ADV Pulse

NEWSLETTER
Get ADV Pulse delivered by email
Sign up for ADV Pulse Weekly

Newsletter

Get ADV Pulse delivered by email
Sign up for ADV Pulse Weekly

Connect With Us

Follow On Facebook:

ADV NewsInto The Valley Of The Gods: An Unforgettable Moto Adventure

Into The Valley Of The Gods: An Unforgettable Moto Adventure

Discover a land of towering sandstone monoliths, iconic buttes & a mysterious past.

Published on 05.03.2023
Adventure motorcycle ride in the Valley of the Gods.

The setting sun quickly turned the surrounding canyons, spires, and red rock into a universal shade of darkness, one not helped by the fact that I had just ridden across three states in a historically-cold November with temperatures rarely increasing more than a few degrees above freezing. Without my Tuareg’s heated grips, I’d have likely succumbed to frostbite long before. “Kayenta is close,” I kept reminding myself, at which point the real adventure would begin.


ADVERTISEMENT

After two full days of riding, both terminating after sundown, marked by terrific crosswinds, and early mornings that promised a thin glaze of ice across the saddle, we set off from the Navajo Nation’s heart in Kayenta. The sun-stricken landscape gives the illusion of warmth, but unfortunately for our fingertips, this 20-some-odd-degree morning was anything but warm.  We didn’t know what to expect on this somewhat hastily planned trip, though a bit of gathered intel had revealed a portion of the route we intended to ride was more than likely ice and snow-covered. Alas, we set off unbothered by potential folly with Monument Valley encompassing the field of view.

Adventure motorcycle ride through Monument Valley.
Even though motorcycles are not allowed inside Monument Valley, impressive views of its iconic pinnacles can still be found on the outskirts.

Here, roads run without change long enough that it would be easier to measure them in leagues instead of miles — a perfect opportunity to dial in the cruise control and enjoy the incredible views. North from Kayenta and as you approach the border with Utah, titans of stone quickly fill the horizon. If ever you require a physical perspective of just how small we are, this is the place to go. Everything here is massive, the cattle included (more on that later), and you’d be hard-pressed to find a place more stunning than this part of the country.

Riding Monument Valley

The agenda had us aimed at none other than the Monument Valley Visitor Center where we rather embarrassingly found that motorcycles are not allowed beyond the parking lot. Not wanting to give up on the countless spectacular mesas that dot the horizon, we quickly discovered that the reservation is plastered with roads that run right through several canyons and mesas unrelated to the “Visitor Center,” access to which was fair game to respectful exploration. What followed was a blissful hour-and-a-half detour that took us across a portion of the Navajo Nation’s Oljeto region — a place with unrivaled scenery, and some silty tracks for good measure. Looking back to paw over maps, we could have spent the entire trip exploring the reservation this way and not even scratched the surface, but we had several more points on the map to explore ahead of us.

If you were born before 1990, then you may notice something familiar in your rearview as you ride toward Mexican Hat. “My Mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates” elicits fond memories of what is objectively Tom Hanks’ most iconic role, so it would have been a wasted exercise to come all this way and not spend a moment in Forrest’s shoes. This stretch is frequently characterized by a crowd of tourists doing much of the same. We opted to recreate the moment in our own special way, astride our respective motorcycles. This admittedly took a few attempts with the throngs of people and cars, but eventually, we succeeded in “doing it for the gram.”

Forrest Gump Point Monument Valley Motorcycle Ride
Forrest Gump Point, made famous by the 1994 Tom Hanks blockbuster, still attracts large crowds of tourists daily looking to recreate the famous jogging scene for ‘the gram.’

Not long after, highway 163 reaches the town of Mexican Hat. A blink is all that would be needed to miss this small village, though it holds a few charming shops, restaurants, and in our experience, quite a few welcoming faces. Continue through and the almost alien landscape becomes even more surreal as you near Goosenecks State Park. With its incredible views down toward the San Juan’s serpent-like shape, we paused to take everything in. This was relatively short-lived though, as the frigid cold and fierce wind battered man and machine. A short retreat brought us into a much more favorable element; dirt and lots of it.

