I promise that your first glimpse of Monument Valley, which is situated on the border of Arizona and Utah will take your breath away. You could see why it became the setting for so many movie films. You could take hundreds of photographs of the area (and I probably did) but never capture what you see and feel when you arrive. It is such a magical place that is so hard to describe but hopefully you will get an idea by some of the photos in this blog. It is one of the world’s most recognised landscapes with beautiful red sandstone mesas, buttes and spire rock structures and outlined against a bright vivid blue sky just gorgeous.
We were camping at Gouldings Campground
nestled at the foot of towering sandstone cliffs. It was quite expensive for a campsite at about $45 per night, but there are only a couple of places to stay near to the Monuments. We even tried to get a night in ‘The View Hotel’ which gets booked out months and sometimes years in advance but it had no rooms and was really expensive. Bob & Elaine I know that you managed to
get a room for September and you will really enjoy your balcony views directly over the monuments.
Gouldings had a heap of history attached to it and was also a Lodge, Trading Post, Museum and small cinema, as well as our campground. We were a little squashed even with our small van on our allocated site and some of the larger vans had difficulty getting into their spaces! They did have showers though and an indoor pool but the ‘free’ internet was poor - which it has been in many of our campgrounds………. You were given a key card for the loos and the men’s did not work which became a bit of a problem for Paul……Apart from that we were really close to the monuments (about 5 miles) and indeed we also had a distant view of them from our site.
There is only one poorly maintained gravel road that takes you around the monuments but this was not really possible with our rental van which had low clearance, so we decided to take a scenic tour. Our tour guide was a local Navajo lady
called Lucy and she
really was a delightful person. She picked us up at the campground in an open top jeep and we set off early in the morning.
Our first stop was to visit a Navajo dwellings which is called a Hogan
. There are two types of structures, a male and female but that does not mean that they live apart. The male hogan is a conical structure where ceremonies are held and war plans are made, and is generally considered a very aggressive place. The female one on the other hand is an eight-sided structure where the family stays. The skeleton is made from thin logs and usually covered with earth to keep the occupants warm in winter and cooler in summer. The centre of the roof is open and this opening, together with the door, which always faces East, is the only source of light inside. The hogan is a sacred dwelling, it is the shelter of the people of the earth, a protection, a home and a refuge.
Hogans are not just a relic from the Navajo's past, they are still used today and we saw many as we travelled
around the area. Most Navajo homesteads have a modern house, usually with a mobile home or trailer nearby but also with a hogan which usually is the home of the parents - while young people now prefer modern dwellings…..… Inside the hogan, which was surprisingly large a local lady demonstrated weaving on a small loom whilst sitting on the floor, she said that they did not use patterns for their cloth but memorised certain designs and followed traditional methods and styles. As well as visiting this hogan, which overlooked Monument Valley we had also had seen a fine example outside the visitor centre in the Canyon de Chelly which looked very warm and cosy (the photo was in our last blog).
Just a few miles down the road we entered the Tribal Park,
there is a $20 entry fee per car (National park passes are not accepted) as it is run by the Navajo Nation and not the US Government so they get no assistance with the maintenance or management of the park. As we were on a tour this entrance fee was included and we could also return the next day in our own
car to the carpark overlooking the valley for another visit.
We soon descended on the gravel road into Monument Valley
with beautiful rock formations stretching across a large basin which could be viewed by driving around a very rugged terrain on a scenic loop that is obviously for 4 wheel drive vehicles only this didn’t stop 2 wheel drive cars giving it a go and even some large tourist rentals even though the sign said no large vehicles!! There were lots of ruts and large rocks to drive over and we saw a few private vehicles really stuck - so glad we took the tour with an experience driver/guide………. Also Lucy took us onto private Navajo lands (not on the loop) which are not open to those in their own cars so we were able to see so much more………
The tour lasted for a couple of hours and we were able to see most of the monuments in the park. They all have descriptive names which are based on one’s imagination and were created by early settlers. Others names portray a certain meaning to the Navajo people.
The East and West Mitten
Buttes look like hands, yet to the Navajo it signifies spiritual beings watching over. Merrick Butte
and Mitchell Mesa
are named after two prospectors who discovered silver inside the park. Elephant Butte
as you can imagine is one gigantic elephant. The Three Sisters
is a formation of a Catholic nun facing her two pupils. Camel Butte
well this looks just like a camel a little far from home! The Hub
looks like a hub of a wagon wheel. Lucy said that Navajos see it as a fireplace in the centre of a gigantic Hogan. The large rock formation known as the Rain God Mesa
marks the geological centre of the park. This is where Navajo medicine men pray and give thanks to the Rain God, who stored water for the people. The Totem Pole
stands out on its own and one day will probably topple over as the weather takes over and erodes the sandstone although the valley has been eroding for the last 50 million years so it may take a while yet! There is even a Cube in the valley ... ... ...
We stopped and walked around
several rocks and caves and saw a few petroglyphs
(many more are hidden throughout the valley). These images carved into the rock are a form of pre writing, symbols seen in many places around the world - the word comes from the Greek petros (stone) and glyphein (to carve). In Monument Valleythese were carved by ancient people into the desert varnish that covers the surface of many rocks exposed to the sun. We saw one that looked just like a Bighorn Sheep
or maybe a chicken…… Lucy offered her own interpretations of the drawings we saw but everyone had their own view on what it looked like.
