Moki Dugway sounds like the name of the kid everyone avoided in high school. Instead, it’s a piece of road that most people should avoid.
At a Gatorade and pepperoni stop in Blanding, Utah, a friendly local asks my riding buddy Don Stewart and me where we are headed. “Flagstaff,” we say. “Take a left on 95,” he says, “then south on 261. Pretty scenic.” Neither my riding companion nor I realize at that point that the friendly stranger is trying to get us killed.
Highway 95 turns out to be only a stone’s throw from Blanding, so we bank right at the intersection and head for 261.
Highway 261 sends us more-or-less straight south; a sign at a ranger station tells us we are on Cedar Mesa. A mesa, as we all know, is a flat piece of land that drops off at the sides. The significance of this does not register with us at the time.
About 20 miles later, we whip around a few gentle curves and are puzzled to see a sign that says “Speed Limit 15.” I am contemplating that when a yellow hazard sign pops into sight; the dreaded “Pavement Ends” sign. The friendly stranger had not mentioned this.
We gingerly pick our way south on the road and find that not only does the pavement end, the world does as well. We pass Muley Point Road, the apparent point of no return, and round the corner at the ‘winding road next three miles’ sign. But there is no road ahead, just a gravel track that disappears off the face of the earth. The sign says Moki Dugway.
The track surface seems adequately hard packed in most places so we inch forward to see where the road actually ends. Mesa means ‘table’ in Spanish and we seem to have ridden to the edge of ours. Peeking over that edge, we can see the desert floor about a thousand feet below us.
There is a viewpoint ahead and we hop off the bikes to contemplate our fate and drink in the spectacular Utah/Arizona desert view. The track goes past this viewpoint so it must drop into the valley. We can see a highway at the bottom headed south. My Butler motorcycle map helpfully describes Moki Dugway as “Dirt Switchbacks.” The 1,200 feet drop into the valley is going to take three miles of switchbacks. Three miles of dirt and rock, I might add. The map says, “…pay heed to a steep 3-mile unpaved section… watch your speed – only you can decide if it’s appropriate for you and your machine.”
Don and I are paying attention and deciding what’s appropriate as we snap photos of the view and each other. A nice lady from a carload of tourists offers to take our photo and we pose like condemned men enjoying their last sunset.
The view from the top of the dugway is Instagram-worthy. In the hazy, dusty desert distance you can see the spires of Monument Valley. The desert floor laid out below us shows flash flood trails snaking across the landscape and hints of cattle ranch roads. It’s greener than I expected.
As we pack away the cameras, two dust-covered Honda Goldwings, come up the dirt track. After the usual meet-on-the-road small talk, one of the riders asks if we are headed down. Don and I look at each other and say yes. The Goldwinger left us with one piece of advice, “Don’t touch your front brake.”
If a Goldwing can make it up; surely a Victory Cross Country and a Honda VTX can make it down. I think the heat was affecting our judgment at that point. We screw our courage to the sticking place and head down.
Switchback does not adequately describe the next three miles. Rodeo bull riders get straighter and less-challenging rides. It’s an 11 percent grade so we stay off the front brake and cautiously pick a route with the hardest packed dirt and the smallest of the loose rocks. The view from the road is probably amazing, but I never take my gaze off the area immediately ahead of my front wheel. I have no ambition to Evil Knievel off the mountainside and join the picked-over car and truck carcasses lying part way down the canyon wall.
The road, we learn later, was built, if you can call it that, in the 1950s to haul uranium ore to a processing plant at Mexican Hat. I think the bulldozer followed a drunken burro. A dugway, we find out, is a road dug into a hillside; and Moki is an alternate spelling for Moqui, an older term for the Hopi people.
There is only one excessive pucker moment on the way down. A car coming up the dugway stakes its claim to the center of the road and refuses to yield or move one way or the other. Don and I are forced to go around it on each side, dodging larger boulders and broken rock.
I glare at the driver as I pass, but he and his companions have their eyes riveted straight ahead. They look terrified and they are going UP.
I count half a dozen five-mile-per-hour switchbacks and at least that many vehicle hulks in the gullies and canyons. If you ever need a rear end for a 1955 International, I know where you can have your choice.
At the bottom we pull over, exhale loudly and look back up. The ride down was terrifying but uneventful and gives us a smug sense of accomplishment. Cheating death at Moki Dugway is behind us and ahead. is the spectacular, mysterious and magical Monument Valley. This day just keeps getting better.
To check out Moki Dugway for yourself, watch the videos of it on YouTube; much safer that way.