Gooseneck State Park motorcycle adventure

The rough jeep track of John’s Canyon Road quickly marks itself as a bright spot in a sea of stars; this spectacular track follows the river-scarred terrain over a series of washes, rarely distancing itself from extreme cliffs on one side, and thousand-foot walls of rock on the other. We wound our way up, down and around what felt like an old Western film scene, stopping to enjoy occasional petroglyphs emblazoned on bright red boulders that had fallen from the cliffs long before our arrival. The realization quickly set in that we were on one of the most scenic tracks any of us had ever ridden, though over the coming days, it would quickly be rivaled by numerous others. 

Exploring John's Canyon in Utah
John's Canyon Road in Utah

About ten miles in, the reality of twilight became clear leaving us with one of two options; we could weather the night somewhere along this canyon road, or backtrack toward a more well-known and accessible place to camp. The deciding factor this time of year frequently becomes proximity to firewood, and with that in mind, we rallied back toward Mexican Hat.

Adventure Motorcycle Exploring Mexican Hat
The curious landmark called Mexican Hat rises high above the west bank of the San Juan river. How it got its name is no secret as it resembles a wide-brim Sombrero sitting atop a head.

The Colorado Plateau’s altitude ensures you’re met with a blast of sunlight as early as possible though you’d be forgiven for remaining huddled in your tent to enjoy the comfort and warmth provided. It’s incredible how moving the views here can be though, with sunlight splintering over the San Juan’s canyon walls to brightly illuminate Mexican Hat Rock. Wake-up calls like this become your morning coffee — riding up and out of the canyon after a surprisingly comfortable night’s rest provided more than the motivation we needed to get the day started.

Adventure Motorcycle camping in Mexican Hat.

From Mexican Hat, traveling North took us full speed into what appeared to be the side of a canyon. Moki Dugway is oddly deceptive in that the closer you get to the cliff wall, the more confused you become on account of the road seemingly vanishing into nothing. Only when you begin riding up the switchbacks does the road reveal itself. The switchbacks are just wide enough to allow the more courageous rider time to look down toward the Valley of the Gods, a view that simply can’t be matched anywhere else on account of the scale of your surroundings. Only when you look back toward the road does it dawn on you that this is Utah’s Stelvio Pass — a winding ribbon of perfection climbing to the top of these already postcard-worthy cliffs, but unlike Stelvio, Moki Dugway is unpaved.

The switchbacks of Moki Dugway.
Moki Dugway is Utah’s version of Stelvio Pass, featuring a long series of switchbacks climbing up a steep mountain face.

For souls not quite brave enough to peer over the edges of Moki’s switchbacks, a chance to enjoy these picturesque cliffs remains. From the top, a quick turn onto Muley Point Road uncovers a handful of places to explore and enjoy the sheer cliff in a more primitive state. If for no other reason, being able to ride out on the edge of the cliff is worth it. Perched up top, you could stare into the expansive void for hours. If not for the brisk winds pelting us from the edge, we may have even camped the night here.

Looking down on Moki Dugway Utah

Terrain changes rapidly here — in three short miles the land switches from a barren abyss marked by an infinite number of striking buttes, canyons, and wide expanses of red desert to a high desert plateau covered in scrubland with patches of snow anywhere that shade could be found. It’s sometimes unfortunate how our time  to explore is limited, as we could have easily spent a week spearing off onto the countless tracks along UT-261. 

Checking out the Natural Bridges National Monument
These massive natural bridge formations were created over eons as the stream flowing in the canyon below slowly eroded the soft sandstone rock walls in its path.

On this day of surprises, it didn’t take long to reach Natural Bridges National Monument, named for the massive arches left behind by a few millennia of hydraulic pressure carving through the soft sandstone. This stop in particular is a must as it can be quickly enjoyed through a short asphalt loop, or for those seeking off-bike adventure you could hike down into White and Armstrong Canyons to enjoy the bridges up close. We opted for the paved loop and a quick lunch break before aiming our sights at Bears Ears and the subsequent 8,000-foot-elevation trail ride we were about to embark upon. The latter part admittedly gave me some cause for concern this time of year, and that concern would soon reveal itself as warranted.