As mentioned above you could see why the valley was the location for many movies. The movie director John Ford introduced Monument Valley and John Wayne to the world
in 1929 with his classic,
Stagecoach. This was the first of ten films Ford made here. A few of the movies and advertisements filmed in whole or in part here include; She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Eiger Sanction, Future III, National Lampoon's Vacation, Forrest Gump,
TV's Airwolf, and the Marlboro Man commercials - you may have seen a few of these.
As we travelled around the scenic loop we came to one popular viewing point which is named in honour of John Ford, this is the overlook from which he ‘shot’ the attack on a Native American village in ‘The Searchers’ and you could even pose here on a horse at a cost of only $2 - I did give it a miss as I am sure the horse would have thrown me over the edge…………
On our way out of the valley Lucy sang us a lovely genuine Navajo song which was quite haunting.
The next day we returned with our ‘free pass’
to see the valley again from the View Hotel
and visited the museum and shop. We noticed that they were building some cabins overlooking the monuments with a small campground located right above the monuments. We checked out the campground and were told that we could stay overnight but it was a ‘work in progress’ and was not fully open yet so there was no facilities
at all apart from some portaloos. We decided we would like to see the sun set and rise over the monuments and would return next day and spend a night there even though it was the same cost as Goulding without any facilities. The Wildcat Trail
is the only hiking trail inside the Tribal Park that visitors can hike unescorted by authorised Navajo guides so we decided that we would tackle this. You descend into the Valley and walk entirely around the Left Mitten! This 4 mile hike was one of the most beautiful trails that we have ever followed. The trailhead began at the primitive campground where we would stay for our last night. As we descended nearly 900 feet to the bottom of the valley floor, we were in awe of the immense size of these sacred monoliths, carefully sculpted by the winds of time.
We followed the trail in a clockwise path around the Mitten – this is the direction that the Navajo take, the same as the traditional movement inside a Hogan. We saw immense sand dunes and vegetation that has a beauty of its own
and followed several dried up stream beds. Reaching the back side of the mitten butte, you feel as if you are now looking at a completely new monolith.
The trail is silent and peaceful although we did see one other couple. I would give it a moderate grade because the end is a multiple of uphills - you keep thinking you're almost there … …… then there's another hill just over the next one - and a lot of it is loose sand, like on a deep bedded beach. This made the last leg a little slow going and difficult but we finally made it and breathed a huge sigh of relieve but were so delighted that we had completed this wonderful trail. It was as close as one will get to any of the monuments and the only way that we could get to see them from different angles so it was so worth it.
Back in Gouldings we walked down the hill to the main lodge and visited Goulding's Museum & Trading Post
. This old trading post was the home of the Gouldings for many years and is
set up as they had it back in the 1920s and 1930s. There were also displays about the many movies that have been shot here as well as history of the Gouldings themselves which I have detailed for those interested below: Henry Goulding and his wife Leone
(known as Mike) came to Monument Valley in the early 1920’s. Henry was a sheep trader looking for a new business opportunity and a place to call home. Once part of the Paiute Indian Reservation an area in Monument Valley became vacant and the Goulding purchased this and set up a Trading Post. Conducting business with the local Navajo who traded items in a similar way as what I mentioned in our previous blog with the Hubbell Trading Post with the Navajo selling their rugs and jewellery in exchange for food etc. After a couple of years working out of canvas tents they built a permanent building which currently houses the museum.
When the depression hit the Gouldings and the Navajo in the 1930s, Henry had heard of a movie production company scouting for locations to film in the Southwest. So with his
wife Mike they set off on a journey to Hollywood with their last $60. By luck and perseverance they met John Ford
and when he saw the photos Harry had taken of the valley he was ‘hooked’ and decided it was the perfect location for his next movie. The Gouldings received an advance payment and within a few days filming began of Stagecoach with John Wayne.
Over the next years more films were made and the Lodge grew with more tourist visiting the area. The couple sold the property in 1962 and moved to Arizona and Harry died in 1982. His wife Mike returned to the valley after his death and she died there in 1992. Thanks to their pioneering spirit Monument Valley has became an icon the the West.
At the small theatre next to the Goulding Lodge we watched ‘Earth Spirit’
a short visual journey through the creation of Monument Valley with some wonderful inspirational music and amazing photography. Following this we watched a documentary, ’Among the Monuments’
, a journey through the valley providing insight into the geography, history and culture which again was really well present.
then settled down to watch the main highlight, John Wayne starring in the Searchers
- it was quite surreal watching this old film in the location where it was filmed all those years ago. Although we had both seen the movie many years ago we became absorbed in it again. After the film we were able to get a shuttle lift back to the campground which was great as I did not fancy walking back up the steep hill…
The next day we enjoyed a couple of hikes
around our campground, one into a steep canyon looking for a hidden arch which we could not find until we located a school boy who showed us the way … … Later that day the weather changed and blew in a sandstorm and we had to take shelter in the van but we still ended up covered in sand and the car turned quite red……….
The next day we moved up to the ‘campground in progress’
next to the View Hotel and enjoyed a wonderful sunset and sunrise over the monuments. We chatted for ages to Antonia, a school teacher from New
York who was camping on her own and worried that her tent was going to blow down but the weather improved and her tent was still there in the morning when we checked on her. The only other people in the campground were a Belgium couple and a Canadian lad - we had all this area to ourselves and a private stunning view of the moments - we were so lucky. Paul even managed to get into one of new loos which were all locked apart from this one - even though it was still not quite finished the water flushed which was so much better than the portaloo……
Waking up to the shadows of the monuments
was indeed awesome and will stay with us for a very long time - well worth the expensive camping fee..…
It was going to be really hard to leave this location but we need to move on to Mesa Verde National Park -
see you there.
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