Valley of the Gods Utah
Why Road Tripping to Valley of the Gods Is a Must Do
By Eric Jay Toll
It’s just a simple non-descript green highway sign on U.S. 163 in southeastern Utah near Mexican Hat: “Valley of the Gods.” Pointing to the edge of the road, it appears to plop vehicles off the side of the road into Lime Creek.
Not a national monument or park, Valley of the Gods is publicly-managed Bureau of Land Management territory in a setting surrounded by four national monuments, two national and Utah state parks, and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area with fingers from Lake Powell. It’s a land of great beauty that epitomizes both the American West and science fiction movie landscapes. Tighten your grip on the steering wheel and turn onto the drop, while everyone else gasps at once.
They will be gasping not at the steep drop down to ford the creek, but from the towering Seven Sailors Butte filling the earth to the sky. Let the passengers gawk, drivers need to watch the Lime Creek crossing. This is the eastern beginning to a 17-mile twisting, climbing and turning, but readily accessible drive looping through a valley of dramatic red rock buttes, rolling desert landscape and a smattering of brush and wildflowers.
Valley of the Gods Road, also known as BLM Road 226, stretches between U.S. 163 north of Mexican Hat, Utah, near the Arizona-Utah border and hits Utah Route 261 just below the Moki Dugway, which with a right turn is the gateway to Natural Bridges State Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Bears Ears National Monument . A left turn heads towards Goosenecks Utah State Park. In the morning, enter from U.S. 163 in the east. This way, the sunlight highlights the buttes. In the afternoon, start from the west entrance off S.R. 261.
After the Seven Sailors greeting, next on the list are Setting Hen and Rooster buttes. This starts the stretch where the most scenic campsites are located. The road weaves its way north and west past buttes named Franklin and Battleship, and then after making a steep turn at Castle Rock, the whimsical buttes are in view: Rudolph and Santa, Lady in a Bathtub and others. A simple drive-by brings you past more than 12 named buttes and spires, and easily another dozen without names on the various maps.
The 2-lane dirt road is passable in a conventional passenger car—but see “Backcountry Travel Safety” at the end of this article. The massive red rock formations are a geology fan’s dream. Hoodoos, spires, buttes, buttresses, forming and collapsing arches, and towers are all visible along the drive. It’s a potpourri of Southwestern geology. To truly enjoy the experience, stop often at the many wide spots on the road. Get out and walk around. Keep an eye peeled for Road Runner and Coyote; this is their home turf.
Paul and Nancy stood outside their rented Class B recreation vehicle in a wide spot between Rooster and Franklin buttes. They asked that their last name not be used. “We’re from central Illinois,” Nancy said. “We’ve always wanted to come to the West. I’ve seen the pictures in magazines and television shows and movies forever. ”
“Seeing these (buttes and formations) is like nothing we expected. They’re starkly beautiful, but so much larger than would be expected from photos.” Paul said that he was just the driver. “I stop any place she wants to take a picture,” he said pointing to Nancy snapping away with her tablet. “Sometimes I think I recognize one of these from a movie or a commercial.” He’s right, as many films, commercials, magazine ads, and astronaut training, have used Valley of the Gods for landscapes real and imagined. NASA uses the area for Mars astronaut training. Taking the drive in a leisurely fashion, stopping for photos and selfies, means two to three hours to complete the loop.
A drive-through windshield tour at a safe speed takes nearly two hours to complete the loop. The nearest motels are in Mexican Hat and Blanding, but there is the Valley of the Gods Bed and Breakfast at the west entrance to the Valley. Overnight stays allow a chance to explore the buttes and rocks at leisure, cross-country hike, and see a near perfect dark sky reveal of the Milky Way. DarkSiteFinder’s map rates Valley of the Gods with its darkest sky measure. A wide-angle lens, 1600 or higher ISO setting, five- to 10-second exposure, tripod and wide-open aperture results in incredible starscapes. Use a remote trigger or delayed open to avoid shaking the camera.
The spacing between campsites and the low traffic volume through Valley of the Gods provides ample opportunity for privacy while camping. There are a few scrubby trees and mostly scrappy brush and wildflowers. This makes for significant sun, and many campsites had shade tents. Walls help shelter from the afternoon winds that flow down from Cedar Mesa, towering around three sides of the Valley.
Amazing places nearby
Valley of the Gods is located in the middle of an area of parks, recreation and exploration (See mileage and travel time).