County Road 288 quickly ascends up and between the two aptly named “Bears Ears;” a couple of horizon-dominating buttes North of Natural Bridges. From a distance, the mountain gives the illusion of a bear lying dormant, its head just breaching the surface with ears perched erect. This monument signaled the start of Elk Ridge, an area we were aware had a high likelihood of snow and ice after a recent storm. Yet, it wouldn’t be an interesting adventure without some challenge to overcome.

Riding on snow and ice over Elk Ridge.

In our case, this story’s villain came in the form of Old Man Winter; that is, packed snow and ice on the trail steadily increasing as we inched higher in elevation. In spots where sunlight had managed to melt this snow, frozen mud remained as a result of the frigid temperatures. With daylight running dry, we pressed on through steep climbs and slippery descents, unphased by the near-constant lack of traction beneath, and took the few opportunities we were allowed to enjoy the incredible scenery that surrounded us. On more than one occasion, the Tuareg danced across the pristine, white surfaces in a semi-controlled slide, but fortunately the rubber side never left the ground. When presented with ice and snow the balanced chassis of the Aprilia seemed to skip over it all like a ballerina, even without a set of knobby tires. 

Riding on snow and ice over Elk Ridge.
The ice and snow covering Elk Ridge seemed never ending. Luckily, we made it through this high-elevation section without any major mishaps.

In this Winter spackled land, distant views revealed everything from deep canyons mere feet from the slick tracks we were riding, to huge swaths of grassland-covered high plain atop the plateau. In a place famed for its red rock and sandy desert terrain, Elk Ridge is an anomaly — an artist’s palette of sorts, one that we were enjoying in a way very few ever will.

Amazingly, the descent off of Elk Ridge was reached without any large mishaps, though a couple of uncontrolled slides on particularly steep sections were tallied. With altitude decreasing, so did the anxiety and occasional white-knuckling that comes with riding miles of slick, hardened terrain, and in its place returned the youthful flow of famously sublime Utah riding. The remainder of this track hopped back and forth through the at-the-time dry Cottonwood Creek, having dumped us out into one of the most visually overwhelming places I’ve ever been on two-wheels.

Newspaper Rock
This quick stop off the road called Newspaper Rock is one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs, thought to be made some 2,000 years ago.

With the sun steadily preparing to drop below the horizon, and temperatures quickly plunging, the only thing left to do is aim toward civilization. There’s something strangely poetic about racing full speed into below-freezing temps as you begin ascending a mountain of unknown height, carving turns over potential black ice. Bodies half frozen and sore from the long day, we were attempting to outrun nature in hopes of a hot meal and warm bed in Monticello. The Granary on Monticello’s East side promptly answered our calls as we quickly found there’s no better place to be when mercury drops below freezing, especially when all you need is a delicious burger and an Irish Coffee. The only thing that could make such a night better is an indoor heated pool and hot tub, luxuries we took advantage of at the hotel in town before turning in.

Cottonwood Creek, Utah

Having decided the day prior that we would save exploring Lockhart Basin for another trip, this adventure’s third day began cold enough that we felt the need to wrap any bit of exposed skin to prevent the cryogenic freezing of our respective selves. On the way back toward Kayenta, we’d be met with ferocious wind, blistering cold and artifacts left from a time long before our existence, and some damn good desert tracks. 

Just outside of town, Montezuma Creek forms a narrow but prominent canyon that gave shelter to Ancestral Puebloan peoples that once called the canyon home. Here they lived for centuries in peace, farming and relying on the steep canyon walls for safety. We decided to pay homage by enjoying the scenery and respectfully observing every bit of ancient Puebloan history that remains (or at least the bits we could find.) Yet another oddity in the otherwise orange-colored, rock-infested state of Utah, Montezuma Canyon provides a peaceful and surprisingly lush safeguard from the otherwise harsh climates that encompass the region. 

Exploring Montezuma Canyon in Southeastern Utah.
The cliff house in Montezuma Canyon
This three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,100-square-foot cliff house in Montezuma Canyon is completely off-grid and features all the modern amenities.

