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Published: November 16th 2012
Road to Monument Valley
One of the most iconic vistas of the west, thanks to several films
Ask many people to imagine the west, and they’ll respond with a vision of red buttes sticking up from a flat desert plain.
This particular landscape is iconic thanks to a series of classic western movies directed by John Ford
No matter where they were set, he filmed them in just one place, Monument Valley.
I never saw the films growing up, but I did see hundreds of cartoons that used the same landscape.
Today I finally see the real thing.
Of course, lots of other people want to see that landscape also.
During summer, it leads to almost unbearable crowding.
Thankfully, most visitors have left by late autumn.
The popularity also leads to high prices, which I can’t do anything about.
Like other things on this trip (see One Big House
), I decided I would enjoy the place enough to be worth the cost, at least once.
Valley of the Gods
Before going there, I went somewhere else.
Of the millions who throng Monument Valley every year, very few know another set of similar buttes exists less than an hour away, the Valley of the Gods
Of course, these
The rock formation that gave its name to a town
buttes haven’t been used as a film set for the last half century either.
Along the way I passed another butte with a balanced rock on top looking like a Mexican sombrero, the rock
that gave Mexican Hat its name.
All of the buttes in Valley of the Gods have the same general look.
A set of vertical rock of various sizes sits on cone shaped pedestals.
The vertical portion contains incredible visible rock layers
, which eroded at different rates to produce various shapes.
The pedestals make the buttes look like huge sandstone sculptures.
The signboard near the entrance mentions that every butte has two different names.
The Navajo believe that the buttes are warriors turned to stone by the gods as punishment, and named them accordingly.
Later American settlers assigned their own names.
The board then states that knowing either takes some of the fun from this place, and visitors should imagine what they can see for themselves.
The dirt road is rough but passable, with lots of little rocks.
It crosses a wash right after the entrance, and several
Valley of the Gods
Red butte beauties in the Valley of the Gods
more within the formations.
If the ground is at all wet, it will likely be impassible.
I made it, although I have plenty of experience by this point.
The path weaves through most of the major buttes, showing them from all angles.
For some, it gets really close, passing right next to the base.
It’s yet another place where an open car really pays off!
Some of the buttes are surprisingly thin.
I saw a chicken, a giant castle, a medieval tower, one of the Star Destroyers from Star Wars
, a monolith from 2001
, warriors marching in formation, and much else.
This place was fun to see, and I had it to myself.
Heading southwest, the road crosses the San Juan canyon and then passes through flat desert.
Buttes of all sizes eventually appear on the horizon.
These are not Monument Valley, but less famous formations eroded from the same layer of sandstone.
More and more appear, eventually forming a vista shown in several movies
(and the cover of my guidebook).
Not long afterward, two tall thin buttes appear on the
Butte shaped like a chicken in the Valley of the Gods
far left, looking remarkably like hands.
They are the Mittens in Monument Valley proper.
They grow until the highway turnoff. I’m finally here.
Iconic scene on a very familiar road:
Monument Valley has two very different sides.
The one people encounter first is the tourist trap.
The valley is on Navajo land
, and they charge admission.
That gives people access to a vast parking lot in front of a visitors’ center.
It was absolutely filled with cars, plus tour busses.
The visitors’ center has a small museum on the valley and its history, plus a porch with a fantastic view.
Since this is a tourist trap, it also had an enormous gift shop and a cafeteria.
The cafeteria food is good but high priced, and aimed at American tastes instead of Navajo cooking (see Old Traditions in a Modern World
A small portion of the museum discusses the famous Navajo Code Talkers
During World War II, the United States Marines recruited Navajo as field radio operators.
The Navajo language is unrelated to either European or Asian ones, so the military figured
North (left) and South (right) Mitten in Monument Valley
it could be used as an unbreakable code
Most recruits were in their early 20s, and few had been off the reservation before.
They served with distinction in the Pacific, and the code was never broken.
Until I saw the museum, I never realized how much fellow Navajo venerate the code talkers, and the reason.
Like all Native Americans, they suffered under official policies of assimilation for a half century or more (see Tourists in a Sacred Land
When the United States government turned around and recruited them for the very thing it previously tried to suppress, the gesture provided a huge, and explicit, form of cultural validation.
Monument Valley’s other side is the natural environment.
