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Monument Valley’s instantly recognisable buttes, mesa and wide-open vistas have become the quintessential landscape of classic Western movies

When filmmaker John Ford arrived in what is now Monument Valley with a very young John Wayne to make the Western Classic little did he know that this dramatic landscape would become the backdrop to several of his movies and would also be adopted by other filmmakers.  Films that have been made in the Valley include “Stagecoach” with a very young John Wayne. After this Ford, and other filmmakers, made numerous Western films in and around the valley including such classics as “Fort Apache”, “The Searchers” and more recently “Back to the Future”. For me, having being bought up on a diet of John Wayne movies, this was somewhat of a pilgrimage.

It was extremely apt that we were staying on the Goulding’s RV park. Harry Goulding had moved to Monument with his new wife Leone, he called her “Mike” because, when he wrote her love letters before they were married, he had difficulty spelling her name. They set-up a trading post and began their long relationship with the local Navajo. Then the Great Depression hit and forced a lot of Goulding’s suppliers out of business. He heard that film director John Ford was looking for a location for a new Western movie and was looking at Flagstaff. With his last $60 Goulding set off to Hollywood with “Mike” to regale John Ford about the suitability of Monument Valley for his new film. Miraculously, by taking out his sleeping bag and threatening to sleep outside the Director’s door until he was let in, he got a meeting with Ford. 10 days later they were on set in Monument Valley making the film “Stagecoach”. The rest is history!

Monument Valley is located on the Utah / Arizona State borders and is set in the Navajo land. Whilst there is a loop road that goes around the valley, it is a dirt track and we decided not to risk our old lady of a Jeep on it. Instead, we booked ourselves on a 3 ½ hour escorted tour. Our chariot was an open-backed 4 wheel drive truck; we were sitting in the back of the truck bed on some very uncomfortable seats. As we were boarding the skies looked very threatening and there were even a couple of claps of thunder. Undeterred we head for our first stop, a Hogan, along with our fellow travellers; two grandparents and their grandchild from the Netherlands, a German couple and two couples from the US. The Hogan is the traditional dwelling of the Navajo Indians. They are round buildings with a wooden frame structure and covered in mud. This works in the dry deserts of Arizona but would not be suitable for damper climates like the Northwest of the USA or the UK. Waiting inside the Hogan was a Navajo lady who was demonstrating weaving and other crafts, which we watched for several minutes. She demonstrates the traditional method of tying the Navajo ladies long hair in a bun on a young lady from New York with greasy hair!

A Navajo hogan
Hair braiding
Traditional preparation of flour

It was then time for the main event, a tour of Monument Valley. It’s one of those all so familiar places, with its’ buttes, mesas and open plains. We soon left the paved highway and headed onto the loop around the valley, stopping frequently for photo opportunities. Luckily, the weather had brightened up and the sun poked out its head; the combination of sun and dark clouds set up some dramatic scenes for the camera. One of our favourite places was called John Ford Lookout, which is up high on the rocks with a classic view down into the valley. A local Navajo kindly rode his horse onto an outcrop which gave us yet another photo opportunity.

The famous buttes known as the 'Mittens'
The dark clouds added extra drama to this shot across Monument Valley
The Mittens - Navajo Nation Tribal Park
A large butte in Monument Valley
A cowboy poses for a classic Western shot at John Ford Lookout
Around Monument Valley there are several holes in the sandstone carved by the elements
Guided tours are the only way to see the back country of Monument Valley
Petroglyphs
Rock structures in Monument Valley Navajo
There are a number of Navajo working ranches scattered around Monumnent Valley

As with all good things our tour came to an end and we returned to the Goulding’s campsite. Several evenings during the week they show John Wayne movies – and that night it was the classic film “The Searchers”, where Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) spend years hunting down the Comanche Chief Cicatrice (Scar) who killed their family and abducted Edwards’ niece. As with many such westerns, the plot was questionable and the several scenes were politically incorrect, but it was a good old story and it was wonderful to see many of the areas of Monument Valley we had visited earlier today.