The canyon’s ability to harbor life became a little too clear when we reached a cattle gate with a small herd bunched up around it. Unintentionally, we had cornered the animals as the surrounding fencing funneled to a cow grate along the road. We now sat in the way of a herd of 20 or more cows that outweighed us 20 to 1, dominated by a particularly massive member of their group lurking in the back that stood twice as high as all the rest. One by one, we crept along the far fenceline to reach the cattle grate with engines idling, pushing the herd slowly clockwise, weary not to spook the gentle behemoth we affectionately named ‘Clyde.’ Slowly the herd moved to one side, eventually allowing our passage.

Riding Motorcycles in Montezuma Canyon.
One by one, we crept along the far fenceline to reach the cattle grate pushing the herd slowly clockwise, weary not to spook the gentle behemoth we affectionately named ‘Clyde.’

As the day warmed, we quickly found ourselves enjoying the graded roads that followed, interrupted only by the incredible cliff dwellings, numerous petroglyph walls, and the Three Kiva Pueblo we had to stop for. About a thousand years ago, Three Kiva Pueblo was the center of this region’s Puebloan community, though only one of the Kivas remains intact. The opportunity to climb down into something that fueled the lifeblood of the region’s people shouldn’t be discarded, as it is increasingly rare in our relatively young nation to find any structure that dates before the 1800s. There was a time when numerous other pueblo structures, kivas and crops filled the canyon floor as its people roamed freely, achieving sustenances from nothing more than determination and the wisdom only the land can provide. Sitting on the floor of this incredible structure truly puts into perspective all the creature comforts we take for granted in life.

Exploring Three Kiva Pueblo on a motorcycle adventure in Montezuma Canyon.
Three Kiva Pueblo is a reconstructed Kiva ruin with a roof and ladder access, allowing visitors to get an up-close experience of what the ancient inhabitants of this land lived like more than 1,000 years ago.
Exploring petroglyphs on a motorcycle adventure in Montezuma Canyon.
The meaning of these ancient petroglyph writings by the Ancestral Puebloan people is lost to time.

In hindsight, it seems like these experiences move far too quickly; somewhere between outrunning icy air, riding sideways over Elk Ridge, sleeping beneath Mexican Hat Rock, or avoiding being trampled by the largest cow any of us had ever witnessed, the last couple of days had gone by in a blink. It was already afternoon and we still had to tackle a section of Utah’s BDR through Butler Wash and then down into Valley of the Gods, all before sundown. What followed felt more like a rally stage than a scenic doddle.

Exploring Butler Wash on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.

Butler Wash is a 24-mile section of desert flanked to the East by cliff walls, and to the West by a deep canyon. From space it appears as though some celestial being hacked the earth with a massive blade, creating a straight line of cliff wall adjacent to an equally straight canyon; the surrounding landscape is suitably alien. Butler Wash Road which runs between is a relatively straight, flowy stretch of adventure bike paradise where little effort is needed to crack highway speeds. Here the benefits of a longer-legged adventure bike like the Tuareg begin to show as there’s little need to slow down for dips and washes, or crests that loft you airborne, and this trusty steed always seems to ask for more. 

Exploring Butler Wash on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.

A bit of sand and silt dusted in for good measure quickly make this a must ride trail while the numerous ancient dwellings along the way only bolster this already breathtaking tract. I’d have loved to spend a whole day wandering around on the various off-shoots, but assembling camp in the dead of night wasn’t high on my to-do list, especially with a visible weather system moving in from the South. Thus a race commenced with the sun to see who would win. Alas, we reached an ideal spot in the center of the Valley of the Gods just before nightfall. The last rays of sun reflecting off of endless monumental cliffs is the thing bucket lists are made of, and here we were smack dab in the middle of it.

Exploring the Valley of the Gods on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.

By the time camp was set, and firewood collected from the nearby wash, the valley had grown dark and silent. We remained wary of the incoming weather system, but by midnight it seemed as though we may have dodged a bullet. Somewhat relieved, we turned in for the night. There’s nothing quite like waking up at two in the morning to the sound of 40-mile per hour winds ripping apart the desert floor, but that’s exactly what we did. Having never experienced a dust storm firsthand, the static electricity alone is enough to make you long for the comforts left behind at home. Red dirt fills the air making even the simple task of breathing challenging. The next morning, coated in a fine layer of red silt and with calmer winds, we made one final dash to the South.

Camping in the Valley of the Gods on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.
Camping in the Valley of the Gods on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.
Riding and camping in the Valley of the Gods was the highpoint of the trip — an experience we won’t soon forget.