It's a perfect basecamp to reach these beautiful, geologic formations, ancestral pueblos ruins, and breathtaking views. From the campsite near Setting Hen Butte, it’s possible to see the formations on the north side of Monument Valley Tribal Park, 24 miles to the south.
Two and a half hours north, finds the spectacular landscapes and canyon views around Moab. From the east entrance of Valley of the Gods, U.S.163 connects to U.S.191 in Blanding and heads into Moab. Just north of Blanding, S.R.262, Hovenweep Road heads east to the unique collection of ancestral pueblo ruins—including the mushroom house built into a spire—at Hovenweep National Monument. It’s well worth the three hours needed for this side trip and overlook tour.
In Moab, there are the world-renowned Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In between those two parks is Dead Horse Point State Park and its stunning overlook of the Colorado River. Arches National Park is home to the largest single collection of natural arches. An arch is formed by wind, rain, ice and snow.
Traveling west on S.R.161 reaches Cedar Mesa via the white-knuckle Moki Dugway. As the road climbs steeply, the landscape changes from red rock desert to pinion, sage and wildflowers at the top of Cedar Mesa, all watched over by Bears Ears. A “moki” is a ramp and stairway carved into the side of a cliff by the Ancestral Pueblos who populated the San Juan Basin. Plan on a slow drive and many photo stops on the winding dirt surface as the road curves its way up. When reaching the top of Cedar Mesa, pull to the side of the road and walk onto the area between the edge of the mesa and the road. In the spring and after rains, this area is a carpet of wildflowers in an array of colors, shapes and sizes. S.R. 261 ends in a t-intersection with S.R. 95.
A turn west leads to S.R. 275 and Natural Bridges National Monument. Here, three rock bridges span hundreds of feet across the canyon. A natural bridge is formed by a water drilling its way through the rock. The monument offers well-placed overlooks with short, paved walkways to see the three bridges. There is also a five-mile hike through the canyon taking hikers under the three bridges. Staying west on S.R. 95 leads to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There is a Utah Department of Transportation ferry on S.R. 276 navigating across Lake Powell at Halls Crossing.
Check the Halls Crossing website for operating hours, or if an alternate route is required because of low water. If the ferry is closed, stay on S.R. 95. The ferry saves 125 miles of driving. S.R. 95 ends up in Hanksville, which is a gateway to Capital Reef National Park, the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park and Goblin Valley State Park. It meanders across Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and joins the road to North Rim Grand Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Kodachrome State Park, and Bryce and Zion National Parks.
From the west interchange of Valley of the Gods, turning southeast on S.R. 261 heads towards and intersection with S.R. 316, the road to Goosenecks State Park. The Goosenecks are a series of bends on the San Juan River Canyon between Utah and the Navajo Nation. The river carved its way in a series of steep S-curves so steep and long; it is photography challenge. There is a campground at Goosenecks, but it is not the most attractive setting. Back on U.S. 163, southbound passes the famous Mexican Hat balanced rock. There is a road, Mexican Hat Road, from the highway that travels the few miles to the rock. However, it can be photographed from pullouts on the U.S. highway. Mexican Hat, named for the rock, is the town nearest to the Valley of the Gods and surrounding area. A little further south is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. This park has the most iconic collection of buttes and mesas in the Southwest. It has been featured in more movies, commercials and advertising than can be imagined.
