In the southeast corner of Utah is San Juan County. Also referred to as Canyon Country, it sits at the famous Four Corners of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The area is known to be home to the Navajo Tapestry: cultural landmarks set among sweeping landscapes that were once home to the Hopi, Navajo, and Ute tribes.
Dying for a view of these breath-taking scenes? Why not drive the Trail of the Ancients, a five-day route bringing you past ancient cultural and geographical points of interest such as the Natural Bridges Monument, the Four Corners Monument, and the Three Kiva Pueblo – to name a few.
Along the way you’ll travel Utah State Route 261 which contains the legendary Moki Dugway.
Key Facts About Moki Dugway
Sometimes spelled Mokee or Moqui, Moki comes from a word used by Spanish colonial explorers to refer to the people of the Puebloan lands. A Dugway has a literal meaning: a path dug out of a cliffside.
In 1958, the Moki Dugway was carved out of the cliffs by the Texas Zinc Company for transporting uranium from the Happy Jack mine in Fry Canyon to be processed in the town of Mexican Hat – yes, that’s actually the name of the town.
The road is 3 miles long, but it exists in an area one half-mile long by one half-mile wide. The Dugway is almost as long as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it takes close to an hour to drive it!
That’s because of the series of hairpin switchbacks that climb up over 1,200 feet in height – approximately the height of the Empire State Building!
This ascent is at a grade of about 10%, according to the sign posted at the base of the Dugway. The speed limit is a mere 5 mph (hence the time it takes to travel such a short distance) because of the tricky turns.
Don’t be surprised by the gravel road.
Despite Moki’s unpaved surface, it is still a main section of Utah State Route 261, connecting highways 95 to 163.
Though it was first made useful to vehicles in the mid-20th century, Moki has been a crossing site for centuries.
The length of the Dugway is peppered with hand-carved holds in the rock that the ancient Puebloans would use to scale the height of the cliffside for human transportation of goods, climbing over the natural features.
In pop culture, Moki Dugway is featured in the 1999 action film Chill Factor. Cuba Gooding Jr. drives a truck along the Dugway in an attempt to escape terrorists with a rocket launcher.
The scene emphasizes the narrow road and lack of guard rails, but rest assured this isn’t a usual hazard of the road.
Is Moki Dugway Safe?
Moki Dugway is completely safe to drive on. There have been very few reported accidents and even fewer reported deaths. The roads are regularly maintained and while they are unpaved, their paths should never be treacherous to drivers.
It has a couple stop-off points, allowing room for cars to park and take in the views while still leaving space for the road itself – more than you can say for other tricky turnpikes.
After extreme weather that could impact the driveability of the Dugway, road closures are possible, keeping drivers off the route when it’s deemed unsafe.
Is Moki Dugway Scary To Drive On?
While the Moki Dugway is often found listed as one of the most dangerous routes in America, our research is proving to nullify this claim.
There are many stretches without guard rails, but Moki wouldn’t be part of a state route if it were dangerous.
Some may consider the sharp turns, serpentine switchbacks and narrow lanes scary, though. It’s especially not the best experience for anyone afraid of heights.
On Trip Advisor, the Moki Dugway boasts a full five stars. People say that the higher up you travel, the better the views get. Most agree with us and say it’s not scary.
In fact many say that they were prepared for something more intense, but still wouldn’t consider it a let-down.
The single 1-star review of Moki suggests that the driver wasn’t prepared for the adventurous path.
As the Dugway is an unavoidable part of Rte 261, if you think you’re just following a measly state highway it could come as quite a shock.
The road is well sign-posted for its adventurous ascent, though.
Accidents/Deaths On Moki Dugway
One website compiled news stories from the archive of the San Juan Record, the local newspaper.
Only two deaths seem to be on record for the Moki Dugway.
In 1994, a driver going too fast crashed the car off the road. The driver and one passenger survived, but a third who wasn’t wearing her seatbelt was thrown fatally from the vehicle.
The second death was back in the ‘60s, but only reported in 1989, so we’re unsure of its authenticity.
