After seeing the grandeur of Horseshoe Bend it felt like we'd already seen enough for one day. It was only 8am though and full day of exploring awaited us. We dashed back to our motel for a hurried breakfast of waffles, syrup and coffee before heading out again, this time for the Arizona-Utah State Line. Our destination for the day was to be the Navajo Nation, to see the famous Monument Valley.
I suspect that there are few people who have never seen Monument Valley... since it's first movie appearance in John Ford's Wild West films, staring John Wayne, it has come to define what most people think of as the American West. Its incredible landscape has played a supporting role in many films including Back to the Future III, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Forest Gump.
Lindsey took the wheel as we drove northwards from Page giving me the chance to enjoy the beauty of Arizona and watch as the landscape turned from semi-arid to arid. We drove across vast plains with stunted bushes the only vegetation to break the redness around us. Gradually the road rose until we reached over 6500 feet. Counter-intuitively, as we rose trees
started to appear. Soon the land was dense with them. We took the final turn towards Monument Valley and the trees started to thin again as we dropped back down. Apparently from out of nowhere, the horizon was suddenly broken by immense mesas and buttes.
A Mesa is a large flat-topped rock formation with little erosion. The next stage of lithological evolution is the butte which is the core that remains when a Mesa has suffered significant erosion. Further erosion leads the core to shrink until all that remains is a thin column of rock, called a spire. This whole process takes place on geological time scales as wind and the scant desert rain transform solid rock to dust. Mesas, buttes and spires are the key features needed to understand the picturesque landscape of Monument Valley and they are what has made the area so iconic.
As we drove into the Navajo National Park I got a thrill of recognition from seeing the scenery of a dozen different films. Some of the Valley is so familiar that I couldn't identify which films I'd seen it in. The further into the Valley we got, the more the vegetation thinned
and it really felt we were in the desert.
We drove in and paid our fee to the surly woman on the gate. Her attitude made us feel like we were very much not wanted here. Casting aside the frosty welcome, we parked up and went to find some food. We had been hoping to try some genuine Navajo cuisine but sadly the restaurant was closed. Fortunately we were prepared for such an eventuality and had a picnic in the car.
When we'd finished we drove to the start of the Monument Valley Trail. This is a seventeen mile loop of rough desert road. At the trail head we found a sign saying the road was closed. We ignored this and continued on down the hill. Part way down the hill we came to some workmen resurfacing the road. As we drove past they confirmed the track was open. Their work involved spraying the sand with water to turn it into a thick cloying clay. This was to get all over the car as we drove through and getting it out of the wheel arches would prove particularly challenging. Due to the extreme roughness of the road I
would have to take the drive very slowly.
The road wound down the hill and then took us on a loop through four large mesas. Even in the harsh glaring midday sun the rock structures looked stunning. The first we saw were the East and West Mittens. These formations, standing close to each other could have been reflections - each had a single spire (the thumb) situated next to a larger butte - making it look like two mittened hands had pushed up through the earth.
Following this was Elephant Butte, where a little imagination enabled you to just make out the trunk hanging down from the top with a large flappy ear next to it. Opposite the elephant were the Three Sisters - an imposing trio of spires silhouetted against the sun.
Beyond this family gathering we took a detour to John Ford's Point. This area, named for the director of classic Wild West movies, offered an expansive view across the desert plains to several buttes. From this vantage point the landscape looked surreal. Behind us were the tell-tale signs of a market - stalls composed of roughly lashed poles and corrugated iron roofs. All were
empty as we were here in the off season. Outside one of these a single horse was tied. Next to it was a sign advertising the John Wayne Experience - basically paying to have your picture taken sitting on the horse. We decided that we weren't interested but that as the sign said nothing at all about a fee for photographing just the horse, we'd take advantage and add some interest to our photographs.
Rejoining the road, we rounded the Elephant Butte and found its rear was shaped like a dromedary gracefully walking in the desert. Recognising Camel Butte required much less imagination and eye-screwing than its pachyderm neighbour.
A short distance later we came to a wide open space between two mesas. In the distance was a nub of rock standing proud and lonely. This, called the Hub, was possibly the least impressive of the features of the valley, and hardly worthy of a name. A little further though and we came to a feature called the Totem Poles. This collection of spires reaching up into the sky was much more impressive. We would get views of these columns from several different perspectives as we drove on.
The next key feature was Artist's Point. Here the views across the desert to the back of many of the famous buttes was impressively beautiful. I can understand why artists would brave the heat and aridity to capture this outstanding scene.
Beyond Artist's point the scenery became even more gorgeous until we got to the final viewing point, the North Window. Here all of the elements came together to give the most picturesque landscapes of the day. The sun had dropped significantly in the two hours we'd been driving the loop and the light on the rocks was much more attractive than it had been. Sadly, by this point though, we felt somewhat saturated with great views of red desert rocks and blue skies with marshmallow clouds. We were desperate for coffee!
We headed away from the incredible scenery and back to the visitor's centre. As we drank coffee our appreciation of the panoramic view from the café grew. The light was turning orange, portending a lovely sunset. We had a long drive back so we couldn't hang around to see the light fade.
All the way back to Page we had a spectacular light show,
magnificently illuminating the phenomenally beautiful Arizona landscape. At one point in particular we saw intensely lit red and orange clouds hovering over snow-capped mountains. I have never seen a more impressive sunset. As I saw a car park in the distance it was almost instinct that made me pull over. A few seconds later we were joined by four more cars. Everyone was gasping at the awesome scene unfolding in front of us. For the second time that day the cold didn't matter at all - I was standing there in a t-shirt and only when I got back on the car did I have time to notice just how cold it had become whilst I was distracted by the magnificence of creation.
We pulled ourself away after about twenty minutes. As we drove back the light on the western horizon seemed to just hang in the air, far beyond the setting of the sun. The desert glowed like vast fields of wheat in golden light. The sky was intense shades of yellow and orange. I could hardly take my eyes off the horizon.
By the time we got back to Page, exhausted after a long but incredible
day, it had finally gone dark. We made ourselves noodles and soup (our standard travel meal) and collapsed into bed reflecting on the incredibly beauty of Arizona and the wonders of nature that we'd seen from before the sun had risen until after it set. this was another place to which we would have to return one day.
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