Why Navajo Mountain, one of Utah’s most remote communities, may become less isolated

Proposed road would boost connections, tourism and jobs in this part of southern Utah.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Nestled between its namesake mountain and Lake Powell, Navajo Mountain, shown in August 2020, is one of the most isolated communities in Utah. In newly proposed road would increase connections in the area.

Bluff • The small southern Utah town of Navajo Mountain, one of the most isolated communities in the Lower 48, may soon find a new connection to the state’s highway system if a $110 million project moves forward.

The Navajo Mountain Chapter of the Navajo Nation currently has around 500 residents who must drive south through Arizona to access basic services such as a grocery store or laundromat. The community’s center is only 45 miles from Monument Valley but getting there requires a 120-mile drive, and it takes three hours to reach Blanding, San Juan County’s most populous town.

On Thursday, officials the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition hosted Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Herman Daniels Jr. and San Juan County representatives to discuss a road proposal that would shorten drive times and to tour part of the proposed route.

“Having the lieutenant governor and county officials see the current road conditions firsthand offers them great insight into the challenges that Navajo people deal with every day,” Nez said in a statement. “Many residents commute through these rocky terrains for long hours each day for basic services and necessities, hauling water for their homes and livestock, and going to school and work.”

He added the road would boost area tourism, bringing in tax revenue and job opportunities.

‘Extreme isolation’

San Juan County Commissioner Willie Grayeyes, who was born on Piute Mesa and has served as a Navajo Mountain Chapter official at various times throughout his career, told RedRock 92.7 last week that Navajo Mountain has too often been passed over for services. A lawsuit against the San Juan School District in the 1990s led to the construction of a high school in the area. Grayeyes, who sits on the board of the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition, said the road project would be immensely beneficial to residents.

“I encourage anybody who has never been to Navajo Mountain to drive the [existing] road,” he said. “They’ll experience the extreme isolation, remoteness.”

The road proposal became a campaign issue in the latest chapter election when some residents of Piute Mesa — a strip of land between Monument Valley and Navajo Mountain that’s home to about a couple dozen families and is currently accessible only by a rough dirt road — expressed concerns about the road construction’s impact on the area’s remote character.

Other residents backed the planned road.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A draft proposal, prepared by Jones and DeMille Engineering, anticipates three phases for the project: a $49 million dirt road connection between Navajo Mountain and Oljato; a $30.2 million dirt spur heading north across the San Juan River to connect to Highway 276 east of Halls Crossing; and, lastly, the paving of both new roads.

The initial phase would shave about 55 miles off the current three-hour, one-way journey from Navajo Mountain to Blanding, likely reducing driving times by 40 minutes.

The connection to Highway 276 would reduce the trip by 13 additional miles, but it would require the construction of a $10.5 million bridge near Clay Hills Crossing on the San Juan River as well as several smaller bridges.

All phases of the project would likely need financial support from the Navajo Nation, Utah and the federal government.

Bringing water to remote areas

On Thursday, the tribal, county and state officials also heard a presentation on new drinking water projects, which are expected to be built, thanks to the passage of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act in December.

“[We also want] to develop a water system to serve our remote community,” Grayeyes said.

Residents of Piute Mesa and surrounding areas currently haul water to their homes or rely on deliveries from the nonprofit DigDeep, but the legislation recognizes the Navajo Nation’s right to more water from the Colorado River and provides $220 million in funding for water projects in San Juan County.

“We have to continue working together and meeting on a regular basis to strategize and to make sure that we tap into all available resources,” Nez said, “which may include the American Rescue Plan Act and the Biden-Harris administration’s proposed American Jobs Plan that would provide transportation infrastructure funds. We appreciate Lt. Gov. Henderson for visiting the Navajo Nation, and we look forward to continuing to work with her and Gov. Spencer Cox on water and transportation infrastructure initiatives.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.