There was a witness, though, who said that in 1965, a truck driver pulled over on Moki to relieve himself. His passenger, the witness, heard the driver shout “Oh my god!” The driver disappeared and his body was found on the ridge below.
It’s unclear how the accident occurred, as there was no report of an oncoming vehicle.
Eerily, a similar accident occurred in 1989, which perhaps brought up the memory of the 1965 accident.
In the ‘80s, a driver pulled over to relieve himself on Moki. However, he slipped and fell down 40 feet from the roadside. He didn’t die, but sustained sever injuries to his spinal cord and leg.
There are few more accidents recorded on the Dugway.
Another memory of the ‘60s recounted twenty years later tells the tale of a car crash. Faulty brakes caused a truck carrying uranium ore to go over the cliff and crash into a fiery eruption. The driver allegedly pulled himself free and walked away from the disaster.
Most recently, in 2005, a rogue boulder came loose from the cliffside and tumbled down onto a family’s car driving lower down the Dugway. Luckily, no one in the vehicle was injured.
Compared to other roadways in the U.S., the Moki Dugway hardly seems the most dangerous.
The fact that accidents weren’t directly reported when then occurred also calls into question whether or not these accidents actually happened and if they were along the Dugway itself.
What types of vehicles are not allowed on Moki Dugway?
The Utah Canyon Country website says that vehicles of all types can pass safely along the route. However, there are some drivers whose reviews advise big RVs and trailers giving the pass a miss. In fact, the U.S. Department Of Transportation Federal Highway Administration says RVs are not recommended. Physically, because of the sharp turns and switchbacks, it is not possible for super long vehicles surpassing 28 feet in length to travel Moki.
Tips For Driving Moki Dugway
Here is some advice we highly recommend to anyone looking to take the Trail of the Ancients through Moki:
- Drive slow and follow the speed limit. Hairpin turns or not, it’s always important whenever driving on unfamiliar roads to follow the speed limit. Add in very tight bends in the road and you’re asking for trouble if you evoke Speed Racer. If the sign says 5 mph, go 5 mph!
- Travel prepared. There is nowhere to buy water (or snacks, for that matter), nor are there any restrooms. Since the route is only 3 miles long and within 20 minutes of the nearest town, we’re sure you’ll be okay. If nature calls a little too loudly, though, remember those stories of danger when pulling over to relieve yourself! Make sure you park safely off the road if you have to part at all.
- Do NOT park along the Dugway! Okay, we did say it’s possible to do so. There are some designated areas which are plenty wide to pull onto and stop for the views, but you certainly should not remain stationary along the road itself. While we would like to assume most other drivers travel with caution at a reasonable speed, tight bends make navigating tricky. Avoid accidents by moving along.
- Make sure you have enough fuel. The nearest gas station is about 12 miles away in Mexican Hat. That’s not bad if your gas light comes on while driving, but only if you’re headed towards Mexican Hat. North of there, the nearest gas stations are an hour’s drive over 52 miles. Make sure you’ve you got a full tank.
Happily, many people report good cell service up the Dugway, so if you want to snap a pic from one of the scenic parking spots, you can upload it to social media almost right away! And having cell service in case of emergency is a relief.
Is it worth it to drive on Moki Dugway?
There is one turn off the Dugway which leads to a dead end. Muley Point is at the end of Muley Point Road, four miles off the Dugway. It’s a must-see look-out if driving Moki.
It’s about a 20 minute detour but offers unparalleled views – Valley of the Gods to the east, the San Juan River Canyon to the west, and distant views of Monument Valley to the south.
The color palette of the strata of rock may not seem natural, but all the breath-taking views are 100% Mother Earth.
Even if you are visiting all these places in person, we think that driving the Moki Dugway is completely worth it for the panoramic views of San Juan County.
We may not think that the Moki Dugway one of the most dangerous roads in America, but it certainly is up there. If you’re unused to unpaved roads careening up mountainsides, it could be a thrilling experience. Carved into a hillside choc full of history, the Moki Dugway is bound to impress visitors. Drive safely!
Mariska is a recovering attorney who gave up her professional job to discover new perspectives of life while traveling in a 2009 Ford Transit.
She has been living the van life for 3 years and has not looked back since.