John Wayne was right on the mark when he described Monument Valley as, “God’s Treasure.” The iconic actor was taken with the stark beauty of this majestic place when he first laid eyes on it while filming the movie, Stagecoach, back in the late 1930s. Directed by the venerable John Ford, the film made The Duke a star and the western, a respected film genre. Hollywood helped shine the light on this distinctive landscape and it became one of the most recognizable images in the country.
Monument Valley Park (known also by its Navajo or Diné name, Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, which roughly translates to mean Valley of Rocks) comprises a small piece of the semi-autonomous Navajo Nation, the largest Native American territory in the U.S. The park straddles the Utah-Arizona border and occupies nearly 92,000 acres. It is not a national park, however, like nearby Canyonlands in Utah or the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but one of six Navajo-owned tribal parks. And the valley is not a valley in the conventional sense, but rather a wide flat landscape, interrupted by colossal buttes and otherworldly looking creations.
The natural sculptures of Monument Valley are a result of sandstone deposits and the geologic processes of uplift and erosion, transpiring over millions of years. What was once a lowland basin became a plateau and the forces of wind and water cut away at the surface of this mass, chiseling rock formations into the unique shapes that can be seen today.
It’s hard not to be awestruck by these formations and their vivid orange and red hues. Fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of dramatic mesas, monoliths and buttes, dwarf shrubs and trees, and sandy, windblown desert. Sandstone masterpieces tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet, rising from the earth in an effort to meet the sky. The landscape overwhelms the senses and even the most jaded can’t help but be spellbound by these enduring images of the American West.
Begin your exploration of the park at the Monument Valley Visitor Center and Museum, Here, you’ll find exhibits that focus not only on the valley, but on the Navajo Nation, its size (a whopping 26,000 square miles), census statistics, government and efforts to keep the Navajo language and traditions alive. Additionally, there’s a section devoted to the Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, who provided the most sophisticated, accurate, fast and secure means of military communications within the Pacific. The code baffled the Japanese and greatly helped win the war in the region. Displays not only detail the history of this communication, but also provide examples of the code and photos of some of the Code Talkers.
Outside the museum, take in the jaw-dropping view of three of the valley’s most photographed peaks – East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte – from nearby Lookout Point. This will whet your appetite for seeing more of the park, which you can do via the Valley Drive. This seventeen mile dirt road starts at the visitor center and heads southeast among the towering cliffs and mesas. It passes eleven numbered stops at the most scenic locales, including the famed Mittens, which look like two enormous mittens, but yet also signify spiritual beings watching over the valley; Merrick Butte and Mitchell Mesa, named after two ex-cavalry soldiers, who were prospectors searching for silver in the valley; The Three Sisters, which resemble a Catholic nun facing her two students; John Ford’s Point, so designated in honor of the Hollywood director who made several films in the valley; and Totem Pole, a thin, tall spire that provides a good example of what erosion can do to a butte. East of the Totem Pole is Yei Bi Chei, a group of rock formations arranged in a crescent shape to appear like a troupe of elegant dancers.
The crowds often amass at John Ford’s Point, a promontory at the edge of a plateau overlooking the desert. Here, visitors can recreate the iconic image of a solo rider on a horse near the edge of the viewpoint. And they can truly understand Hollywood’s attraction to the area and how it became fixed in the popular imagination as the archetypal Western landscape.
But, Hollywood would never have known about Monument Valley, had it not been for Harry Goulding. A native of Colorado, Goulding moved to the region in 1925 and opened a small trading post at the northwest rim of the valley. He was well liked by the Navajo, as he possessed a generous spirit, often extending them credit during difficult times. The Depression was bad enough, but there was also a drought, which hit the Navajo and the trading post hard. So, when Goulding heard on the radio that Hollywood was scouting locations to shoot a western, he jumped at the chance to bring a financial opportunity to the valley.
Goulding drove to L.A., walked into United Artists Studios with a portfolio of photos and talked his way into seeing director John Ford. He showed him the pictures and convinced him that the valley would make the perfect backdrop for his movie, Stagecoach. Ford went on to use Monument Valley in nine more films. Other directors came calling and over the years, the location has been featured in numerous movies and commercials.
