Tucked 1,100 feet beneath the rim of southern Utah's Cedar Mesa, the Valley of the Gods is easy to miss ― especially if you're in a hurry to get from "here" to "there" without paying attention to "where" you are. It isn't on some maps, and most motorists who do make their way into the valley of towering sandstone monoliths do so spontaneously after spying the small road sign. Many of these people are spellbound by the valley's beauty and find themselves changing plans and spending the night ― provided they have camping gear or luck into a room at the hidden Valley of the Gods Bed & Breakfast.
Thirty-three miles north of Monument Valley, the Valley of the Gods seems like an afterthought even to the Bureau of Land Management, its steward. Nowhere on the agency's website is the valley mentioned. In hindsight, that isn't exactly a bad thing, for solitude is one of the valley's blessings. Yet, surprisingly, it really isn't hard to find.
Hemmed by the V north of the junction of State 261 and U.S. 163, the Valley of the Gods is a stunning, 50-square-mile basin studded with intricately eroded sandstone spires, buttes, and towers. Navajo legend says that the towering sentinels in this sprawling, ocher-hued amphitheater are warriors turned to stone. A day or two spent drifting across this landscape allows one to ramble the picturesque geology in solitude that's a rare commodity in nearby national parks.
While you can catch a glimpse of the valley from the highway, the best way to explore is on the narrow, graded-gravel track of the Valley of the Gods Road (County Road 242). The road bumps, grinds, rises, and falls for 17 miles, winding past most of the dozen or so major formations that climb above the valley floor. Some of the formations are named for obvious reasons: Battleship Rock does indeed look like a massive ― albeit rusty ― ship mired in dry dock, and Setting Hen is a knockoff of a roosting fowl. Balanced Rock, though, bears a striking resemblance to a Lady in a Tub, which is its other name.
Established primitive campsites, not formal campgrounds, branch off County Road 242. Eight miles into the valley, I find a site between Castle Butte and De Gaulle and His Troops, a formation that obviously inspired a lot of imagination.
The valley's lack of designated trails is not a drawback. I enjoy a rock-reddening sunset my first day, perched high above the valley floor on the shoulder of Castle Butte, a broad yet thin band of rock. After a night under the star-choked sky, I grab a fanny pack with water, snacks, and film and head up one of the washes that skitter here and there across the valley. Broad and deep, the washes are proof that when water does come to the Valley of the Gods, it does so furiously.
April and May are the perfect months to visit, as spring here is both cooler and drier than summer. A dappling of wildflowers across the desert floor suggests that the past winter's precipitation was sufficient. Purplish scorpion weed, reddish Indian paintbrush, and the tissuelike white petals of birdcage evening primrose add colorful contrast to the red-rock backdrop. Yucca, whose thick flower stalks are primed and rising up from between spiny leaves in late April, usually blooms by late May or early June.
Hidden among the towers
A perfect base camp for those who don't want to roll out a sleeping bag is the four-room Valley of the Gods Bed & Breakfast. The ranch house, cut from stone in 1933, boasts a 75-foot-long covered porch fronting the spires, towers, and pyramids of the valley, rocking chairs at the ready. Inside, 2-foot-thick stone walls insulate against high summer heat. When a chill spills off nearby Cedar Mesa, the living room's fireplace blazes.
Each guest room has a quilt-covered bed and a bathroom with a stone-lined shower. Water is trucked in several times a week to top off a 2,700-gallon cistern, and electricity is generated primarily by the sun.
According to Gary Dorgan, who owns the property with his wife, Claire, the rustic elegance of the B&B attracts a steady, and surprisingly international, clientele determined to connect with the landscape.
"They've been to the Santa Fes and the Sedonas, and they're looking for something quieter and unique," he tells me as logs crackle and oil lamps cast their glow about the room. "They can entertain themselves and don't need a lot of infrastructure."
Adventure in stone
Cars can navigate the Valley of the Gods' gravel road; avoid when wet. Pack water (at least 1 gal. per person per day), food, and a spare tire; have a full tank of gas.
The U.S. Geological Service Cigarette Spring Cave, Utah, topographical map ($6) details the valley; the map and free regional travel information are available at the Monticello Visitor Center (8-5 Mon-Fri; 200 S. Main St., Monticello, UT; 435/587-3401).
Additional information is available at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Monticello Field Office (8-4:30 Mon-Fri; 435 N. Main, Monticello; 435/587-1500).
Camping. Tent and RV camping (free) is permitted at established but undeveloped sites throughout the valley. For more information, contact the BLM (see above).
Valley of the Gods Bed & Breakfast. $115, including breakfast. County Rd. 242; 970/749-1164.