exploring some popular, graffiti-ridden roadside caves
The “Belly of the Dragon” and the Moqui Sand Caves are 2 different sites, but they have similarities.
Both are located a few miles north of Kanab along highway 89 (16 and 6 miles from Kanab, respectively).
Each is easily accessible as a roadside attraction via a short “hike,” and both are sandstone features carved from native rock. The cave-like features of the Belly of the Dragon and Moqui Caverns (Sand Caves) are located along the same stretch of road as the historic Moqui Cave Museum, but these terms refer to 3 individual places.
So that’s not confusing, right? Yeah?
Okay, a couple more notes before we dive in:
These places were formerly off the beaten track as a sort of “locals only” attraction. In these modern times of connectivity and geotagging with an eye for photo ops, well, it’s clear that’s the cat’s out of the bag with these sites… so I feel okay about publishing this write-up in good conscience.
…especially because it provides a platform for the following statement:
Don’t be a jackass!
The most striking thing about these sites is the proliferation of recent graffiti.
I’m talking about jackasses like “Miller” and “Ramirez” above, who still think it’s perfectly okay to carve their names into rocks, even in 2020. The amount of graffiti at Belly of the Dragon and Moqui Caverns is over the top, complete with modern garbage like Instagram hashtags carved into solid rock.
Look, I get it. When these were roadside hangouts that only attracted local teens, I see how an abundance of graffiti could accumulate, and even begin to seem justified.
What’s not okay is the way this inspires everyone to “leave their mark” and contribute to this garbage. Even worse, it leaves an impression that this is somehow an acceptable behavior, encouraging visitors to go on and replicate such behavior elsewhere, like in the local National Parks.
Defacing natural features (like rocks and trees) is never okay.
Directions to Moqui Caverns
The photo above was taken from the entrance to the Moqui Caverns (aka the Moqui Sand Caves or Wind Caves). Highway 89 can be seen in the upper left part of the picture.
From Kanab, the caverns are located 5.7 miles north on Highway 89. Here’s a Google Map link. The link marks the actual rock feature on the east side of the road. Parking is found a short way to the south, at the entrance to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
If you’re traveling northbound from Kanab and pass the developed Moqui Cave Museum, then you’ve gone too far.
If you’re traveling from the north, the Moqui Caverns are about 11.5 south of the intersection with Route 9 at Mount Carmel Junction. Look for the parking area on the left after passing the Moqui Cave Museum.
Hiking to the Caverns
From the parking area, it’s a short hike of only about a quarter mile up to the caves.
If you review the landscape in the photo above, you’ll see how it’s necessary to scramble up the sloped band of cliffs and follow the bench south to the caves. Some people will find this to be easy, but the slope can be unnerving for others. It’s important to wear shoes with good traction that make you feel confident.
Children will typically handle it well, with their fearlessness and lower center of gravity, but you’ll definitely want to keep a close eye on them upon reaching the caves. The opening in the photo above ends abruptly in a sheer drop of at least 20 feet.
The Moqui Sand Caves are a dog-friendly site, but your four-legged friend might find it difficult to get up and down the sandstone face.
It’s free to visit the site – there’s no cost or fees involved.
The best time of day for photos is reportedly in the late afternoon and early evening before sunset. This makes perfect sense to me, as the caves are west-facing. The photos on this page are from mid-morning.
Moqui Caverns History (Sand Caves)
The so-called “cave” barely goes deep enough to qualify as an actual cave, but it’s a cool feature nonetheless. These tunnels are not a natural geologic occurrence. Their history stems from mining activity in the 1970s, when sand was mined from the rock to produce glass.
More Photos from the Moqui Caverns
Visiting the Moqui Cave Museum
The Moqui Sand Caves hike is not to be confused with the developed Moqui Cave, which lies immediately up the road. At first glance the Moqui Cave may strike you as a generic roadside tourist trap, but I think any connoisseur of the American Southwest will find it to be surprisingly interesting.
In particular I was most impressed by their collection of Native American artifacts. In addition to the articles you’d expect (like arrowheads and pottery), they have some split twig figures, sandals, and weapons. All the items are claimed to be genuine and found locally, primarily by Garth Chamberlain and his associates.
The Cave also has a fine collection of fossils, a large phosphorescent rock display, and more. To put it simply, the Moqui Cave is the personal legacy of a mid-20th century inhabitant of the area with a penchant for collecting neat things.
History of the Moqui Cave
The cave operated as a speakeasy during the 1920s Prohibition and into the Great Depression.
Garth Chamberlain (born and raised in Utah) bought the property “from a local rancher” in 1951.
Chamberlain and his wife Laura leveled the floor and re-fashioned the location as a bar and dance hall, with live music. It was a unique stop for visiting Hollywood stars that were shooting western films in the area, and a favorite watering hole of the Glen Canyon Dam construction workers. This went on for about two decades, until Garth and Laura started converting the place to a museum.
The cave’s entrance once featured a huge triceratops dinosaur head, so visitors had to walk through its mouth to enter the cave. This sounds like so much fun, reminiscent of Route 66 Americana. Garth Chamberlain passed away in 1992, and the dinosaur head was replaced with the Ancestral Puebloan replica seen today.
Lex Chamberlain, Garth’s youngest so, took ownership of the cave in 1989. He passed away in 2016, and his wife LeeAnne continues the family business into the present day.
Directions to The Belly of the Dragon
The Belly of the Dragon is a drainage tunnel that was drilled in sandstone beneath Highway 89 near Mount Carmel Junction, Utah. I drove over it for years before I knew it was there.
The tunnel is located about 16 miles north of Kanab, and less than a mile south of Mount Carmel Junction. To access the tunnel, turn west off of the highway onto the dirt Barracks Road near the East Fork Virgin River.
After about a quarter mile, look left (east toward the highway) for the tunnel’s obvious entrance. Parking is usually available near the entrance, but be careful with driving in the soft sand.
You’ll see a clear footpath leading to it. Just be aware that there’s a small scramble involved in entering the tunnel, requiring a small degree of athleticism.
Here’s the tunnel marked on Google Maps.
More to know about this cave:
There’s no direct cost or fees associated with visiting this site.
The Belly of the Dragon area is dog-friendly, just be aware that there’s a small scramble at the beginning of this short hike.
If you’re visiting during the day, there should be enough natural light to see your footing in the cave’s darkest places. However it’s good to have a light, especially in overcast weather. It also helps to illuminate the idiotic carvings on the walls, if you wish to inspect them. Just remember that adding to the graffiti makes you a disrespectful jackass.
Common sense should tell you it’s a good idea to stay out of here in rainy, wet weather. Flash flooding is always a risk in this landscape, and the soft dirt road can be especially problematic when it’s wet, too.
The Belly of the Dragon doesn’t exactly have a rich history. It’s a man-made feature, functioning as a drainage tunnel. Its notoriety lies in the effect of the subsequent erosion on Utah’s soft sandstone.