Though this self-drive route hits many of the park’s major landmarks, a guided tour can enrich your experience tenfold and provide access to restricted areas. All tours are operated by Navajo companies, ensuring that you will get a Navajo guide, who is fully connected with the valley. The tour will take you to ancient ruins, impressive sandstone arches and massive monoliths, and along the way, you’ll learn countless interesting facts. You’ll be able to cover more ground and immerse yourself in the culture and history of this fascinating place.
I had the good fortune of joining a tour operated by Monument Valley Safari. Our guide Bobby was particularly knowledgeable about the geology of the area. He explained the stages of erosion and types of sedimentary rocks, as well as the evolution of the formations. I learned there are four different layers to the monuments: Organ Rock, De Chelly Sandstone, Navajo Sandstone and Conglomerates. Organ Rock is the oldest layer, dating back 284 million years, while Conglomerates is the youngest at 190 million years. Bobby also told us that the reddish hues in the sand and rock of the valley are due to iron oxide, and the black streaks on the rock walls are manganese oxide or desert varnish.
He pointed out some of the vegetation that grows in the valley, such as Mormon Tea, a widely used medicinal plant to help asthmatics and those suffering from hay fever. Another is the Juniper tree. This tree’s berries give gin its distinctive flavor and add spice in cooking. The seeds are made into beads to ward off evil. There’s also the yucca plant. Its leaves are used in weaving, while its roots can be used to make soap and shampoo.
One of the stops we made on the tour was at a traditional Hogan where we watched a woman weaving with stems from the sumac plant and saw examples of handmade baskets, rugs moccasins and infant carriers, as well as a grinding stone for making cornmeal. The Hogan is the traditional dwelling and ceremonial structure of the Navajo. Early Hogans were dome-shaped constructions with log, or stone frameworks, and covered with mud, dirt or sod. There are male Hogans and female Hogans. The male Hogan is the center of religious and cultural ceremonies, while the female type is larger and able to house a family. It’s a more permanent and practical form of shelter.
The tour also featured some of the amazing arches in the valley, including Big Hogan, Moccasin, Suns Eye and Ear of the Wind. At Big Hogan, we were treated to two very memorable performances. Bobby showed off his musical talent by serenading us with the Native American flute. The melody was very haunting and added to the mystical quality of the scene. Afterwards, ten year old Ayanibaa did a hoop dance for us, creating the shapes of a bird, basket, flower and lightening with her hoops. Her father Anthony accompanied her on a drum made from elk skin. The acoustics were perfect, as Big Hogan is a natural amphitheater.
Monument Valley is abundant with Anasazi petroglyphs and pictographs, many that are still very pronounced on the rock walls and alcoves of the canyons. The former are produced by removing or scratching away at the desert varnish, while the latter refer to artwork resulting from the application of plant and animal pigments directly on the walls. Among the most striking petroglyphs we saw on our tour was one of running Bighorn sheep, located in a niche below the Eye of the Sun.
In regards to human occupation, Monument Valley is home to thirty to a hundred residents, depending on the season. These people have deep roots within the valley and have sustained life through simple living. They farm and have livestock, and also create artwork to sell to visitors. And they carve out this existence without running water or electricity.
For those who like to hike, the Wildcat Nature Trail and Lee Cly Trail make a scenic 3.3 mile loop around the West Mitten Butte. The path winds through desert country alongside washes and sandy slopes, offering great views of the rock monuments from the valley floor. This trail, however, is not maintained, so it’s important to look for the periodic rock piles and signs that mark the route.
Though you can see the highlights of Monument Valley in a day, I recommend spending a night or two in order to truly appreciate its wonders. Opt to stay at The View Hotel, the only hotel built within the park. This Navajo owned and operated property blends in with the environment so as not to detract from its scenic wonders. Each well-appointed room has a private balcony overlooking the glorious landscape, from which you can watch the sun rise and set on the monuments. And the décor is authentic Native American with hand woven Navajo rugs, pottery and artwork.
If you eat at the hotel’s View Restaurant, you’ll be treated to a menu of Navajo inspired dishes. Try the Navajo Taco Sampler, Red Chile Pork Posole or the Green Chile Stew, accompanied by blue corn fry bread, drizzled with honey. You’ll notice that some of the entrees are named for Hollywood actors who helped make Monument Valley famous. While dining, you’ll have the ultimate view of the valley through the great expanse of windows, so don’t forget your camera!