Spectacular geology surrounds this tiny community perched on the north bank of the San Juan River. Folded layers of red and gray rock stand out dramatically. Alhambra Rock, a jagged remnant of a volcano, marks the southern approach to Mexican Hat.
Another rock, which looks just like an upside-down sombrero, gave Mexican Hat its name; you'll see this formation two miles north of town.
The land has never proved good for much except its scenery; farmers and ranchers thought it next to worthless. Stories of gold in the San Juan River brought a frenzy of prospecting 1892-1893, but the mining proved mostly a bust. Oil, first struck by drillers in 1908, has brought mostly modest profits. The uranium mill across the river at Halchita gave a boost to the economy from 1956 until it closed in 1965.
Mexican Hat now serves as a modest trade and tourism center. Monument Valley , Valley of the Gods Scenic Drive, Goosenecks State Park, and Grand Gulch Primitive Area lie only short drives away. The shore near town can be a busy place in summer as river-runners on the San Juan put in, take out, or just stop for ice and beer.
Great sandstone monoliths, delicate spires, and long rock fins rise from the broad valley. This strange red-rock landscape resembles better-known Monument Valley but on a smaller scale.
A 17-mile dirt road winds through the spectacular scenery. Cars can usually travel the road at low speeds if the weather is dry (washes are crossed). Allow 1-1.5 hours for the drive.
The east end of the road connects with U.S. 163 at Milepost 29 (7.5 miles northeast of Mexican Hat or 15 miles southwest of Bluff); the west end connects with Highway 261 just below the Moki Dugway switchbacks (four miles north of Mexican Hat on U.S. 163, then 6.6 miles northwest on Hwy. 261).
The San Juan River winds through a series of incredibly tight bends 1,000 feet below. So closely spaced are the bends that the river takes six miles to cover an air distance of only 1.5 miles. The bends and exposed rock layers form exquisitely graceful curves. Geologists know the site as a classic example of entrenched meanders, caused by gradual uplift of a formerly level plain. Signs at the overlook explain the geologic history and identify the rock formations.
Goosenecks State Park (435/678-2238, http://stateparks.utah.gov ) is an undeveloped area with a few tables and vault toilets. A campground is available; no water or fee. From the junction of U.S. 163 and Highway 261, four miles north of Mexican Hat, go one mile northwest on Highway 261, then turn left and go three miles on Highway 316 to its end.
One of the great views in the Southwest lies just a short drive from Goosenecks State Park and more than 1,000 feet higher. Although the view of the Goosenecks below is less dramatic than at the state park, the 6,200-foot elevation provides a magnificent panorama across the Navajo Indian Reservation to Monument Valley and countless canyons and mountains.
To get there, travel northwest nine miles on Highway 261 from the Goosenecks turnoff. At the top of the Moki Dugway switchbacks (an 1,100-foot climb on gravel roads with sharp curves and 5-10 percent grades), turn left (southwest) and go 5.3 miles on gravel County Road 241 (the turnoff may not be signed), and follow it toward the point. This road is not suitable for wet-weather travel.
The San Juan Inn and Trading Post (435/683-2220 or 800/447-2022, www.sanjuaninn.net , $80 and up), at a dramatic location above the river, just west of town, offers clean rooms without extras, a few yurts, Native American trade goods, and a restaurant, the Olde Bridge Bar and Grill (435/683-2220, 7 a.m.-9 p.m. daily, $8-15), serving American, Mexican, and Navajo food.
Hat Rock Inn (435/683-2221, www.hatrockinn.com , $95 and up, closed in winter) offers the nicest rooms in town.
Mexican Hat Lodge (435/683-2222, www.mexicanhat.net , $84 and up) offers rooms, a pool, and a fun but somewhat expensive restaurant (open daily for lunch and dinner) with grilled steaks and burgers.
Valle's Trading Post and RV Park (435/683-2226, year-round, $22), has tent and RV sites with hookups. The camping area itself is pretty basic, but great scenery surrounds it. The trading post offers crafts, groceries, showers, vehicle storage, and car shuttles.