The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip - Page 2
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Hovenweep National Monument straddling the Utah-Colorado border
Hovenweep National Monument straddling the Utah-Colorado border  (iStockphoto/Thinkstock)

Day Four: Hovenweep National Monument, Utah-Colorado
From Durango, head west and skip Mesa Verde National Park in favor of lesser-visited Hovenweep National Monument, straddling the Utah-Colorado border and less than 100 miles from downtown Durango. Be sure to hike the two-mile loop around Square Tower and other amazingly preserved Anasazi ruins, abandoned seven centuries ago. Unlike Mesa Verde, which tends to attract throngs of tourists, you'll find plenty of solitude here—and even more if you visit some of the far-flung sites beyond Square Tower.

Day Five: Bluff, Utah
You can camp at Hovenweep (bring insect repellent, especially in the spring) or head to diminutive Bluff, Utah, a good base camp for a number of worthwhile destinations in the area: Natural Bridges National Monument (featuring three of its namesake spans), Goosenecks State Park (a jaw-dropping overlook of the San Juan River), and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (the unmistakable geological wonderland made famous by Hollywood). For shelter beyond a tent, your best bets are the Desert Rose Inn and the Far Out Expeditions Guesthouse. The Twin Rocks Cafe and the Cottonwood Steakhouse are the main sources of sustenance.

Days Six and Seven: Moab, Canyonlands, and Arches, Utah
From Bluff, head north on U.S. 191 about 450 miles. Then, divert west on Utah Highway 211 to the lesser-visited Needles District in Canyonlands National Park for a hike along the 2.4-mile Slickrock Trail. There’s a campground in the Needles District if you want to spend the night.

The next stop is Moab, Utah (100 miles north of Bluff), where you can stage a day trip to the Island in the Sky District in Canyonlands for the don’t-miss, two-mile-round-trip hike to Grand View Point. Alternatively, visit Arches National Park, for the 3-mile out-and-back trek to Delicate Arch, that unmistakable Utah icon on many of the state's license plates. For dining and lodging, I'm a fan of the Moab Brewery and the Red Stone Inn, a woodsy little motel on the fringe of downtown.

When it's time to head home, if you (and your vehicle) are up for it, there’s the unpaved Mountain Loop Road from Castle Valley (just northeast of Moab) to Gateway, Colorado. It’s not faster than the paved alternatives, but it offers much more in the way of scenery and recreational opportunities. Get good directions and a map, though: there are numerous back roads besides the one to Gateway. Another scenic alternative is to head south on U.S. 191 to Utah Highway 46, taking it east to Colorado (where it becomes Colorado Highway 90) into the little-traveled Paradox Valley, so named for a quixotic river cutting across and not through it. This route is also a nice springboard for a night or two in Telluride, a picture-perfect place to end a trip.

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