It seems fitting that this awe-inspiring adventure would end with us riding through Utah’s Valley of the Gods; the rising sun illuminating every arch, cliff, wash, and canyon that could be witnessed. If every other section we rode previously added up to a combined ten out of ten, this place is on an entirely different system of measurement. A wide expanse of sandstone formations makes up what is without question one of the most memorable rides you’ll ever take.

Riding n the Valley of the Gods on a motorcycle adventure in Utah.

We had spent the last few days exploring everything from sandy washes, mountains weathered by the ages, and massive plateaus, over ice, snow, and all manner of parched terrain — at times miserable from the cold, all in the name of adventure. Sure there were moments when the thought of “why do I do this to myself?” crept in, but the Valley of the Gods quickly gave us an answer. As we headed back to reality, Utah waved us a sincere goodbye with a swan song and an assurance we’d be welcomed to return to her borders with open arms anytime.

Maps and GPS Tracks

Want to do this ride? A large interactive map and downloadable GPX Tracks are available free.*

* Terms of Use: Should you decide to explore a route that is published on ADV Pulse, you assume the risk of any resulting injury, loss or damage suffered as a result. The route descriptions, maps and GPS tracks provided are simply a planning resource to be used as a point of inspiration in conjunction with your own due diligence. It is your responsibility to evaluate the route accuracy as well as the current condition of trails and roads, your vehicle readiness, personal fitness and local weather when independently determining whether to use or adapt any of the information provided here.

Photos by Rob Dabney

Author: Ken Morse

While Ken’s two-wheeled exploits began only a few years ago, he’s no stranger to adventure. Since 2006, he’s been wandering all over the U.S. in various four-wheel drive toys, exploring as much hidden terrain in the backcountry as possible. Having straddled his first motorcycle in 2019, he quickly became obsessed and made the switch to two wheels. Now he spends most of his free time riding, wrenching and traveling on adventure motorcycles from his base in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.

Author: Ken Morse
ADVERTISEMENT

Related Stories

Related Stories

Notify me of new posts via email

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

6 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kellen Cummings
Kellen Cummings
May 4, 2023 3:35 pm

Epic adventure. Will definitely give this a try some day.

Mark Jones
Mark Jones
May 4, 2023 4:44 pm

Great story and pics. I have the same Featherstone tent!

Mike Ames
Mike Ames
July 25, 2023 7:43 pm

I’ve been Jeeping & exploring that country for 30 years & have only seen a tiny slice of it. I went down the Moki Dugway on an Ultra classic on one trip, that was a butt puckering experience. My friends & I will be Jeeping in the San Rafael Swell this fall. Now that I have a Tuareg, I’ll have to give it a go on two wheels. That red rock will get in your blood as you already know.

m terrill
m terrill
October 26, 2023 4:21 pm

Don’t know if you still monitor these comments, but a buddy and I duplicated your trip last week (we are from the Phoenix area). Thanks for the article, overview map, and the tracks. Like you, we also camped 2 nights (Mexican Hat Rock and VOG primitive sites). We had splendid weather and hit peak colors perfectly when we were in areas with hardwood trees. Bikes were an 890R and a 790. Sand in the Lower Butler Wash trail (part of UTBDR, I believe) was a little challenging, but overall, we were extremely pleased after completing the loop. Cheers, and thanks again!

Ken M
Ken M
November 1, 2023 6:06 am
Reply to  m terrill

I’m really happy to hear that you enjoyed this route! Utah is really hard to beat any time of year, but especially when temperatures aren’t pushing triple digits!

Mike
Mike
March 11, 2024 10:04 am
Reply to  m terrill

Glad I’m reading this. I’m from the Phoenix area too and am planning to go first week of October this year.

ADVERTISEMENT

Watch: 2024 Triumph Tiger 900 Rally Pro Tested

For 2024, Triumph's dirt-focused Tiger 900 — the Rally Pro — has received...

My First Time Riding Enduro, How Hard Could It Be?

Nestled between the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains of California lies a l...

DoubleTake’s Popular Off-Road Mirrors Get Major Upgrade For 2024

Life always looks clearer in the rear view, that is, until you’re looking int...