The valley has been owned and farmed by Navajo long before the moviemakers showed up, and is still farmed today.
Most of it is unchanged by the heavy popularity, a landscape of fantastic natural forms containing an ancient culture.
The Navajo have done a remarkable job containing the tourist tack to the entrance, so heading further in still reveals much of the Old West atmosphere people come here to see.
Three Sisters in Monument Valley
have at least four ways of seeing the valley.
The first is to pick up a map
at the visitors’ center and drive in.
Drivers are restricted to certain roads that only cover about half the valley.
The roads are dirt, filled with rocks and rough wash crossings, and tougher than anything I’ve done so far.
The risk of car damage is high, so I skipped that one.
The most authentic option is probably a horse tour.
While hugely atmospheric, it’s also long and slow.
Next up are the highly popular scheduled tours
This time of year they don’t run very often, and they usually sell out quickly.
They are also, obviously, rather crowded.
I went with the final option, a spontaneous tour.
Navajo hang out in the parking lot and offer people tours of the valley, which can visit places most others don’t.
The price was higher than a scheduled tour, but I shared this one with only one other person, about as private as a tour of Monument Valley can get.
Monument Valley is not a true valley, rather a flat desert
John Ford Point
Movie director John Ford made views like this iconic
plain filled with buttes.
The road through the area is rough, and the truck jarred constantly during the tour.
The first stretch shows Left and Right Mitten off on the left.
Both are long thin buttes broken by erosion into columns.
Each one has a column on the end separate from the rest, on opposite ends, which gives their name.
Past the mittens, the truck jumps and bangs over washes toward a ridge in the distance.
This part was the setting for scenes requiring open desert.
Close to the ridge, a long thin humped shaped butte appears on the left, the Elephant.
On the right are three striking spires close together, the Three Sisters.
Between the two, we saw in the distance a low butte tilted at an angle.
A Navajo on a horse appeared at the end of the butte, looking truly iconic.
Close up, we reached a side path that went right onto the butte.
It’s called John Ford Point, and the horse looks iconic because John Ford filmed western heroes here looking over the landscape.
For those who want to
Monument Valley backcountry
Riding through a less visited section of Monument Valley
recreate the scene, the horse can be rented!
Past the point, the road follows the ridge.
Near the end it enters an area of thin sandstone spires, the Yeibichai.
The spires are sacred to the Navajo, who believe they represent dancing spirits.
One striking spire stands alone, the Totem Pole. Clint Eastwood
climbed it in 1975 while filming The Eiger Sanction, which desecrated the formation.
Soon afterward, the dirt track forks.
We took the right branch, into an area regular visitors can’t go.
This track swung around another sandstone ridge into an area farmed by Navajo.
To me, the area looks far too dry, but the Navajo know how.
We got a small taste.
The area had rain a few weeks ago, and the area behind the ridge retained the water, creating a huge muddy mess.
A big but shallow pool sat next to the ridge.
The truck parked and we carefully walked around the pool.
The far side on the ridge contains petroglyphs, traced to Hopi who passed through hundreds of years ago as they wandered the southwest.
Yeibihai and Totem Pole
Dancing spirits turned to stone in Monument Valley. The Totem Pole is on the left.
Directly above them is a large oval hole high in the ridge, the Eye of the Sun
Back on the truck, we drove a wide path around the mud and continued along the backside of the ridge.
This brought us to a sandstone cliff containing several alcoves.
One had broken through, creating a big, perfectly oval hole in the side of the cliff.
It’s the Ear of the Wind
, used in several westerns.
Further along was a large grotto underneath a small hole in the cliff, the Big Hogan
It looks like the perfect place for a hideout, because it was filmed as one.
On the way out, we visited a Navajo family.
The homestead looks surprisingly modern, because most Navajo now live in western style housing.
Traditional buildings, hogans
, are now only used for ceremonies and demonstrations for tourists.
The property has two of them.
Inside, the owners talked about the Navajo way of life and demonstrated traditional weaving, which the Navajo are famous for.
They learned to weave relatively recently, after the Spanish introduced sheep in the middle 1600s.
Ear of the Wind
Iconic arch Ear of the Wind in Monument Valley
Why did Monument Valley become the iconic setting for western movies?
Westerns were (and are) filmed in many places in western states, but those set in Monument Valley are the most famous.
