Monument Valley, Utah: Hollywood’s Wild West

monument valley vistaThe road unfolds downhill, straight as an arrow, and appears to dead end at an otherworldly collection of sandstone buttes and mesas. We’ve all been here before, even if we’ve never stepped foot in the state of Utah. If you find yourself driving south on Utah Route 163, you will feel a strong sense of déjà vu about 12 miles north of Monument Valley. If the vista seems familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before in dozens of movies, commercials and music videos. When a producer is looking for a symbol of the American West this is where they come.
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The story of how Hollywood discovered Monument Valley starts with Harry Goulding, an audacious entrepreneur with a fifth-grade education who established a trading post in the area with his wife in 1924. During the Great Depression, Goulding and his wife, “Mike” loaded up their Model A Ford and drove to Hollywood with a suitcase full of photos of Monument Valley. Goulding turned up unannounced at the office of John Ford, a legendary Hollywood producer and was reportedly asked to leave.


monument valley utahGoulding supposedly went out to his car, grabbed his bedroll, and laid it out in the waiting room of Ford’s office, announcing that he wasn’t going home until he was allowed to see Mr. Ford. The secretary called security, but the person who came to escort him out happened to be one of Ford’s site coordinators, and he was enthralled by the photos of Monument Valley that Goulding had spread out on a table.

Within weeks, Ford’s team was in the area filming “Stagecoach,” and he went on to shoot six more films in the area. John Wayne and other Hollywood luminaries were in the area so often that Goulding’s Lodge became their home away from home. Wayne, Ford and Goulding gave English language names to many of the area’s buttes and mesas, and hundreds of westerns have been shot in the area over the decades, not to mention scenes from a host of other movies including “Thelma and Louise,” “Easy Rider,” “Back to the Future III,” “Windtalkers,” and “Mission Impossible II” to name just a few. It was also the place where Forrest Gump got tired of running, and last year Johnny Depp was in town to film scenes from “The Lone Ranger,” which comes out in July.
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Even if you haven’t seen any of these movies, you’ve surely seen Monument Valley in a Road Runner cartoon, in a commercial or a music video. But even though the place seems immediately familiar, I wasn’t prepared for how awe-inspiring the scenery is. Everywhere you look, there are towering buttes and mesas, with every shade of red imaginable, and the panoramas are completely untarnished by tacky development. There is no Starbucks, McDonald’s or any other chain within many miles of this magical place.


The area gets just a fraction of the tourist trade that the Grand Canyon gets and, at least in the winter and summer, most of the travelers are from overseas. I was glad to have the place practically to myself in early January but I couldn’t help but think that Monument Valley deservers a lot more visitors.

goulding's lodge museum john wayneIf you want to get a taste of Monument Valley’s Hollywood connection, consider staying at Goulding’s Lodge, which has comfortable rooms with great views, not to mention John Wayne movies every night. Either way, definitely check out their free Trading Post museum, which is filled with interesting movie memorabilia and trading post artifacts. I also highly recommend their guided backcountry tour, which gives travelers an opportunity to see areas of the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park that are off limits to non-Navajos and offers insights into Navajo culture and traditions.

According to Rosie Phatt, my Navajo tour guide, locals never get tired of Monument Valley’s breathtaking vistas, but they have gotten used to all the celebrities who descend upon the area.

“Johnny Depp was here in April when they were filming scenes for The Lone Ranger,” she said nonchalantly. “He stayed in his own RV and nobody bothered him.”



[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Quirky Hospitality In Ouray, Colorado

john wayne's hat There are many interesting cities to visit during a trip through Colorado. While Denver has excellent artisanal shops, you can find the world’s highest distillery in Breckenridge. If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, the little known town of Ouray offers various ways to receive quirky hospitality.

Quirky Restaurant: The Outlaw

Located at 610 Main Street, The Outlaw is the oldest operating restaurant in Ouray, open since early 1969 with the same sign still hanging. It has a very “Old West” feel, with a pianist playing upbeat tunes in the corner, walls of cowboy hats and a dimly lit room littered with wooden tables. While the steaks are delicious and the cocktails strong, the biggest draw to this place is the fact you can wear one of John Wayne’s hats. It’s the one located behind the bar, above the beers. During the shooting for a film, Wayne was staying in Ouray. One day, he called up The Outlaw to order some food for pickup. The owner’s wife answered, and when he said it was John Wayne calling, she responded by saying “yea right” and hung up the phone. Wayne became so enamored with her crassness; he ended up eating there everyday during the entire movie shoot.cookieQuirky Dessert Shop: Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee

Not only does Mouse’s Chocolates & Coffee have unusual chocolate flavors like bacon clusters with Chardonnay salt and coconut bark with pumpkin and sunflower, it’s also home of the locally-loved Scrap Cookie. After making their chocolates for the day, the staff takes the scraps and add them to their family recipe cookie batter. When customers order a Scrap Cookie, they won’t know what they’re getting until they take a bite. One thing is for sure, though, it’ll be delicious. Local tip: Buy two Scrap Cookies and have them make an ice-cream sandwich for you. While they’ll often say they don’t do it, tell them a local told you about it, and they most likely will.

ouray Quirky Brewery: Ourayle House

Also known as the “Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company,” the Ourayle House is a bizarre experience. It resides in the garage of the cranky owner, Hutch, who takes pride in making snarky comments to customers. The place looks like it’s made of scrap wood – mainly because most of it is – and old and broken sports equipment and dirty board games litter the space. If you leave your business card you can expect a rude comment to be written on the back, and if you’re a beer snob you can expect any diva-esque quotes to be written on the board behind the bar. For example, when I was there, one customer made the mistake of saying, “I only drink IPAs and Coors Light.” Of course, this was quickly noted for all to see. Hutch even has a countdown for how many “days without a beer Madonna” have passed. It’s also fun to read the unfriendly and weird signs that adorn the walls, reading things like “Welcome to Mr. Grumpy Pants Brewing Company Cheers! ‘Welcome’ being a relative term,” and “It has always been out policy to accept game meat for beer, from good hunters and careless drivers.” Hutch makes all his beer on site, and rotates his drafts to keep things interesting. You can even order based on a brew’s “sq,” meaning “slamability quotient.”

christmas b&bQuirky Accommodation: The Christmas House Bed & Breakfast Inn

While most B&Bs have a certain unusual charm to them, Ouray’s The Christmas House Bed & Breakfast Inn is another animal. The old Victorian home has been around since 1889, although it officially became a bed and breakfast in 1998. For those who have read “The Painted Ladies,” the property was featured in the book. It’s a very quirky accommodation, as it’s Christmas all year long here. Along with the outside and common rooms being decorated with festive decor, each guest room features a Christmas tree with seasonal accents. Along with yuletide cheer, rooms also have saunas, Jacuzzis and cable television.