Ts Bii Ndzisgaii, Navajo for “Valley of the Rocks”, might be a slight understatement when defining Monument Valley located near Lake Powell. The imposing presence of these sculptures, ranging in height from 400-1200 feet, redefines the word “rock” as a grain of sand. Fifty million years of painstaking sculpture brought about by natural forces of erosion and shifting earth created the canvas of Monument Valley; however, the painted imagery is beholden to the whims of the fickle sky. The sun and clouds will throw splashes of glowing reds and oranges in one moment, and the next, a subtle shading of rusts, beiges and grays. The silent, ethereal wonder of Monument Valley is the stuff of pictorial legend and represents the very essence of beauty that is the West. The most spectacular way to see the Valley is from an Airplane Tour that departs from Page, Arizona. During this 1.5 hour tour, one will not only experience the amazing views of the Monument’s buttes, but spectacular panoramas of Lake Powell as well.
Sprawled out over portions of southern Utah and Northern Arizona, within the borders of the Navajo Nation, Monument Valley is considered sacred ground to the Navajo peoples, and as such stands protected from the destructive forces of commercialized tourism. US Highway 163 is the only main thoroughfare, slicing its way through Monument Pass. Only one paved, user-friendly path, the 3.2 mile Wildcat Trail, leads to the earthen sculptures. No busy roads overrun with busloads of noisy passersby. Instead, there are just a few rugged, weather-worn dirt roads, sporadic outcroppings of traditional Navajo hogans and some organized tours given by locals, or jeep rentals for those who dare to venture unguided out amongst these giants of the earth.
A visit to this Navajo Nation Tribal Park commands an attitude of respect, both for the land and the people who call this home. The park strictly enforces rules that prevent unguided hiking, rock climbing, and intrusion of the private Navajo residences, just to name a few. From the Visitor Center which sits right atop the Utah/Arizona border, the majority of Monument Valley’s natural artwork lies to its southeast, in Northern Arizona. The seventeen mile dirt road, Valley Pass, winds out around the east and west Mittens, Elephant Butte, Rain God and Spearhead Mesas and the Totem Pole, a 300-foot narrow spire that teeters on the southeastern horizon. Heading north into the Utah portion of the park, the Oljeto and Rock Door Mesas provide solid haven for Goulding, a historic trading post erected by Harry Goulding in 1924. As you continue on US 163, to the northeast, the majestic Eagle and Sentinel Mesas flank the path towards the Big Indian, Castle Rock, and Setting Hen formations.
Monument Valley, first inhabited by the ancient Anasazi peoples thousands of years back, landed on the radar of the American people in the late 1930′s. Mr. Goulding developed the area as a backdrop for motion pictures in an effort to bring income to the Navajo people. Those that watched the movie, “Forest Gump” will recognize this famous backdrop.
The visits from outsiders, however, have not swayed the proud and ancient traditions of the residents. Those who live in the valley, today, exist without electricity or running water, and continue to earn their living by farming, herding sheep, and creating stunning works of Navajo art using nothing more than the natural resources that surround them. There are very few modern amenities, such as a medical clinic on the north side of Oljeto Mesa, year-round restroom facilities and a restaurant, Haskenneini, at the visitor center which is only open during the summer months. Some roadside vendors dwell near the center, offering exquisite handmade art, clothing, jewelry and food.
The vastly uninhabited wilderness, seemingly empty of flora and fauna, serves as stark contrast to these formations that endlessly reach for the sky. In true desert fashion, water remains elusive, and only the hardiest of desert vegetation take root in the dusty red soil of the valley. Purple sage and yucca sporadically dot the desert floor, with an occasional Juniper tree found thriving along the edges of the valley. Lizards, snakes and scorpions tend to be the only breathing creatures, apart from the Navajo people themselves, along with their livestock and pets.
The combination of sparsely populated desert, striking placement of the earth’s handiwork, and lack of inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike, have created a wilderness cathedral unlike any other. Monument Valley brings you face to face with the forces of creation, and will leave you in a state of wonder.