Monument Valley Tribal Park
(TsÚ Bii' Ndzisgaii, Valley of the Stones)

Monument Valley offers what may be the most universally recognized images of our West.  It is like no place else on earth. 

North Window 
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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An American Icon

Monument Valley is at once an alien landscape and the most universally recognized image of our West. The entire world knows that such a landscape only exists here. 

As the American Southwest writes, "Monument Valley provides perhaps the most enduring and definitive images of the American West," Its isolated red mesas and buttes surrounded by empty, sandy desert have been filmed and photographed countless times over the years.

Monument Valley is the quintessential icon of the American West.

The Road to Monument Valley

After lunch and touring Gouldings, we left for Monument Valley. Our plan was to skip the flat lighting of mid-day and get to the Valley later in the afternoon, when we would have longer shadows for our photographs. 

It took us perhaps a half hour to get to the visitors center, register, park, and hire a guide.

The image on the right is the classic view of US 163 as it approaches Monument Pass from the northeast. Perhaps because it is so recognizable, the director of Forrest Gump has him end his cross-country run here with Monument Valley's buttes and mesa as a backdrop.

Monument Pass
US 163 Nearing Monument Pass taken from the Valley of The Gods (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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View Points

There are 17 miles of rough, unpaved roads through the park. Along the way are 11 number scenic stops. 

A few people drive their own 4-wheel drive vehicles in the restricted, self-guided area [red-dashes].

Like most visitors, we took one of the tours with a Navajo guide. One advantage is that the Navajo tours are permitted to go where private vehicles are not allowed. Another is that the guides can provide a wealth of background information. They also know where the best photo shots are.

East and West Mitten Buttes

What is now Monument Valley was once a vast lowland basin in the early Rocky Mountains. Over eons sediment from the mountains sifted into the basin and settled into a 1000 foot thick mantle of sandstone (Cutler Red siltstone and mudstone) and limestone. 

Over million of more years, the plateau lifted and wind and rain and temperature worked on the sandstone. The 400 and 1200 feet tall features we see now are the results of those timeless forces.

Water seeps into cracks and freezes. When it freezes it expands 10% and pries open cracks. Over time, this process is repeated until finally the crack is so large that a slice of rock falls away. This is frost wedging.

Mittens and Butte
The Mittens above are among the most enduring and best know images of the American West. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Left Mitten
Imagine a pair of winter gloves or mittens with their thumbs sticking up. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Mesas, Buttes and Pinnacles

"Monument Valley has been eroding for the last 50 million years. Once this area was a flat plateau of sandstone layered with shale. As the Colorado Plateau rose, vertical faults were formed and the plateaus slide upwards from each other. The faulting exposed the lower levels of shale to erosion. As the shale was eroded, the overlying sandstone was undermined."

"As blocks of rock fall away from the cliffs, the plateau is dissected into mesas, buttes, and pinnacles. Mesas are large table like structures. Mesas are weathered to smaller buttes, like the Mitten Buttes. Finally, buttes are reduced to pinnacles or pillars similar to the Totem Pole and the Three Sisters." SOURCE: Monument Valley

[Our guide had his own theory that Monument Valley was originally an ocean bed. Over ages sand settled and pressure turned some of the sand into sandstone. In some areas, however, patches of heavy, hard rock weighted down small, local areas. Ocean currents over time washed away most of the soft rock and mud except that under the heavy weighted tops. The whole area rose.The water drained off. The mesas, buttes and pinnacles we see today are the areas that were left because they were under the heavy rocks and were not washed away.

The Scenic Valley Road

The views from the Visitors Center are spectacular, but most of the park can only be seen from the scenic valley drive. Part of this drive is open to the public and part is open only to authorized Native American tour guides.

In part this provides employment for a lot of Navajo guides and tour operators. But it also protects sensitive historical areas, such as the petroglyphs and Anasazi ruins, from abuse and vandalism. They can only be visited in the company of a guide.

The Branch at Rain God Mesa
Rain God Mesa on the left. The distant pinnacles are Totem Pole and Ye Bi Chei. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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View of John Ford's Point
With me is our friendly and informative guide and his friend. He added immensely to my tour (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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John Ford's Point

The movie director John Ford introduced Monument Valley and John Wayne to the world in 1929 with his classic, Stagecoach. This was the first of ten films Ford made here.

