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Moki Dugway on Utah Route 261

The Moki Dugway (also called Mokee or Moqui) is a famous (or infamous) stretch of Utah Route 261 – the highway running north/south that bisects Cedar Mesa. The Moki Dugway is a 3-mile section of gravel road featuring 10% grades climbing through steep hairpin switchbacks straight up the thousand-foot cliff walls of Cedar Mesa. The road tops Cedar Mesa at about 6,400 ft elevation after beginning its climb from the desert at 5,400 ft.

Why is it Called the Moki Dugway?

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While Moki Dugway may seem like a really strange name, it actually makes sense when you know the full story. The name Moki comes from a misspelling of the Spanish word Moqui which Spanish explorers used to describe the Puebloan people inhabiting the area. Today it’s a significant insult to refer to a Puebloan as a Moki or Moqui.

Merriam-Webster defines a dugway as “a road constructed along a hillside by using for the fill on the downhill side material excavated immediately above it“. This certainly describes the roadway that we are discussing. When these two definitions are put together we can understand the name.

Driving the Moki Dugway

The Moki Dugway is at the southern end of Cedar Mesa near Mexican Hat where Utah 261 splits off from US 163. UT 261 leading to the Moki Dugway is a straight flat highway with spectacular views in all directions. As you near the Moki Dugway the dominant feature is the sheer cliffs of Cedar Mesa rising above. Soon you are passing signs cautioning about the changes ahead. As the road begins its steep climb, the pavement ends and the roadbed becomes well-maintained gravel. San Juan County works hard to keep the road in good shape and it’s usually an easy drive.

View from near the top of Moki Dugway
The views from the top of the Moki Dugway are truly spectacular. You can see for miles into the Valley of the Gods and across the San Juan River toward Monument Valley.

Needless to say, the Moki Dugway offers incredible views but there can be times its not much fun to drive. As you approach there seems to be no way a road could climb to the top and the road is carved into what appears to be an impossibly sheer cliffside. The large and obvious warning signs leave no doubt that this is not a typical road.

In places, the road sits on rocks and debris removed from the cliffs and it’s mostly sheer drops along the road’s edge. I’ve had many people tell me that driving this road was a traumatic event. However, others believe that driving the Moki Dugway is a fantastic experience. Personally, I enjoy driving this road but my wife hates it.

Climbing to Cedar Mesa

Wikipedia describes a mesa as “an elevated area of land with a flat top and sides that are usually steep cliffs.” and Cedar Mesa sure fits this description. Its southern end is nothing but sheer cliffs that rise up nearly 1,100 feet from the flat desert below. The top of Cedar Mesa is very flat and from a distance, Cedar Mesa fits the Wikipedia definition perfectly.

A view of Cedar MEsa taken from a distance
Cedar Mesa dominates the northern horizon as you drive near Mexican Hat, UT. The Moki Dugway climbs straight up the sheer walled cliffsides of the Mesa. This view highlights the sheer cliff walls and flat top that are the defining characteristic of a mesa.

Climbing up the switchbacks you gain altitude quickly. The higher you climb the better the views of the Valley of the Gods and off toward Monument Valley. There are a number of pullouts along the road so be sure to take advantage of them for some spectacular sightseeing. At the top, the Moki Dugway ends rather abruptly. One minute you are climbing steeply and the next you are on the mesa top which is flat and covered with the Pinyon pine/juniper forest that blankets Cedar Mesa.

The Moki Dugway was constructed in the late 1950s to facilitate the hauling of uranium ore from the “Happy Jack” mine in Fry Canyon to the processing mill at Mexican Hat. Although the mine is long abandoned, the Moki Dugway remains an important roadway. It’s a really unique and special highway and if you drive it you’re sure to remember the experience.     

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