Trail of the Ancients
The morning air is still cool enough to be comfortable as Bill and I ride two-up on his BMW R1200GS, climbing the steep, tight, twisting road from the Mesa Verde National Park entrance to the Far View Visitor Center 15 miles and 1,500 vertical feet away. We attempted this ride last evening on separate motorcycles but a few miles in, I chickened out. White-knuckled on the precipitous switchbacks, I had panicked at the thought of riding back to camp after dark. Today I relax on the back of Bill’s bike, happy to let him expertly negotiate the road and allow me to enjoy the view. My F650GS waits at the campground, where we will retrieve it later.
My excitement builds as we top the mesa and enjoy the panorama. The Colorado Plateau spreads out before us in every direction. With our presence here, we’ve embarked upon the National Scenic Byway known as “Trail of the Ancients,” a loop through the far corners of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah which sweeps the rider into a now nearly uninhabited desert where the Ancestral Puebloans made their homes as recently as the 14th Century. This expanse of red soil and sandstone is dotted with a high concentration of archaeological sites, among them Mesa Verde National Park. Located near Cortez, Colorado, Mesa Verde opens a window into the lives of the people who made it their home from 600 to 1300 A.D., protects over 4,000 archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. According to the National Park Service, these are some of the best preserved in the United States.
We ride a few more miles and disembark at the parking area above Spruce Tree House, the park’s third largest cliff dwelling. The weather has warmed up atop the mesa but we find respite from the sun on the tree-shaded footpath, turning back the clock 700 years during our 100-foot descent into Spruce Canyon. As we approach the cliff dwelling we’re greeted by a young park ranger who seems glad to have company. It is May, early in the season, and there are few other tourists here today.
Spruce Tree House contains about 130 rooms and eight kivas, or underground chambers. We’re pleased to discover that visitors have liberal access. Descending a wooden ladder into a kiva, we ponder what life would be like if this were home. Quite snug, we decide, enjoying the cool subterranean environment. Back on the surface we watch a small girl go through the motions of grinding corn in the way of early inhabitants, using stone implements with the ranger’s guidance.
By this time we have both worked up an appetite, so we ascend the trail and look for the park restaurant. After a bit of wandering around we find what amounts to a cafeteria, enjoy pizza and cokes, and head back to the campground. It is time to retrieve my bike and continue on the Trail of the Ancients.
From this point, the Trail offers two options. A southern loop continues on Highway160 and a northerly route passes through the communities of Lebanon and Yellowjacket. Either way takes you to Utah. Hoping to get off the pavement, we digress from the official Byway, choosing a more direct route on County Road G (or McElmo Canyon Road) which runs straight west along McElmo Creek and the southern edge of the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. Canyon of the Ancients covers almost 164,000 acres of high desert and contains more than 5,000 recorded archaeological sites. The area has the highest known archaeological site density in the United States.
As we approach the Utah border we spot a building sitting askew in the desert, its flaking adobe façade revealing worn bricks of red mud. The sign on the building just says “Ismay.” It appears to be a deserted store and a perfect photo op. I am shooting pictures of Bill and his GS in the parking lot when a Toyota 4Runner pulls up. From it steps a blonde woman wearing sunglasses and a red muumuu. A white dust mask covers the lower half of her face. “Have you been inside yet?” she asks.
“You mean it’s still in operation?” Bill says.
“Yes, this is the Ismay Trading Post and old Mr. Ismay still runs it. You meet him and you meet a REAL John Wayne. His family has owned this land for years and this store has been open since 1927. You should go in and take a look around. By the way, I have allergies. That’s why the mask.”
Inside the trading post, our eyes adjust to the darkness as they fall upon nearly empty shelves, a calendar many years out of date, and dust. Lots of dust. In every respect the place appears to have been long abandoned except for the presence of Mr. Ismay, a slightly stooped old man sitting on a stool in the corner, paying little heed to the two strangers in motorcycle gear. My husband, who can start a conversation with anyone, speaks, but Mr. Ismay shows no interest in chit-chat. Perhaps he has tired of the usual questions from curious travelers. Finally, Bill selects a Snickers, dusts off the wrapper, and we depart. Our masked friend fills us in on several nearby tourist destinations and stresses that we must see the Valley of the Gods on our way. We thank her for her kindness and ride on.
As it turns out, Mr. Ismay’s business is more than it appears. In these parts, “trading post” is not just a catchy name for “convenience store.” This and many others were established in the region in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries for the purpose of trade with the Navajos. Few remain in operation. Though the Ismay Trading Post seemed a bit forlorn, we realize we have touched a piece of history that could soon be gone.