A few of the movies and ads filmed in whole or in part here include She Wore A Yellow Ribbon. "The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Eiger Sanction, Future III, National Lampoon's Vacation, Forrest Gump, TV's Airwolf, and the Marlboro Man commercials. (Click here for a list)

One popular viewing point is named in honor of John Ford. This is the overlook from which he shot the attack on a Native-American village in The Searchers.

The Valley Road into the Restricted Area

This stretch of road looks level and smooth. That is deceiving. I was immensely glad to have someone else driving someone else's 4WD high clearance vehicle.

Otherwise I'd have been confined to the public areas and without a guide I would have learned very little.

Also the thought of getting stuck or having car trouble out there where there are no facilities was not appealing.

Valley Road
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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The Sun's Eye in Early Morning 
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 15, 2000) 
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The Sun's Eye

I was particularly aware of the respect, perhaps reverence, shown by our guide toward the land and toward certain places in particular. It was almost palpable as he escorted us around this cathedral ceiling cavern with the elliptical window that the Navajo's call "The Sun's Eye" and as he talked about the petroglyphs and the Ancient Ones who were here before.

The National Park Service distinguishes between windows and arches by shape. An arch is a window that shaped like an arch. 

The NPS also distinguishes a natural bridge from an arch by the erosion agent. A natural bridge is formed by flowing water. The NPS says an opening must be 3-feet across to qualify as a window although some prominent geologist have no size limit.

Dunes Edge

With no permanent streams, Monument Valley has little vegetation or wild life. Its 2000 population of 864, of whom 300 are year around residents, raise sheep and other livestock and small quantities of crops.

Monument Valley is the home of the "purple sage" (made famous by Zane Grey), as well as an occasional juniper and seasonally cliffrose, rabbitbrush, and snakewood, 

Corn is planted in patches to catch rain runoff and at the edge of dunes, which deep down, retain substantial amounts of water. Also, even during droughts, seepage from sandstone aquifers provides some water. 

Seep at Dune's Edge
The land at the edge of this dune was cultivated (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000).
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Ear of the Wind
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Ear of the Wind

A Navajo Prayer

May it be beautiful before me.
May is be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May I walk in beauty.

Inside a Hogan

The Navajo name for themselves is "DinÚ" or "dineh"  (pronounced dee' nay). In Monument Valley, many like this grandmother live the traditional way of life.

There are several Hogans -- domed-shaped traditional Navajo homes -- along the Scenic Valley Road at which guides stop so visitors can see how home weaving is still done and perhaps buy something.

A grandmother and her granddaughter were at home when I visited. The grandmother appeared to speak no English. The guide and granddaughter acted as translators. They live there with no running water (it is hauled in from outside), no power (she uses kerosene lamps), cook on a wood stove, use an ice chest to keep foods cool, and weave rugs on a hand loom.

Inside a Hogan
I loved the Navajo grandmother's traditional Hogan and furnishings and very modern sneakers. (Photo by Brian Larkin October 2000) 

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Anasazi Petroglyph carved into desert varnish 
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
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Anasazi Petroglyphs

Petroglyphs are images incised in rock. They were an important form of pre-writing symbols from approximately 10,000 B.C. to modern times. The word comes from the Greek petros (stone) and glyphein (to carve).

There are more than 100 ancient Anasazi sites in Monument Valley. The petroglyphs, along with the Anasazi ruins, are mostly located in Mystery Valley in the restricted area. They were carved by the Ancient Ones into the desert varnish that covers the surface of many rocks exposed to the sun. I took this photo of a Bighorn Sheep at the Sun's Eye. This is a popular shot.

Our guide offered his interpretations of the drawings we saw. However, translating these drawings I have learned is not an exact science.

Struggling Tree

Someone described Monument Valley as a land where "twisted trees, blowing sand, and exposed and fractured rocks cover the punished landscape. Thousand-foot mountains stand stripped by erosion to their rocky core."

It is the America frontier in time long past ... desolate, strong, rugged, lonely, enduring.

For me, Monument Valley is an ode to the American West. 

Struggling Tree
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000) 
(Click on image for enlargement)

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