Four Corners #04 - Goosenecks, Gump, Bridges

March 23, 2024  •  2 Comments

October 2023 Trip

Four Corners October 2023 - #04 Goosenecks, Forrest Gump and Bridges

This Four Corners series of articles is for a one week driving trip we took to the Four Corners area of the USA in October of 2023.  The main destinations on this trip were Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley with some other stops along the way. 

Entire Trip map
02 Map 1 - Full Trip02 Map 1 - Full Trip

In this article (the last of the 4 Corners series) I’ll talk about Goosenecks State Park, Forrest Gump Hill, and Natural Bridges National Monument.

Route on our Goosenecks and Natural Bridges day
01 Map 6 - Natural Bridges Day01 Map 6 - Natural Bridges Day

Other side of Monument Valley

While still staying at Gouldings, we spent a day driving north up into Utah to see some other sites.  US-163 heads northeast from the Monument Valley Turnoff and skirts around the north side of the Monument Valley Tribal Park on up to Mexican Hat.  From this road you can see many of the same monuments that you see from inside the park but now you’re looking at them from the North and East rather than from the West and South.  In the morning you get more front light on these features but in the late afternoon they are illuminated with side light or are silhouettes with backlight.

The photos below show some or all of Brighams Tomb,  Stagecoach, Castle Rock, Bear and Rabbit Summit, Big Indian, and King on his Throne  from along US-163. Unfortunately, other than Brighams Tomb, it is not clear which of these is which.  Doing a Google search for these monument names produces loads of photos which are mostly not labeled, but for each feature the few photos that labeled their photos have different labels for the same features, with no apparent majority of which name goes with which feature. 

Brighams Tomb from US-163
04 A7R5-#0562004 A7R5-#05620

Probably Castle Rock, Bear and Rabbit, and Stagecoach Monuments.  From US-163
King on his ThrownKing on his Thrown

From US-163
02 A7R5-#0593602 A7R5-#05936

Forrest Gump Hill

Many of you may recall the Forrest Gump movie.  At the end of his 3 year running phase where he crisscrossed the country several times he was running through a desert with an entourage of followers tagging along.  At one point, to the puzzlement and dismay of the groupies following him he just stopped.  Turned around and just started walking back the way he came.  When asked what he was doing he just said he was tired and it was time to go back home to Alabama.  And he just strode off down the road leaving his followers just standing there in the desert looking bewildered.  Well that scene was shot along this section of US-163 with Monument Valley in the background.

Over the years since the movie debuted, and this location was identified, tourists have flocked to this isolated stretch of road to see the location, to run along some of the same stretch of road and to film themselves re-enacting that scene.  This has gotten so popular that the highway department had to lower the speed limit along this stretch of road to try and keep crazy tourists from being run over as they jog, sit, and even lie down in the middle of the highway for the sake of a selfie.

It’s really quite weird driving along an otherwise remote desert highway and all of a sudden coming upon several dozen people standing in the middle of the road taking selfies or running up and down the middle of the road with someone filming them with a cell phone.

Forrest Gump Hill (US-163)
Forest Gump HillForest Gump Hill

Mexican Hat

As you continue NE on US-163, you dip down into a valley and cross a canyon with the San Juan River at the bottom and drive into the little town of Mexican Hat.  ‘Town’ may be an overstatement for this widely spaced handful of businesses.  As I recall there was a motel, gas station, restaurant, and general store.  The town name of “Mexican Hat” stems from a nearby balanced rock that goes by the name of “Mexican Hat Rock”.  This geological feature has been used as a landmark going way back to the wagon trains and I’m sure the indigenous people also used it as a reference point as well as a sacred site. 

It has also been featured in films including  the 1950 film "Wagon Master" and the 2006 and 2011 animated features “Cars” and “Cars 2” where it was called “Willy’s Butte” and was said to resemble a classic Pontiac hood ornament.  And, for you old timers who remember the old slow speed ‘Mine Train’ ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA this rock formation was part of the outdoor portion of the ride through the desert.  I’m not sure if it is still part of the replacement faster roller coaster ride called ‘Big Thunder Mountain” or not.

