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Earth Notes: Moki Dugway

Bob Wick

Driving the Moki Dugway in southeast Utah is not for the faint of heart.

Dugways are roads chiseled into steep slopes. This three-mile stretch of gravel switchbacks 1,200 feet up a nearly vertical cliffside topped by Cedar Mesa sandstone. The few guardrails don’t  hide the wreckage of the occasional vehicle that went over the edge. 

Though daunting today, this stretch of Hwy. 261 was surely more precarious for the uranium hauling trucks that inaugurated it 60 years ago.

Miners first plied the uranium-rich deposits of southeast Utah in the late 1800s. A feverish boom hit the area in the 1950s with the Cold War. To fuel the nuclear arms race, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission paid a premium for uranium ore and subsidized roads and infrastructure needed to process it. Remote cattle and miner trails, like the Flint and Shafer Trails farther north, became roads that carried prospectors and ore-laden trucks.

Texas Zinc Minerals built the Moki Dugway in the late 1950s to connect the prosperous Happy Jack mine on Cedar Mesa to the Halchita uranium processing mill on the Navajo Nation near Mexican Hat by the San Juan River.

Today, Moki Dugway thrills a different crowd—tourists, hikers, and river runners driving along part of a National Scenic Byway connecting renowned archaeological areas and stunning Colorado Plateau landscapes. 

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