Travel Locations and Times from Valley of the Gods
Blanding (largest close town, more motel options) 48 miles 1 hour
Hovenweep National Monument* 64 miles 1 hour, 30 minutes
Moab 122 miles 2 hours, 15 minutes
Arches National Park* 128 miles 2 hours, 30 minutes
Dead Horse Point State Park* 155 miles 3 hours
Canyonlands National Park (the park has 3 districts)
- Needles District* 117 miles 2 hours, 15 minutes
- Island in the Sky District* 162 miles 3 hours, 15 minutes
- Maze District** 139 miles 6 hours, 30 minutes
Goosenecks State Park* 14 miles 31 minutes
Mexican Hat (nearest motels) 13 miles 30 minutes
Monument Valley Tribal Park* 40 miles 1 hour 10 minutes
Moki Dugway 18 miles 40 minutes
Cedar Mesa** 29 miles 1 hour
Natural Bridges National Monument** 50 miles 1 hour, 20 minutes
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Halls Crossing* 97 miles 2 hours
* - Campgrounds available. ** - Primitive campgrounds or dispersed camping
Bureau of Land Management Valley of the Gods Brochure (https://www.blm.gov/visit/search-details/269135/1)
Valley of the Gods Map (https://www.blm.gov/download/file/fid/3738)
Bears Ears National Monument (https://www.blm.gov/visit/bears-ears-national-monument) National Park Service:
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (https://nps.gov/glca) Hovenweep National Monument (https://nps.gov/hove)
Natural Bridges National Monument (https://nps.gov/nabr)
Navajo Nation Tribal Parks: Monument Valley Tribal Park (https://navajonationparks.org/tribal-parks/monument-valley/)
Utah State Parks:
Goosenecks State Park (https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/goosenecks/)
Dead Horse Point State Park (https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse/)
U.S. Forest Service:
Bears Ears National Monument (https://www.fs.fed.us/visit/bears-ears-national-monument)
Backcountry Travel Safety
Carry a map. There is no mobile phone service in the Valley. Mobile phone GPS may not be reliable. No matter the temperature, this is the Colorado Plateau, a semi-arid desert. Always carry water, not sugar or sugar-substitute drinks. Check with physicians for personal needs, but generally it’s recommended that adults and teens consume 1 liter of water per hour while active, and at least 3 liters per day. Energy drinks are not a substitute, but one-half liter of non-sugared electrolyte is advisable every three hours during activities. Remember, if feeling thirsty, dehydration has already started. Drink regularly before feeling thirsty.
Do not count on mobile phone signals anywhere throughout this portion of southeast Utah. There is mobile service from time to time, but not that can be relied upon to be available when needed. Carry maps and a compass. The author found mobile device coverage at Goosenecks State Park, Natural Bridges Visitor Center, some places on Cedar Mesa, and near the intersection of U.S.163 and S.R.261.
Valley of the Gods Road (BLM Road 226)
The road is accessible for a passenger vehicle and Class A recreation vehicle. Many campers also tow fifth wheels and trailers.
The area near Castle Rock is very steep with tight turns. It’s navigable for a passenger car, a Class A RV and vehicles towing trailers, but will require advanced driving skills, extremely slow speeds and careful maneuvering through the mile stretch where the road turns west.
During and immediately following heavy rains, the road is muddy, passable, but very slick. Drive slowly and carefully; use low gears and brake as if driving on icy roads. Lime Creek at the east entrances off U.S. 163 is fordable in normal conditions. If the water is extremely muddy and fast and the depth cannot be seen, do not cross.
Never enter a flooded wash if it’s not possible to discern depth and flow speed. When storm conditions are present over the Valley and north of Valley of Gods, watch for flash flooding. Lime Creek is the drainage for a large area, including portions of Cedar Mesa. It can flood even if Valley of the Gods is in sunshine and blue skies. It takes only 6 inches of water and a 5mph flow to float a passenger car—even a a four-wheel drive pickup truck—off the road and down the stream. Use common sense and caution.
Do not travel on the side roads running from BLM 226. These are narrow, very rough, and may be impassable for a passenger vehicle. There are few, if any, places to turn around.
Camping in Valley of the Gods
Camping is permitted in the dozens of off-road graded areas BLM has prepared adjoining Valley of the Gods Road. Starting just before Setting Hen Butte and past Battleship Rock, the campsites are slightly hidden from the road and provide some privacy and distance from dust. Practice “leave no trace” camping techniques and check BLM rules on the Valley of the Gods website. There is no potable water, and no restrooms or pit toilets. Be prepared for primitive camping and bring plenty of water.
Hiking in Valley of the Gods
There are no formal hiking trails. Hike with a map and compass. With a portable GPS, remember extra batteries and to set the tracking feature. The ground surface tends to have loose small rocks, especially below and around the buttes, which can be slick. Trekking poles are recommended along with basic “watch-your-step” sense. Keep an eye open for rattlesnakes and other reptiles on large rocks or near crevices. Do not stick bare hands under a rock without checking for spiders, insects or snakes. There are many things that sting and bite in the desert.
Eric Jay Toll. Eric Jay Toll is a freelance travel writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. Eric splits his travel time between conventional vacations and his love of the backcountry. He has traveled extensively throughout the Four Corners and the American West. Eric enjoys road and mountain cycling, hiking, photography, breadmaking, cooking, camping, exploring national parks and monuments, and getting deep into the accessible back country. Traveling in his all-wheel drive Honda CR-V, Eric finds remote sites accessible to both conventional vehicles and four-wheel explorers.
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