Mexican Hat Rock
Mexican HatMexican Hat

Goosenecks State Park

Just up the road from Mexican Hat is Goosenecks State Park (Utah) which you get to after a couple of left turns.  The San Juan River, which eventually joins up with the Colorado River above Lake Powell goes through this park.  Starting in Mexican Hat there is 15 to 20 miles or so of river through a series of tight “S” curves at the bottom of a deep canyon.  That 15 to 20 miles of river advances you only about 5 miles as the crow flies. 

Goosenecks of the San Juan River
San Juan river at Goosenecks State ParkSan Juan river at Goosenecks State Park

Goosenecks State Park overlooks this deep ‘meander’ of the San Juan River.  Millions of years ago, there was some serious uplift of this area (similar to the Grand Canyon area) which forced the river to carve down as the land rose up.  This resulted in a canyon here that is over 1,000 feet deep (300 m) that twists and bends like a Side Winder snake.  The official name of this sort of geologic feature is an “incised meander”. 

Other than the view there’s nothing else in the park except for a few picnic tables, pit toilet and some primitive camp sites.

The rim where you can look over the edge is about half a mile long providing a range of different views.

San Juan River from Goosenecks State Park
San Juan river at Goosenecks State ParkSan Juan river at Goosenecks State Park

Up a Level

From here we headed off to Natural Bridges National Monument.  One of our GPS devices had us take a route of 81 miles at 1 hr 25 min.  The other GPS plotted a route that was 41 miles and 55 Min.  That’s quite a difference.  Usually the two devices (Google Maps vs. Garmin GPS unit) agree for the most part so seeing that much of a variance was quite odd, but there must be something about the short route that prevented the other device from recommending it.  There are no tolls or freeways involved with either so that couldn’t be it.  But, throwing caution to the wind, we opted for the shorter route – if nothing else it would be an adventure.  This route took us due north on UT-261 across the Valley of the Gods. 

The Valley of the Gods was not much different than all the other areas we’d been driving through over the last several days which was flat scrub desert.  Easy driving but the road seemed to be heading directly into the base of a huge cliff.  I kept expecting the road to turn but straight as an arrow it kept heading directly to the base of the cliff face.  But, I figured they knew what they were doing and we pressed on.  As we approached the base of the cliff, still no turns and no apparent pass, tunnel, or road zig-zagging up the vertical cliff.  I sure do hope it doesn’t just dead end at some one’s ranch or some forgotten local park.  It was encouraging though that every now and again a car passed us going the other way, so one must have faith.

05 Valley of the Gods (google)05 Valley of the Gods (google)

Just as we got to the base of the cliff, we were presented with a thought provoking sign, indicating a 10% grade (presumably up), loss of pavement on the road, and a 5 mph speed limit.  And the road still headed right into the base of the cliff – but wait, there was just a hint of the start of a switch back.

Base of the cliff
06 Valley of the Gods 206 Valley of the Gods 2
(photo from Google Street view)

Well we’d already invested a dozen miles that we’d have to backtrack if we bailed out here to go around the other way.  So, nothing ventured, nothing gained and we started up the side of the cliff to the next higher mesa.  And, it was well worth the effort.

The road did indeed become a dirt road in short order, but it was well graded and just as wide as the paved road leading up to it had been.  Yeah, a bit steep in a spot or two and you had to plow through a dust cloud whenever a car came by the other way – but all in all not bad.  And, the views were out of this world.  There were even places to park off to side to admire the view of Valley of the Gods and take a few photos.

Valley of the Gods
Valley of the gods from UT-281Valley of the gods from UT-281

Up the switch backs
UT-261 7.7 Mi N. of  Jct UT-316UT-261 7.7 Mi N. of Jct UT-316

Once we reached the top of the next plateau (or is it a mesa?), the asphalt pavement reappeared, the road straightened out and the speed limit went back up to 55mph.  About 40 minutes later we arrived at Natural Bridges National Monument.

Bears Ears National Monument

Bears Ears is named for a pair twin buttes which have been a significant landscape landmark for thousands of years.  This area was inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloan people (Anasazi) and subsequently tribes like the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Ute who still maintain deep cultural ties to this area.

