A Visit to Monument Valley
Rocky Spires and Totems
Text and photos by George Oxford Miller
At first, the land looks like Armageddon. Twisted trees, blowing sand, and exposed and fractured rocks cover the punished landscape. Thousand-foot mountains stand stripped by erosion to their rocky core. My eyes scan the scene, searching for order. None. Yet, I am enchanted. It is one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
To the Navajos, the tortured land stretching out before my vision is sacred. They call it home. Their sheep graze on the sparse vegetation. Their predecessors, nomadic hunters and gathers, called the valley "The Treeless Area Amid the Rocks." They also considered it sacred. White men call it Monument Valley; they use it as a movie set.
From the tribal park campground, I watched the evening shadows creep up the slope of a mitten-shaped butte in the foreground and another, mirror-image butte on the horizon: left hand and right in a petrified salute to the sky.
Scores of monolithic buttes rise from the desert basin, their lonesome peaks surrounded by space and hounded by wind. Rocky spires and totems reach upward like siphons draining color from the evening sky. The ripples in the sand dunes present a miniature set of the eroded gullies that knife through the landscape. And in every direction, the landscape stands red, as though stained by eons of sunsets.
The sky assaults the red sandstone mountains with wind and rain, finally reducing the giants to grains of sand. Roving dunes drift across the desertscape as though searching for the ancient sea that once covered the area. Flash floods carry sand down desert arroyos to intermittent streams and into rivers and, eventually, to beaches where they're united once again with an endless expanse of blue: from ancient sea to modern sea, a cycle complete.
Thanks to dozens of movies filmed here, the world identifies Monument Valley with the legendary Old West. John Ford started it all in 1938 with Stagecoach. The movie featured John Wayne, but the real star was, and always will be, the grandeur of the land.
A loop road through this magical landscape is open to visitors. The seventeen-mile, self-guided loop begins at the visitors’ center of the tribal park. It opens to the public at dawn.
We are first in line. The guidebooks say the tour takes two to three hours. We plan on spending the day so we can see the shifting palette of colors as the sun paints the landscape from first light to dusk.
The sun peeks over the horizon between the mitten-shaped buttes and the transformation begins. Spiny yuccas, beaten junipers with shredded bark, and aromatic sage bushes appear out of the darkness. As the sun sails across the sea of sky, the bare rock cliffs and knife-edge dunes shift through a spectrum of gold and yellow hues to a rich milk chocolate brown. By noon, the color turns flat gray, and we decide to shift to Navajo time. We find a scenic vista overlooking a cluster of candlestick pinnacles rising out of the sand and park for the afternoon. No motor noise, no radio, just the sounds of the ancient valley.
The red-rock formations that inspire us today began as sandy sediments in a Permian ocean two hundred and seventy million years ago. Faulting and folding uplifted the strata along an upwarp one hundred miles long. The relentless grinding of wind and rain wore away the softer layers, leaving the monoliths standing alone like surviving warriors. The reddish hues come from iron oxide, and the black streaks of desert varnish on the cliff faces, from manganese oxide. An erosion-resistant layer of shale caps the pinnacles and delays the weathering of the softer layers below.
A few cars drive past as we soak up the ambiance. The sands have life and death stories as dramatic as the movies that took this scenery into theaters around the world. A lone daisy struggles in a river of flowing sand. A gnarled, half-inundated stump lost the battle long ago. From out of nowhere, a flock of sheep comes over the dunes and passes the car. The sheep wander into a ravine with a temporary creek and a water trough.
A couple stops and shares icy soft drinks from their cooler, a welcome respite on a summer day. The woman, wearing a floppy red hat, has strawberry blond hair the same color as the sand dunes. She laughs and poses for photos as we sip our drinks.
By late afternoon, the shadows return and the rocks regain their blushing tints. We resume our slow-paced circuit. The airy light in the western deserts differs from the light in mountains or plains, or the dense light of the southern and eastern states. It almost seems to come from within the glowing formations.
By dusk, we complete the loop and pull back onto the campground overlook. The mittens stand in silhouette against a purple sky. After one day in Monument Valley, we have no problem understanding why the Navajos consider this spectacular land to be sacred.
Off highway U. S. 163, twenty two miles southwest of Mexican Hat, Utah, and twenty four miles north of Kayenta, Arizona.
Mitten View Campground near the Visitor Center is now part of the View Hotel you can get information here.
Watch Monument Valley video
Visitor Center and Loop Drive and Tours
The tribal park visitor center is open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. from May through September and from 8:00 a.m. through 5:00 p.m. for the rest of the year.
The loop drive, open at sunrise, closes one half hour before the visitor center closes. The drive is not recommended for low-clearance vehicles or recreational vehicles longer than twenty four feet. It is not drivable following a heavy rain. You are not allowed to drive other roads or hike unescorted.
Operators located in the parking lot in front of the visitor center offer Jeep, horseback and hiking tours. Make reservations through the visitor center.
The View Hotel is located in Monument Valley and lodging is available just outside the park at Kayenta, AZ, 22 miles south. (See map above) (Rates, availability and reservations online)
Nearby Goulding's Lodge and Trading Post. Goulding’s offers rooms and a pool, it has a restaurant and campgrounds (with RV hookups), and it books Jeep and horseback tours.
Park Backcountry Camping
There is no backcountry camping in Monument Valley. Camping is available only in designated campgrounds.
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