Monument Valley, Utah: Hollywood’s Wild West

The 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.
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.

Goulding 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.
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.

If 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]

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]

An Unforgettable Backcountry Tour Of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

I’d seen this quintessentially Western landscape many times before in Marlboro ads, Geico commercials, Roadrunner cartoons, and in dozens of movies. But until I started to plan a trip to the Four Corners region, I had no idea that the famous, starkly beautiful dreamscape of red sandstone buttes and mesas is called the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
The 30,000-acre park sits on the Utah/Arizona border inside the Navajo Reservation, which is about the size of West Virginia and is home to about 300,000 Navajos, many of whom retain their distinctive language, which was used to confuse the hell out of the Japanese during WW2 and customs.

I almost never sign up for a guided tour unless I’m compelled to, but in this case, I decided to sign up for a backcountry tour offered by Goulding’s Lodge, a historic inn that was once John Wayne’s home away from home. I booked the tour because the Navajos only allow visitors to see a 17-mile loop of Monument Valley and because even that road requires a very sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle.

“Welcome to the Navajo Nation,” said my guide, by way of introduction, as I piled into a van and was pleased to find out that I was the only visitor who turned up for the tour.

Rosie Phatt is a Navajo Indian school bus driver and mother of six who has been giving tours through Gouldings for 13 years. We set off from the visitor’s center down a rocky dirt track and I was immediately in awe of the wild, untrammeled landscape, which is impressive under any circumstances, but even more so if you live in the flat Midwest, as I do.

“The name Monument Valley means Light in the Valley,” Rosie said. “These red sandstone buttes and mesas have been here for 250 million years.”

As we creaked our way through the Valley’s backcountry, winding our way betwixt and between the towering buttes and mesas, some as high as 1,200 feet, Rosie explained that there were 13 mesas, which are flat-topped rock structures, and 11 buttes, which are essentially the remains of what were once mesas. They all have Navajo names and English language names like The Three Sisters, Right and Left Mitten, and the Landing Strip. The English language nicknames were created by John Wayne, the legendary Hollywood producer John Ford and Harry Goulding, the founder of Goulding’s Lodge who lured Ford to the area to shoot movies in the ’30s.

As we bumped along the rocky tracks all over the Navajo backcountry, we listened to KTNN, the voice of the Navajo Nation on the radio, which was playing a haunting Native American ceremonial dance that made a perfect soundtrack for our journey. Rosie said that sometimes tour vans and jeeps get stuck in the snow or mud.

“But no one ever complains,” she said. “They think it’s all part of the experience of being in the Navajo backcountry.”

I got out to take a walk at John Ford’s Point and felt almost weak kneed and giddy as I looked around at these gargantuan, timeless rock formations and the sea of earthy, deep red southwestern splendor in every direction. Why had it taken me four decades to visit this truly majestic, almost supernatural place? And why were there only a smattering of tourists, nearly all of them foreign in this glorious place?

As I popped in and out of the van, Rosie gave me some background and Navajo history, culture and traditions. The Navajo Nation has its own courts but for serious crimes like rape and murder, U.S. courts also get involved. Navajos run the gamut from completely traditional people who speak mostly Navajo, use medicine men and have traditional Navajo weddings complete with dowries and blue corn mush baskets to Americanized Navajos who worship in the white man’s churches and can’t properly speak the language, despite the fact that it’s taught in their schools.

The Navajo Reservation is completely dry, and people who live in this end of it near Monument Valley, have to drive 22 miles to Mexican Hat, Utah, just to get alcohol and all too many of them don’t mind doing just that, as alcoholism is a huge problem. (After the tour I picked up a copy of the Navajo newspaper and noticed that there were far too many obituaries for young and middle-aged people.)

At one point while I was out taking a walk while Rosie sat in the van staying warm, two snarling dogs came charging after me as I got a little too close to some sheep.

“They belong to that family over there,” Rosie said as I jumped back into the van, pointing to a modest trailer parked smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

“People live out here?” I asked, astonished that anyone could survive in such a desolate location.

Indeed, there are about 10-12 families that live in the backcountry of Monument Valley with no electricity, running water or central heat and they have to drive to Gouldings to fill water tanks several times each week.

Rosie was great company and the buttes, mesas and ancient petroglyphs we saw were unforgettable. As we retreated back to the visitor’s center for some sunset photo opps, I was touched by the fact that Rosie pulled out her mobile phone and started taking photos.

“For us Navajos, it’s all about nature,” she said. “I never get tired of the scenery here.”

As we drove back to Gouldings, Rosie called my attention to a huge butte off in the distance.

“We live over there,” she said.

“I don’t see any houses over there,” I said.

“It’s just us, we’re out there all alone,” she replied.

As she explained that they too had to trek to Gouldings to get water and also had just a wood burning stove for heat, it dawned on me that I’d gotten more than just an explanation of all the area’s natural beauty. It was also a little trip into another world, one that is very alien to me.

[Photo and video credits: Dave Seminara]

Video Of The Day: Capturing Monument Valley, Arizona

In the United States, Memorial Day is the unofficial kickoff for summer. Stop by any cookout or barbeque today, and you’ll likely be asked by friends or family members what your travel plans are for the summer. It seems the season is nearly synonymous with travel. With the sunshine comes plenty of daydreaming about seaside vacations, nights camping under the stars, days off to visit friends and family and (of course) the quintessential road trip. Search “road trip” on video websites such as YouTube and Vimeo and you’ll find thousands of videos, each plotting more points on a map than the next. But instead of showing a time-lapse film of an epic trip, here’s a video of one of the most archetypal destinations on an American road trip – Monument Valley, Arizona. Watch to see road trippers soaking in the landscape. There really isn’t a better way to get motivated to start planning a road trip of your own.

Photo Of The Day: Sunrise At Monument Valley

Utah’s Monument Valley is home to some of the most iconic rock formations on earth, formations that have played host to numerous nature lovers, photographers and filmmakers who come to soak in their visual beauty. Today’s photo, taken by Flickr user oilfighter, offers us a magnificent and unique look at these world-famous geological oddities. Taken at sunrise, the two lone rock pinnacles lie in shadow, accentuated by the warm yellows and smoky oranges that herald the coming of a new day.

Taken any great sunrise photos during your travels? Why not share them on our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.