If you pay any attention to current events in the US, “Bears Ears” should ring a bell.  As background, this part of the Four Corners area is a patchwork of Native American reservations, National Parks, National Monuments, National Recreation areas, Bureau of Land Management land, Forest Service land and private land. 

In the late 1800’s, when the US government finally saw fit to actually give native tribes their own swaths of land, this was deemed to be the most inhospitable and useless land there was with absolutely no economic value or resources – not even trees – so naturally it was the perfect place for the reservations. 

But, over time, various natural wonders in these lands started to become more well known and that attracted tourists.  Many of these areas eventually became National Parks, Recreation Areas, Forests, and Monuments.  For the most part the tribes were not in favor of the government taking land for such public use as they just saw it as yet another instance of the US going back on treaties and taking away their land once it gained some value.  And, I suppose they were not wrong. 

A few such places escaped this such as Monument Valley that was ‘discovered’ late enough that the Navajo were able to fend off the movement to make it a National Monument or National Park and instead made it into their own Tribal Park.  I bet the movie industry helped that out as Hollywood certainly did not want to have to deal with US government red tape each time they wanted to make a new film here had it been a National Park.  Canyon de Chelly turned out to be a hybrid where the land is still owned by the natives but the historical and archeological features are protected by the National Park Service.

But, technology marches on and it was discovered that what was once considered worthless land had some valuable resources after all.  Petrochemical deposits where the technology had advance to make extracting it profitable were found.  Other minerals and elements that are found in these lands all of a sudden became way more valuable for use in electronics and batteries.  And, of course mega corporations descended into the area to exploit these resources.

This caused much turmoil in the tribal governments as one faction wanted to lease the land to these developers and reap badly needed profit, even at the risk of the natural environment.  Another faction was more keen to keep these corporate leeches out altogether.  As time went on, mining and drilling was allowed by some tribes in some areas while other tribes kept them out and of course on the non reservation land it was full steam ahead.  But, the corporate interests had way more money than the tribes, had much better lawyers than the tribes and owned way more legislators than the tribes.  A legal and legislative onslaught ensued and in many cases the corporate interests won and environmentally disastrous extractions started taking place. 

By 2015, some of the tribes saw the hand writing on the wall and formed the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, advocating for federal protection of the land.  The idea was that if the area was designated a National Park or National Monument, the corporations would have to fight it out with the US government which has way more and better resources to fight such things than the tribes.  So, after much lobbying they persuaded the Obama Administration  that the Bears Ears area with more than 100,000 archaeological sites, including ancient cliff dwellings, rock art panels, and artifacts that offer insights into the lives of the Hopi, Zuni, ancestral Puebloans, Ute, and other tribes who have called this area home, was worthy of protection. 

House on fire cliff dwelling in Bears Ears (Mule Canyon 2013)
House on FireHouse on Fire

Then, in December 2016, then-President Barack Obama designated 1.35 million acres the Bears Ears National Monument, citing its cultural and historical significance and the need to protect it for future generations.  The designation was made under the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the President to designate national monuments to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features.  This was the first monument designation that was to be administered by Native American tribes.

Bears Ears National Monument Map
09 Bears Ears (Wikimedia)09 Bears Ears (Wikimedia)
(Wikimedia.com)

However, the establishment of Bears Ears was controversial with some local residents, politicians, and industry groups opposing it. They argued that the designation would restrict access to the land and limit economic opportunities, such as mining and grazing.  Of course that was the whole point in the first place.

But then Trump was elected.  He figured that if a president could declare an area as a National Monument under the Antiquities Act, a president could likewise un-declare such an area under the same act.  So, he had a study done to determine which areas should be removed from the National Monument.  The committee he set up to draw these maps decided to ask the big corporations who had been complaining the most what they thought and would they please draw up some maps showing the areas they were interested in exploiting – which they did.  And, guess what?  The committee decided that this saved a lot of time and just plain adopted the maps drawn up by the corporations. 

Using those maps, in December 2017, President Trump signed an order reducing Bears Ears by 85%. and dividing it into two separate monuments, Shash Jáa National Monument and Indian Creek National Monument. This 15% that remained were the areas where the commercial interests, well, had no commercial interest.  This move was met with legal challenges from tribes and conservation groups who argued that the President did not have the authority to shrink a monument.  The legal battle over Bears Ears National Monument continued throughout the Trump administration. 

