The Four Corners is far too prosaic of a name for the strikingly beautiful territory that respects no man-made boundaries in the southwestern United States.
Long before some surveyor drew straight perpendicular lines to create Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, the forces of time were busy carving and painting this desert into a much more amorphous pastiche of natural wonders. Attempt this 525-mile (845-kilometer) drive in a single day and you'll miss the point. This landscape took thousands of years to create; you'll never appreciate it at 65 miles (105 kilometers) per hour. Instead, take two days at least, stopping to walk through the numerous parks, preserves, monuments, and unnamed places whose beauty defies categorization
Start in Flagstaff
Leaving Flagstaff (http://www.flagstaff.az.gov/), head not along the beaten path to the Grand Canyon, some 73 miles (117 kilometers) north, but rather east, in search of less heralded jewels. Take Interstate 40 to Winslow (home to a famous corner, commemorated by a mural, a bronze statue, and an annual “Standin' on a Corner” festival)—then continue for 58 miles (93 kilometers) until you cross into Petrified Forest National Park (www.nps.gov/pefo). It's more of a looking park than a hiking or biking park, but the exquisite colors of the Painted Desert are captivating from the various viewpoints on the main park drive within a few miles of the Interstate. You'll want to drive deeper into the park to see the petroglyphs etched into Newspaper Rock or the eponymous petrified logs of Crystal Forest.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Continue east on I-40 to U.S. 191 and head north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument (www.nps.gov/cach).This U.S. Park Service installation is as rich in color and history as the surrounding Navajo reservation land is poor. Indigenous peoples have lived among these 1,000-foot (305-meter)-high, auburn-colored cliffs for nearly 5,000 years, leaving behind them their cave paintings, pottery, kivas, and permanent structures they appended to the fanciful rock formations that first drew them here.
Stay on U.S. 191 north to 59, a Navajo Nation road that takes you northwest toward Kayenta, the gateway to Monument Valley. Make a left onto U.S. 160 and a right onto U.S. 163, then decide whether you're John Wayne, Butch and Sundance, or Thelma and Louise as you ride through the iconic mesas and buttes you've seen so many times on film. You can even spend the night staring at the awesome surroundings at The View, a new hotel that opened in December 2008 inside the Navajo Tribal Park. Owned and operated by the Towering House Clan of Navajos, the hotel features unobstructed views of Monument Valley's famed “mittens” from each of its 95 guest rooms.
Cross into Utah on 163 north, then double back south into Arizona along U.S. 191 for 32 miles (51 kilometers) to Mexican Water. There you'll pick up U.S. 160 east, which takes you to the intersection of four states and the heart of this drive. You'll have to pay $3 per person to the Navajo Nation and wait behind countless other tourists for a clear moment when you can take your picture with a limb in each state, but how many times in life do you get to experience something like this?
Trail of the Ancients
From the moment you cross into Colorado until you reach the town of Cortez, 35 miles (56 kilometers) northeast, you'll overlap the Trail of the Ancients. This National Scenic Byway wends through territory where Puebloans lived for thousands of years before European settlement.
Mesa Verde National Park
The finest Puebloan cliff dwellings are preserved in Mesa Verde National Park (www.nps.gov/meve), ten miles (16 kilometers) east of Cortez off Route 160. This is a good place to get out and stretch your legs—not to mention your arms and your neck—as you climb up ladders and crawl through tunnels on guided tours of the ancient cliff dwellings. More than 4,000 archaeological sites have been preserved, including hundreds of homes and villages that date back to the 12th century.
Cortez to Dolores
Double back west on 160 to Cortez and pick up Colorado 145 north toward Dolores. As you start to climb out of the high desert, you'll discover a whole new hue. The pumpkin-colored sandstone and russet cliffs give way to leafy aspens, evergreen conifers, and cobalt rivers streaming down the slopes of silvery alpine peaks. It's as if some great designer all of a sudden changed color palettes.
San Juan Skyway
The last 75 miles (121 kilometers) of this trip follow yet another National Scenic Byway: the San Juan Skyway. Paralleling the banks of the Dolores River, the road ascends through the imposing San Juan Mountains, the southernmost range in the Rockies. That's Mount Wilson on your left, just one of the 13 jagged summits that top 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). A century ago, this was silver and gold mining country; today, the folks who dig this area are largely skiers, hikers, and soft-adventurers.
Route 145 dead-ends at the tiny ski resort town of Telluride (www.telluride.com), nestled in a box canyon at an elevation of 8,750 feet (2,667 meters). Just 12 blocks long and six blocks wide, Telluride is no place for driving. Rather, you're encouraged to ditch your vehicle at the free parking lot known as Carhenge and get around town on foot. Butch Cassidy got his start here, making off with $20,000 from the San Miguel Bank in 1889. Today, he'd find more than that draped around the necks of vacationing leisure-class shoppers. Yet Telluride retains a far more easygoing atmosphere than resorts like Aspen. For every four-star restaurant or boutique, there's a down-at-the-heels pizzeria or candy store. Even in the height of summer, wisps of snow crown the jagged mountain peaks that surround the town on three sides. It's possible to drive higher up the mountain to get a closer view, but after two days in the car, you'll probably prefer the ski gondola, Telluride's free public transportation system that operates 275 days a year.
The glass-encased cab whisks you high up Telluride's north-facing slope, then drops down into the next canyon over. Here, an even broader panorama unfolds before you, ringed by dozens of pinnacles ranging from 11,000 to 13,000 feet (3,353 to 3,962 meters). Mountain Village, the somewhat sterile condo development at the base of the slopes, lacks the charm and the Victorian-era history of the town of Telluride. But the staggering views alone are worth driving two days for.
Late spring, summer, and early fall are good times to drive this route. For local weather conditions, see www.weather.com. For general information about Four Corners Navajo parklands, see www.navajonationparks.org/htm/fourcorners.htm. For general information about the Trail of the Ancients, see www.byways.org/explore/byways/2118. For general information about the San Juan Skyway, see www.byways.org/explore/byways/2101.
—Text by John Rosenthal