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If you’re vising Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and want to see two other amazing parks nearby, then take the drive up from Mesa Verde to Moab, Utah! Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are located there, and it’s only a 2 hour drive away!
Below I describe what the drive is like, and a couple stops you can make along the way if you’d like. You can even make a whole day trip out of it! It’s also very easy to just reverse these directions if you’ve coming from Moab and driving to Mesa Verde:
Places along the drive from Mesa Verde to Moab
You first start out in the little town of Cortez, just outside Mesa Verde National Park. Cortez has lots of places to stay overnight for better rates if you’re touring the park for several days (inside the park there’s only Far View Lodge and camping to choose from), and there are plenty of places to eat and shop around at right in town.
We stayed overnight in the park on our trip, but that was because we only had 2 half days there and I wanted to make the most of our short time seeing the park. (We saw the sites on Chapin Mesa, and also took a tour of Balcony House during our visit). If we were able to visit for longer, I think I’d opt to stay in the town of Cortez to save on costs and be closer to a variety of restaurants.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
The whole area around Cortez and Mesa Verde is full of tons of archaeological sites, as I mentioned in the side trips section of my post Four Corners to Mesa Verde. I won’t go over them all again here, but one place to note of since you’ll be driving past it is Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The Anasazi Heritage Center, north of Cortez on highway 184 is the visitor’s center for the monument, so it’s a good idea to stop here to get more info if you plan to check it out.
Continuing on Route 491 You’ll be driving through a lot of southwest style farmlands(pinto beans being a major crop here). Keep an eye out for some farm animals like this pack of Bison we saw, just relaxing in the field. Looks like cowboy country!
Interesting Fact: Route 491 used to be known as US Route 666. The number was accurate as it was the 6th US highway off of the famous Route 66. The route infamously became known as the “Devil’s Highway”, and a lot of superstition and legends followed, along with signs being stolen left and right. Due to all these issues it was eventually renamed in all the 4 corner states it went through.
The next small town you’ll be passing by is where Route 491 comes to an end, in Monticello, Utah. If that sounds familiar to you as the name of the famous estate of Thomas Jefferson, you’d be correct as the Mormon pioneers named it after exactly that.
Monticello used to be a boom town of uranium and vanadium mining back in the 1950’s, which lasted for around 10 years till they were permanently closed and later cleaned up.
Just west of the town are the Abajo Mountains, or Blue Mountains as they are known locally.
Canyonlands, Needles District
Continuing north from Monticello, you’ll come across the turn off for a section of Canyonlands National Park known as the Needles District. I unfortunately didn’t get to visit this section yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s very beautiful and definitely worth it if you have extra time. You’d best to plan a whole day, or at least half of one to see it though as it’s a 40 minute drive off the highway just to get to the visitor’s center!
Wilson’s Arch and other Rock Formations
So if you’re heading towards Moab, you’re probably going to be visiting Arches National Park, and a little taste of that is just off the side of the highway on your right called Wilson’s Arch. This isn’t the only unique rock formation however. All along the route there are big rock shapes of all kinds in this beautiful landscape!
Modern Cave Dwellings
Just before you get to the town of Moab, you’ll see a big huge red rock with white lettering emblazoned across the front, “Hole N”The Rock”. You can’t miss it. Of course, if you’re like me and was like “what is that?!” and drove on by you might, but if you’ve got a bit of time, stop there for a bit. It’s worth checking out. Basically it’s a 5,000 sq. foot house built into that huge rock! Totally out of the Flintstones! Apparently that’s not too uncommon in these parts however, as there are modern cave dwellings around here that people actually do build their houses and live in!
Hole N”The Rock is one that you can actually go inside of and visit however. They also have a gift shop, café, and petting zoo.
Do you like extreme sports? ATV’s, dirt bikes, mountain bikes…any kind of bikes? Then you’ll love Moab. You can’t drive down the road without seeing at least 10 ATV’s getting hauled in Jeeps to the nearest track. There’s also white water rafting, rock climbing, base jumping, and a number of other sports. It used to be known as the “Uranium Capitol of the World”, due to to all the mining that has since closed. Now I think it’s safe to say it’s one of, if not the “Adventure Capitol of the World”.
Moab is basically a small town that fills with tourists and adventure seekers. It’s got plenty of places to eat and stay–but book early, certain times of the year it fills up quick! Even in October when we went most places were sold out.
Of course one of the biggest attractions to Moab, and why I came here in the first place, were the two big National Parks: Arches and Canyonlands.
You can read here all about the top things to do in Arches National Park, and what it’s like spending a day in Canyonlands! If you have enough time, Dead Horse Point State Park, right next to Canyonlands is also a must see!
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