Mexican Hat: small town is a gateway to some big natural sights

The tiny San Juan town is best known for the nearby “Mexican Hat” rock formation

(The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s note • This article is part of 150 Things To Do, a reporting project and newsletter exploring the best that Utah has to offer. Click here to sign up for the 150 Things weekly newsletter.

Drive along Highway 162 in San Juan County and you’ll come to the tiny town of Mexican Hat, Utah.

The town, located 20 miles southwest of Bluff where a bridge passes over the San Juan River, may not seem like much at first glance, boasting only four motels, three restaurants, two convenience stores, a post office and a single gas station, according to the Utah’s Canyon Country website.

But seeing its namesake is worth the trip.

The Mexican Hat rock, found about two and a half miles northeast of the town, resembles a sombrero from some angles, according to the Utah Office of Tourism.

It also features unparalleled stargazing. Utahn Kim Woodbury, who traveled with her friend Kim Petersen to 246 Utah cities, said during their stay in Mexican Hat, they pulled onto a side road and turned off their lights.

“I am not kidding. It took my breath away,” Woodbury said. “I’ve never seen stars like that.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) The moon slips towards total eclipse as it comes up over the canyon wall with the upside down sombrero rock formation just outside Mexican Hat, Utah.

The Mexican Hat community was founded by E. L. Goodridge, who established an unproductive oil claim there in 1908, according to information from the Utah Office of Tourism.

The town has survived boom bust cycles since then, including the massive uranium boom which impacted southeast Utah in the mid-twentieth century, the Four Corners Region Geotourism Stewardship Council website states.

Now, Mexican Hat functions as an access point for San Juan River trips. Local Haley Sumner said Mexican Hat is the only river town in the entire state, meaning it’s the only town in Utah that a river cuts directly through.

Sumner said she’s lived her whole life in Mexican Hat, where she runs the Mexican Hat Lodge.

The joint inn and steakhouse has been owned by her family since 1979, she said, and once boasted a tradition of inviting country and rock musicians to perform in the restaurant. She’d like to bring the music tradition back soon, she said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sumner said the lodge was routinely 94% to 96% full with European travelers, with the busy season occurring from March through October.

When the pandemic hit, tourism slowed, “but we all managed,” Sumner said.

Sumner said one of the challenges of running a business in a small town is the higher price of everyday items due to the increased costs of getting those items to a remote area.

But the local businesses support each other, she said, and it’s rewarding to provide good service and to meet people from all over the world.

“Seeing reviews or people return [to our] business is always amazing,” she said.

Mexican Hat is also conveniently close to other local sights, such as Gooseneck State Park (located at the end of UT-316 off of US 163, about eight miles northwest of Mexican Hat), Monument Valley (located about 23 miles northeast from Mexican Hat) and the Valley of the Gods (located about eight miles northeast of Mexican Hat).

For a scenic route, Hat Rock Inn’s website recommends approaching from the north via Moki Dugway and Natural Bridges. This road passes through the Valley of the Gods, past Gooseneck State Park and Mexican Hat Rock, through Mexican Hat and ends in Monument Valley.

Editor’s note • 150 Things To Do is a reporting project and weekly newsletter made possible by the generous support of the Utah Office of Tourism. Sign up for the 150 Things newsletter here.

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