Visiting Monument Valley Tribal Park

Monument Valley is located essentially in the middle of nowhere on the Arizona/Utah border. The nearest airport is in Flagstaff which is 176 miles away and is not a major airport so the number of direct flights is limited.

Airports:

  • Phoenix 320 miles
  • Albuquerque 324 miles
  • Las Vegas 400 miles

Once you get to the Valley getting around is on dirt tracks which are pretty well worn. If you don’t fancy taking your own car or are worried about the rental car then you can always take a tour.

Location:Indn Route 42, Oljato-Monument Valley, AZ
Website:https://navajonationparks.org/tribal-parks/monument-valley/
Hours:8 am to 3 pm
Admission:

Park Vehicle Entry: $20 per non-commercial vehicle up to 4 people ($10 each additional passenger)

Other places to visit close by

1. THE GRAND CANYON (136 MILES)

Located in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles (446 km) of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands. The park is home to much of the immense Grand Canyon; a mile (1.6 km) deep, and up to 18 miles (29 km) wide. Layered bands of colourful rock reveal millions of years of geologic history. Grand Canyon is unmatched in the vistas it offers visitors from the rim.Located in Arizona, Grand Canyon National Park encompasses 277 miles (446 km) of the Colorado River and adjacent uplands. The park is home to much of the immense Grand Canyon; a mile (1.6 km) deep, and up to 18 miles (29 km) wide. Layered bands of colorful rock reveal millions of years of geologic history. Grand Canyon is unmatched in the vistas it offers visitors from the rim.

2. ANTELOPE CANYON (120 MILES)

Also known as “corkscrew” canyon, Antelope is a slot canyon in Arizona, close to Lake Powell and the city of Page.

The canyon was formed by the erosion of Navajo Sandstone, primarily due to flash flooding and secondarily due to other sub-aerial processes. Rainwater, especially during monsoon season, runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges in such a way as to form characteristic “flowing” shapes in the rock.

3. LAKE POWELL (10 MILES)

Lake Powell is located in northern Arizona and stretches up into southern Utah. It’s part of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. With nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline, endless sunshine, warm water, perfect weather, and some of the most spectacular scenery in the west, Lake Powell is the ultimate playground. Rent a houseboat, stay at a campground, or enjoy our lodging and hop aboard a guided expedition.

Best time to visit Monument Valley

Certainly, in terms of climate, the temperatures in spring and autumn are mild and pleasant, but Monument Valley is one of those places that has the advantage that it can be visited during the entire year, requiring visitors to take only a few small precautions on the hottest and coldest days.

Where to stay near Monument Valley

1. GOULDING LODGE

Goulding’s Lodge offers accommodations in Monument Valley. With a restaurant, the 3-star resort has air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, each with a private bathroom. The resort has an indoor pool and a 24-hour front desk.

There is a sun terrace. Guests at Goulding’s Lodge will be able to enjoy activities in and around Monument Valley, like hiking.

Kayenta is 25 mi from the resort.

2. GOULDING’S RV & CAMPGROUND

Nestled near the lodge in the tranquil Rock Door Canyon, Goulding’s RV & Campgrounds offers each guest a panoramic view through the canyon door, out to surrounding Monument Valley. Select an RV site for full hook-ups, including water, 50-amp power, and cable TV. Or keep it simple with a tent site. Both sites include access to bathrooms, picnic tables, grills, and Wi-Fi internet. Cabins are also available, complete with private bathrooms and porches.

All RV and Campground guests also have access to all Goulding’s property amenities, including the Stagecoach Restaurant, museum, gift shop, Earth Spirit Theater, indoor pool, convenience store, and laundromat. Shuttle service is available between the campground and the main lodge complex. Guests can sign up for a Monument Valley tour at the RV Park & Campgrounds Office. Pets are welcome and subject to additional fees, please see the office for details.

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