Then Joe Biden was elected and his administration indicated its intention to review the monument's boundaries and potentially restore them to their original size and a committee was formed to do that.  As of this writing in March of 2024, the fate of Bears Ears National Monument remains uncertain.  Its smaller size is managed by the Bureau of Land Management, with a focus on protecting cultural and natural resources. Hopefully it will be restored to its original size and management turned over to the Tribes as originally planned.

So, why am I telling you all of this?  Well, Goosencecks State Park marks the southern tip of Bears Ears National monument, and Natural Bridges is nestled inside of Bears Ears.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Natural Bridges National Monument (not to be confused with Arches National Park which is a totally different experience) is located in the western side of the Bears Ears National Monument about 50 miles Northwest of the Four Corners. 

It features three massive natural bridges carved from the white Permian sandstone of the Cedar Mesa Formation. The bridges are named Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo, all Hopi names.

The monument is also home to some of the darkest skies in the country, making it a great place for stargazing. In fact, Natural Bridges was designated the world's first "International Dark Sky Park" by the International Dark-Sky Association.

The park has a nice visitor center with real restrooms and an 8.7 mile loop drive mostly along the rim of the mesa you are on with around 9 parking areas at trailheads leading to viewpoints or down into the canyons.  There is also a nice picnic area with shaded tables as well as a campground.  Even though you can see some of the bridges after a short walk from the parking areas on a paved trail, the best views are if you hike down the trails to the canyon floor.  Due to physical limitations (we’re old) we opted to stay on the rim, but we did walk out to the view points at most of the stops.

Owachomo Bridge (1 min walk from parking lot)
Owachomo Bridge Overlook, Natural Bridges US-MonumentOwachomo Bridge Overlook, Natural Bridges US-Monument

Kachina Bridge from View point (4 min walk from parking lot)
Kachina Bridge Veiwpoint, Natural Bridges US-MonumentKachina Bridge Veiwpoint, Natural Bridges US-Monument

In addition to the bridges, the canyons themselves are also quite lovely.

Waterton Valley from Sipapu Overlook
10 A7R5-#0599110 A7R5-#05991

Waterton Valley from Sipapu Overlook
11 A7R5-#0599711 A7R5-#05997

As you wander around this park, from the various viewpoints and overlooks sometimes you stumble on some interesting rock formations, many times hiding in plain sight, maybe on the other side of the canyon, but sometimes closer at hand.

Beehive formation at Kochina Brige Overlook
13 A7R5-#0601113 A7R5-#06011

Mushroom formation at Kochina Bridge Overlook
Kachina Bridge Veiwpoint, Natural Bridges US-MonumentKachina Bridge Veiwpoint, Natural Bridges US-Monument

Parting Shot

The next day we started our trek back home to California from Gouldings at Monument Valley.  As most of this route was backtracking through areas we’d already explored on this trip as well as previous trips we opted to do this in just two long drives.  The first took us from Monument Valley to Barstow and then the next day from Barstow to Palo Alto.  As the first day would be 530 mile drive taking over 9 hours including a quick lunch stop in Williams we rose before dawn to get packed up and on the road.

Sunrise over Monument Valley from the front porch of our Cabin at Gouldings
16 A7R5-#0604216 A7R5-#06042

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Thanks for reading – Dan

 

(Images by Dan Hartford.--Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)

 


Comments

Lorene Campbell(non-registered)
Hi Dan...Thank you for sharing all your intrepid adventures. (Armchair travel is my favorite!) Wonderful photography, and your descriptions of the places and what it takes to get there are most enjoyable . Thanks for staying in touch through all these post-Syntex years.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Hi Dan, great photos and information. Glad you classified Goosenecks as in incised meander - like portions of the Mississippi meander, but aren't deep in a canyon. A bunch of the Colorado does that too, below Lake Powell. Amazing rock formations - carved by the wind in many places, sometimes by water. Such a hard place to live now - must have been more hospitable at some point in the past! Glad you shared the special places on your long drive!
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