a good handful of them.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
The Navajo Twins stand as massive sentinels above Bluff, Utah.

As I rolled to a stop near one of the first of the “monuments” and cut the engine on my BMW, the ambience was almost overwhelming. The crimson hue of the rock sculptures, the silence of the desert air and the heat radiating off the sand mixed to create an almost surreal setting. Finding a way to capture the wide expanse of the beauty of Monument Valley with a camera is a daunting task. It is a sweeping, 360-degree kind of experience.

Back on the bike, it dawned on me that a place like Monument Valley is experienced in stages—from a distance, from changing perspectives and close up. And there is no better way to take it all in than from the seat of a motorcycle. Even the place names that I experienced along the ride added to the majesty of Monument Valley. Rain God Mesa, Sentinel Mesa, Three Sisters, The Yi Be Chi (Navajo Gods)—the names inspire reverence. Each formation has its own nuance and character ranging from the massive to the delicate and every stage in between. The region is truly a grand celebration of the artistry of erosion.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
Bridge lovers will appreciate the 1950s era structure spanning the San Juan River near Mexican Hat, Utah.

Leaving Monument Valley did not mean leaving the grandeur. The open road eventually led to a crossing of the San Juan River over a great metal bridge that dates to the 1950s. Immediately after the crossing, I came to the tiny town of Mexican Hat. I didn’t see the namesake of the “don’t blink” town until leaving its northern boundary. The Mexican Hat is a seemingly teetering rock in the shape of…well you guessed it. At one of the viewing areas of the hat, folks had created a garden of tiny replicas of the distinctively stacked rocks.

After leaving the Mexican Hat area north on U.S. 163, I rolled back into the kind of riding that is the trademark of the region. Those amazing views opened back up as I opened the throttle. Heading northeast, I came to another reverential place name. Off in the distance to my clutch side was The Valley of the Gods. It was only another short leg to the Utah town of Bluff.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
The author marvels at the large-scale artistry of erosion.

I have to say, Bluff is a great little hamlet. It serves as the hub of highways that emanate in four directions, making it the perfect homeport for southern Utah explorations. The town rests in a valley surrounded by sculpted cliffs and sits on the banks of the San Juan River. It has a restored historic 1800s fort as its centerpiece and twin sandstone sentinels standing watch over the town. I stayed at a quaint, ’50s style motel called the Recapture Lodge. The motel is clean, comfortable, motorcyclist-friendly, and the owner is an amiable treasure-trove of information about the area and its history.

As I said, Bluff is at a crossroads. U.S. Route 191 can serve as a new route back toward the Navajo Reservation if that is your plan. Utah State Route 162 leads southeast along the San Juan to the Four Corners area. My route was north on U.S. 191 for more exploration of southern Utah and ultimately leading to the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in western Colorado.

It was my first experience riding in the amazing Monument Valley and southwestern Utah, but it will certainly not be my last. My suggestion is to avoid the dog days of mid-summer and make this a spring or fall tour. A ride in the shadow of sandstone giants has a way of putting life into perspective.

Monument Valley by motorcycle
A map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaprs.com.

(Via Rider Magazine)

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