Trail Rides - Guided Tours
Thousands of tourists from all over the world come to Monument Valley on the Utah/Arizona border in the remote northwestern part of the Navajo Nation for the ultimate western experience. Navajos guide tourists by horseback or jeep through Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park past the famous Mittens, to director John Ford's favorite movie locations and to hogans where weavers demonstrate the making of their famous rugs. The park is a treasure the Navajo Nation established in 1958 for the preservation of their landscape and to share a part of their culture.
Families still live in the valley, tend their sheep and carry on the arts and crafts traditions of their ancestors. They are allowing us to visit their backyards. We are there with their kind permission, a little different from going to a national or state park.
Just 11 miles west of Monument Valley Tribal Park is a quiet piece of Navajo history, Oljato Trading Post and Museum. You can slip past Gouldings Lodge with its packed tour buses and be at a trading post only slightly changed since its establishment in 1921. Located at the base of a red sandstone mesa in the community of Oljato, Utah, population about 1550, the proprietors still trade with the local people. The tourists from all over the world who are lucky enough to discover this treasure can buy arts and crafts alongside the Navajos, some of whom only speak Navajo, who stop for groceries, pots and pans and gasoline and, no doubt, to exchange news.
Inside the adobe walls, the viga ceiling and bullpen design still convey the old trading post atmosphere. Oljato Trading Post & Museum is not an American fast food franchise/convenience store. The arts and crafts room has for the last 77 years offered Navajo rugs, pottery, baskets and traditional art. It now has a museum containing items from early trading days and Navajo historical displays. Arts and crafts by local artists, including a special collection of dolls by the Samuels family, are for sale. The dolls are traditionally dressed and wear genuine silver and turquoise jewelry.
A visit here in the midst of geological wonders could be your start at appreciating another rich culture. It will give you an enjoyable vacation and a unique shopping experience. The trading post is listed on the National Register of Historic places.
But, wait -- the adventure need not end there. The trading post is also headquarters for Navajo Country Guided Trail Rides, which offers horseback trail rides to some of the less traveled locations of Monument Valley.
I have participated in many of their special adventures. A one-hour ride goes around Agathla Peak, a prominent volcanic cone. The views are amazing. The Navajo guides tell you the names and significance of the mesas, buttes and sacred mountains that can be seen. Sheep and goats graze on the seemingly vertical slopes of the peak. Several times I have brought friends to do an "overnighter." The most popular one leaves from Agathla Peak. A three-hour ride takes you past sagebrush and pinon pines with stops along the way to look at Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs and natural arches. Riders go at their own pace. The ride is enjoyable both for experienced riders and for those who have never ridden.
Camp is established in Mystery Valley in a peaceful canyon beside the red sandstone canyon walls. Evelyn, Dean, Gunnar and their guides take care of your well-trained horses and prepare a delicious meal while everyone enjoys the glow of starlight, moonlight and campfire. After a peaceful sleep under an infinite number of stars, you awake to cowboy Indian coffee, breakfast and a ride out of the valley by a different route, with more Colorado Plateau arches, mesas, buttes and spires.
I have ridden on multi-day trips for 10 or 12 hours a day down remote canyons past wild mustangs and burros and Navajo hogans used long ago, to places that have never been given English names. The precipitous canyon trails pass places whose history has not been written in books but are known to the local people who may exchange talk of memorable skirmishes between tribal neighbors long ago. Along these trails you gain a respect for what superbly trained horses can do. Also, these trips give a total perspective of what a professional guide is. Those who grew up here and whose families have taught them the trails, the plants and a profound appreciation for the land can make your vacation meaningful and adventurous.
My most recent adventure was riding with a group of wagon enthusiasts. Charlie Taylor of Hesperus, Colorado brought a tour group to camp for several days and to drive their teams through Mystery Valley. Charlie and his wife Lorraine have been wagon dealers for some years. He and his nephew, Aaron Taylor, operate Mayfair Livery. They supply period equipment for movies, TV and commercials. In the winter they offer sleigh rides around Hesperus. The remainder of the year, they conduct wagon tours on the Navajo Nation and other Native American sites in the southwest.
The chuck wagon they brought on this trip appeared in the movie "City Slickers I". Their wagons were pulled by draft mules and Norwegian Fjord draft horses. The equipment included an original government issue Navajo wagon and a Basque sheepherder's wagon. They were guided by Navajo Country Guided Trail Rides led by the covered wagon from Oljato Trading Post & Museum pulled by their matching percherons. They paraded up the washes and roads to hidden canyons, replete with Anasazi ruins, and to the tops of mesas for panoramic views of Monument Valley. There was a professional photographer or two in the group who had multiple perfect photo opportunities. In keeping with tradition, there was Dutch oven cooking, violin music and melodic singing in the moonlight.
This particular backyard with towering sandstone formations of every shape imaginable happened to belong to Evelyn's aunt, Joann Sayetsitty. She came to camp one evening and spun yarn with some of the visitors who were weavers. She speaks only Navajo so her daughter and granddaughter came with her to interpret. Ms. Sayetsitty was widowed when her children were young and raised them by selling her rugs. Her rugs were so masterful that she could take one to an auto dealer and trade it for a pick up truck when she needed to. The ladies spun for awhile, then shared a meal topped off by the children making "camp doughnuts." The visitors went to her sheep corral for more visiting and sheep shopping, a wonderful cultural exchange. There are plans to exchange wool and sheep in the coming months.
If one of the above is not adventure enough for you, fly your private plane to the landing strip next to the trading post. Navajo County Guided Trailrides can arrange a camping experience and/or horseback ride in the area after you land. Your group could even go to Lake Powell, which is only 20 miles from the post. Flying in is a bit of a change from when Navajos from as far away as Navajo Mountain used to travel by horseback to trade here. But, the flavor of the past remains with the trading and bartering at Oljato Trading Post & Museum.
Any off-road touring in the Navajo Nation requires a guide.
Oljato Trading Post & Museum/Navajo Country Guided Trail Rides
The trading post is closed for now. Trail rides are still available.
c/o Oljato Trading Post & Museum
Utah 84536 USA
The Navajo have a new hotel, The View inside Monument Valley. Lodging is also available just outside the park at Kayenta, AZ, 22 miles south. (Rates and availability are available online, just click the city name above.)
Nearby Goulding's Lodge and Trading Post. Goulding’s offers rooms and a pool, and it has a restaurant and campgrounds (with RV hookups). It also books Jeep and horseback tours.
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