Braving The Bitter Cold To Photograph Monument Valley At Sunrise

Waking up before dawn isn’t usually high on my list of holiday priorities, especially on a dark, frigid winter day. But on a recent trip to Utah’s Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the iconic place that more or less defines how we imagine the American West, I was up and out of my hotel by 6:30 a.m. in order to photograph the valley’s stunning sandstone buttes and mesas in the early morning light.
In the dawn’s early light, the massive rock formations looked almost like a city skyline off in the distance. It was bitterly cold – 12 degrees according to my rental car’s temperature gauge but a fierce wind made it feel like it was well below zero (listen to the wind in the video below!). The front desk agent at Goulding’s Lodge mentioned that the sunrise would be around 7:30, but as I drove toward the Monument Valley visitor’s center it looked like the sun might rise earlier, so in a panic, I put the pedal to the metal and flew through the desolate streets.

When I pulled into the mostly empty parking lot and saw a handful of frigid looking, camera-clutching tourists standing around in the darkness, my Indy-500 like burst of speed seemed more than a trifle unnecessary. At 6:40, there was enough light to get a few shots of the Sentinel mesa and the two buttes that every tourist loves to photograph – the Mittens, east and west.

There was a cluster of about a dozen Japanese tourists, but within five minutes of my arrival, the Japanese womenfolk all retreated to their cars at a trot due to the unseasonably frigid weather. (January can be cold in Monument Valley, but it was colder than usual.) But the men were either too macho or too intent on getting the perfect shot, so they stayed, despite the fact that most of them weren’t dressed for winter.

I was bundled up with several layers, a warm hat, a scarf and a heavy ski jacket, but I’d made the mistake of bringing a light pair of gloves and my fingers were numb within 15 minutes.

“Are you cold?” asked a Russian tourist, who later introduced himself as Andrey.

“Freezing,” I admitted, hopping up and down to maintain warmth as we waited for the sun to rise.

“We’re from Moscow, so we don’t think it’s that cold,” he said, as his girlfriend, Elena, who looked like she was about to sprout icicles off of her nose, rolled her eyes.

“It eees cold!” Elena said, correcting him.

Andrey put a further damper on my mood by mentioning that we were unlikely to get great photos due to the forecast, which called for overcast skies.

“So what are we doing here?” Elena asked.

I gravitated toward the Japanese group and struck up a conversation with a twenty-something man named Yamato, who was wearing just a hoodie, with no hat or gloves and flip flops with no socks! (see photo)

“I’ve been living in L.A. for 10 years,” he explained. “I wear flip flops every day. I didn’t know it would be so cold here.”

All too slowly the sky broke out into a mélange of pink, baby blue and orange and we snapped away for a good hour, pacing and hopping up and down all the while to keep the blood flowing. I lost all feeling in my fingers and toes and couldn’t imagine how cold the barefoot and bare fingered Yamato was. But he never complained; he just kept shooting.

I don’t think any of us got the iconic, magazine cover image we were hoping for. In order to get the perfect shot, you need a bit of luck, not to mention knowledge and the right equipment, but it was still an unforgettable experience. Anyone who has seen the sun rise over Monument Valley will understand why we call it America the Beautiful. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Yamato and his samurai mentality. He was going to capture the moment even if it killed him.

“I might never be back here,” he explained. “I have to get the shot.”

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]