Our road soon reconnects with the official Trail of the Ancients and Utah Highway 162. We stop for photos in Bluff, clearly named for the geological formation looming over the community. About 17 miles west of Bluff on Highway 163, we spy a sign saying “Valley of the Gods” and remember our impromptu tour guide’s advice. I am in the lead and, uncomfortable taking time for the side trip, I drive past the turn-off. In my rear view mirror, I see Bill turn into the Valley. I pull off down the road and, after a few moments’ hesitation, turn back to join him on the dirt surface of the entry.
Many are familiar with the red buttes and mesas of Monument Valley as the background for old Hollywood westerns. But Valley of the Gods, 40 miles north of Monument Valley, is more obscure. It is a smaller version of its famous neighbor but boasts similar sandstone formations with names like Castle Butte, Pyramid Peak, Setting Hen Butte, and Lady in the Bathtub. The 17-mile dirt road through the valley is steep and bumpy in parts... perfect for a fun ride on a versatile motorcycle. I stand and ride through the gullies and across the road’s washboard surface, disappointed when we reach pavement again so soon.
The Valley lies at the base of Cedar Mesa, a 1,200-foot bluff which we face head-on as we rejoin Highway 261. A road sign warns “10% grade 5 mph switchbacks.” In less than a mile we are climbing the Moki Dugway. Once again the road turns to dirt and gravel and we slowly proceed up the side of Cedar Mesa. This exhilarating three-mile path climbs to the top in a series of switchbacks with spectacular views and convenient pullouts.
Moki Dugway gets its name from the carved hand- and foot-holds on cliff faces throughout the region created by the Ancestral Puebloans. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word moqui, a term used by Spanish explorers and settlers to describe the Pueblo Indians.
The pavement quickly reappears and we continue to Natural Bridges National Monument, our last official stop on the Trail of the Ancients. Short on time and gas, we are uncertain where we will camp tonight, or how far it is to the next fuel stop. Two bored park rangers man the otherwise deserted visitor center and they are happy to answer our questions.
“Where is the closest gas?” Bill asks.
This must be an FAQ for the rangers. Conveniently, they have an actual printed list of “Distance from Natural Bridges to Gasoline.”
“Closest gas is at Hite,” says one, pointing out its direction and distance.
“Eighty miles?” says Bill, looking at the document.
“Yep, 80 miles,” says the ranger.
Bill and I look at each other. It will be a stretch. Here, we leave the Trail of the Ancients behind to strike out for that essential of modern life, gasoline, riding northwest on Highway 95 through the beautiful but desolate landscape of buttes and canyons. We are buffeted by sledgehammer crosswinds which swirl around the bluffs and require a reflexive vigilance just to stay on the road. After 79 miles of this, and frequent glances at my dashboard to check fuel status, a road sign appears indicating a left turn will take us to Hite.
One mile on, we arrive at yet another deserted establishment. No humans. No other vehicles. Thankfully, there are indeed gas pumps. Bill wipes dust from the glass of one pump, then swipes his credit card. We breathe a sigh of relief when the digital read-out tells us to select our fuel grade. And we feel even better hearing the muted hum as fuel flows into the hollow caverns of our tanks.
Returning to the highway, we’re stunned by the beauty of the vista ahead where an arching bridge crosses the Colorado River. As the sun lowers in the sky, the colors of the landscape intensify. We must move on, but I think about hiking these canyons and climbing the monolithic formations. How many years would it take to see just a fraction of the scenery out here?
Back on Highway 95 I scan the empty landscape and ponder what a high level of trust we place in the machinery between our knees. Help would be hard to find out here. We stop in the town of Hanksville to top our tanks and fill our grumbling bellies. We need to find a camp spot before dark and the sun is about to set. Bill invests a few precious moments in helping four young people having car trouble. This is no place for anyone to be stranded. Finally satisfied that the kids can be on their way, we chase the final rays of light westward and I follow Bill as he turns up a sandy wash just outside of town. There we make camp as the stars begin to pop out in ones and twos and then hundreds and tens of thousands. The evening cools and we gaze at the night sky, reflecting on the Trail of the Ancients and those who have enjoyed that same night sky for thousands of years.
As a writer, photographer and ADVMoto associate editor Susan Dragoo enjoys bringing a historical focus to her travels, whether two-wheeled, four-wheeled, or on foot. She and husband Bill (BillDragoo.com) travel extensively from their centrally located home base in Norman, Oklahoma, generating plenty of material for tales of adventure. SusanDragoo.com