To get that answer, I headed across the main highway to Goulding’s Lodge
. Harry Goulding
arrived in Monument Valley in 1923 and became a trader with the Navajo.
He was fairer than most and earned their trust.
He then opened a lodge, the predecessor of the current complex.
In the 1930s, he heard about filmmakers searching the west for sites for westerns.
He thought Monument Valley would appeal to them, put together a portfolio of area landscapes, and shopped it through the studios.
John Ford, the most famous of all directors of westerns, liked what he saw and decided to film Stagecoach here in 1938.
Naturally, the film crews stayed at Goulding’s Lodge.
These days, the complex contains a hotel, a huge gift shop (surprise!) and two museums
The central portion has been restored to its appearance in the 1920s, all exposed wooden beams and cramped rooms.
The trading post itself is
A cinematic scene turned to real life: cowboys meet under the Big Hogan arch.
a western general store with lots of Navajo crafts added.
Yes, they are for sale.
The Gouldings lived above their store, in a cramped three room apartment.
The trading post also has guest books on display with famous names highlighted, including the most iconic western actor of them all, John Wayne
The other museum covers the movies filmed in the valley.
It’s surprisingly small given the films’ place in American myth making.
It’s also surprisingly lacking in memorabilia, containing mostly posters and pictures of actors and scenes, many of them signed.
They are organized in chronological order, starting with Stagecoach
in 1938 and ending with Back to the Future III
Over half the films starred John Wayne with John Ford directing.
The museum has a model of the valley that John Ford used to plan many of his films.
It also has a bust of John Wayne the filmmakers gifted to the Gouldings.
Trailers from the valley:
The complex has a vast gift shop
, which mixes high quality Navajo crafts with things far more questionable.
Goulding's Trading Post
Harry Goulding's original trading post, restored to the 1920s.
the latter may be the tackiest, yet most irresistible, souvenir in the southwest.
This shop carries John Wayne toilet paper
, (WARNING: May be offensive) the toughest on earth!
The main road south from Monument Valley passes through more buttes, all smaller than the valley proper.
They quickly peter out to reveal flat bush covered desert.
I’m really used to this landscape by this point.
The roadway ends at Kayenta within the Navajo Nation, another collection of buildings around the highway.
Those who do deep research know to turn west for Navajo National Monument
Navajo National Monument
The highway runs through desert until hills appear on the right.
A side road heads into them.
Parts of the drive show views of a canyon on the right, otherwise it’s nothing special.
The highway ends at a visitors’ center with a view of Tsegi Canyon.
From here, it looks like many in the area, a deep gash in a sandstone mesa.
Navajo National Monument is another spot in the southwest with a really misleading name.
It has nothing to do with the Navajo.
John Wayne guestbook
John Wayne in Harry Goulding's guestbook
Instead, the monument protects yet another set of dramatic pueblo ruins
Like many in the southwest, they were rediscovered by Richard Wetherill (see Ancient Civilization
Through nearby petroglyphs and tribal legends, archeologists have determined this canyon was the last stopping point for several Hopi clans
before their current settlements on Black Mesa.
Touring the ruins requires day long hikes
through the canyon.
Thankfully, Betatakin can be seen from the rim in much less time.
leads from the visitors’ center across slickrock.
It has large views of the canyon throughout.
The path ends at an overlook opposite an absolutely huge alcove in the opposite wall.
Every flat spot on the floor is covered in masonry rooms, similar to those seen at Mesa Verde.
Like Spruce Tree House, the deep alcove means everything is amazingly well preserved.
Although the setting is suburb, the ruin itself is less impressive than those in the other park.
After the monument, I had a long drive across the northern portion of the Navaho Nation.
The sun set and glorious stars came out, again.
Most of the drive, a large mesa dominated the view
Betatakin ruin in Navajo National Monument
to the left, Black Mesa.
The Hopi live on its southeastern edge.
The name comes from the mesa’s huge coal deposits.
Mining it has caused tremendous controversy in the area (see Long, Empty, Glorious Southwest
I finally stopped for the night in Chinle
, the largest town on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation.
It looks like any other spread out southwestern town, although it has fewer hotels than most.
Disappointingly, although the restaurant where I had dinner is Navajo owned, they served purely American food.
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