Even before I visited Monument Valley, I knew of its iconic vistas and buttes from many of the old westerns like Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Cheyenne Autumn. Its use as a location, however, is not limited to westerns; the area was also featured in such productions as Easy Rider and two recent episodes of Dr. Who.
Of course, seeing the place in a movie is nothing like being there. As filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich explains, “It’s breathtaking. You can’t believe it. It’s very photogenic; it has a kind of mythic feeling of age, of legend. . . You’ve seen it in the movies, but when you see it in life, it’s so epic in its proportions that it almost stands for the whole of the West.”
I felt the various contrasts inherent in Monument Valley when I first visited years ago: grandeur and simplicity, immediacy and timelessness, and vibrant beauty and engaging solitude cannot be overlooked. Even though there are many visitors and tour groups sharing the road, I was patient. The crowds eventually moved on and I discovered a few treasured moments of solitude.
The geology of the area helps add to its grandeur. Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau, which covers 130,000 square miles. More than 50 million years ago the area was a lowland basin that over lots and lots of time and extensive layers of sedimentation, ceaseless pressures from below the surface and eventual geological uplifts was transformed into a plateau. Then wind and water took over the task of creating the dramatic vistas and formations evident today.
The current elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. The floor is basically siltstone from the Cutler Group. Iron oxide gives the area its red color. The blue gray rocks get their color from manganese oxide. The buttes are clearly stratified in several distinct layers: Organ Rock Shale, de Chelly Sandstone, and Shinarump Conglomerate. These buttes rise high above the valley floor with many reaching 400 to 1,000 feet in elevation.
In 1884 President Chester Arthur added the region that comprises Monument Valley to the Navajo Nation. The park itself rests mainly in Arizona but spreads into Utah and New Mexico as well. It covers close to 92,000 acres, equal to about 45 square miles. The tribal name for Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is Tse Bii Ndzisgaii, meaning Valley of the Rocks. Tourists can view many of the iconic buttes and mesas by driving the 17-mile scenic loop. Navajo-led tours give access to other areas of the park as well.
On my most recent visit (April 2015), I traveled to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, heading north on Highway 163 through Kayenta, Arizona. The landscape is vast and open, and eventually rock formations start rising along the route, suggesting what is to come.
The first full panoramic view of Monument Valley in the distance is remarkable.
It was a hazy day. When strong winds picked up, I was glad I opted to drive the 17-mile scenic loop myself rather than being part of an official tour. The tour groups were in open-air shuttles. I at least could roll up my windows! Fortunately, the little dust storms were short-lived and only happened a couple times throughout the day.
It is expected that the scenic drive will take at least 2 to 3 hours to complete. I managed to stay out all day, relishing the beauty and the solitude. The drive alternates between showcasing panoramic vistas and then closer views of the many park formations. There are overlooks and parking areas, allowing visitors to take short hikes throughout the day.
Being there in the spring, I was able to see some wildflowers along with the ever present juniper trees. I was even fascinated by dirt, rocks and clouds. The only animals I saw were a couple horses and a wandering dog. My bet is they belong to the several Navajo families that live within the park.
The Scenic Loop starts near the East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte. These three formations are probably some of the most familiar within Monument Valley.
Totem Pole & Yei Bichei
Thunderbird & Rain God Mesas
Artist’s Point Overlook
As the day ended, it was hard to head back to my hotel. Next time, I hope to stay at the Inn right on the property, so it would be easier to be around for sunset and sunrise photos. Then again, I do not really need an excuse to visit Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park again. If you have not visited this majestic place yet, add it to your list.
Where do you visit over and over again, seeing something new each time?