Behind the Scenes in Monument Valley

The vast Navajo tribal park on the border of Utah and New Mexico stars in Hollywood movies but remains largely hidden to visitors

John Ford, who filmed westerns in the valley (the Mittens and Merrick Butte), called it the "most complete, beautiful and peaceful place on earth." (Douglas Merriam)
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As Lorenz Holiday and I raised a cloud of red dust driving across the valley floor, we passed a wooden sign, “Warning: Trespassing Is Not Allowed.” Holiday, a lean, soft-spoken Navajo, nudged me and said, “Don’t worry, buddy, you’re with the right people now.” Only a Navajo can take an outsider off the 17-mile scenic loop road that runs through Monument Valley Tribal Park, 92,000 acres of majestic buttes, spires and rock arches straddling the Utah-Arizona border.

Holiday, 40, wore cowboy boots, a black Stetson and a handcrafted silver belt buckle; he grew up herding sheep on the Navajo reservation and still owns a ranch there. In recent years, he has been guiding adventure travelers around the rez. We had already visited his relatives, who still farm on the valley floor, and some little-known Anasazi ruins. Now, joined by his brother Emmanuel, 29, we were going to camp overnight at Hunt’s Mesa, which, at 1,200 feet, is the tallest monolith on the valley’s southern rim.

We had set off late in the day. Leaving Lorenz’ pickup at the trail head, we slipped through a hole in a wire stock fence and followed a bone-dry riverbed framed by junipers to the mesa’s base. Our campsite for the night loomed above us, a three-hour climb away. We began picking our way up the rippling sandstone escarpment, now turning red in the afternoon sun. Lizards gazed at us, then skittered into shadowy cracks. Finally, after about an hour, the ascent eased. I asked Lorenz how often he came here. “Oh, pretty regular. Once every five years or so,” he said with a laugh. Out of breath, he added: “This has got to be my last time.”

It was dark by the time we reached the summit, and we were too tired to care about the lack of a view. We started a campfire, ate a dinner of steak and potatoes and turned in for the night. When I crawled out of my tent the next morning the whole of Monument Valley was spread out before me, silent in the purple half-light. Soon the first shafts of golden sunlight began creeping down the buttes’ red flanks and I could see why the director John Ford filmed such now-classic westerns as Stagecoach and The Searchers here.

Thanks to Ford, Monument Valley is one of the most familiar landscapes in the United States, yet it remains largely unknown. “White people recognize the valley from the movies, but that’s the extent of it,” says Martin Begaye, program manager for the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department. “They don’t know about its geology, or its history, or about the Navajo people. Their knowledge is very superficial.”

Almost nothing about the valley fits easy categories, starting with its location within the 26,000-square-mile Navajo reservation. The park entrance is in Utah, but the most familiar rock formations are in Arizona. The site is not a national park, like nearby Canyonlands, in Utah, and the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, but one of six Navajo-owned tribal parks. What’s more, the valley floor is still inhabited by Navajo—30 to 100 people, depending on the season, who live in houses without running water or electricity. “They have their farms and livestock,” says Lee Cly, acting superintendent of the park. “If there’s too much traffic, it will destroy their lifestyle.” Despite 350,000 annual visitors, the park has the feel of a mom and pop operation. There is one hiking trail in the valley, accessible with a permit: a four-mile loop around a butte called the Left Mitten, yet few people know about it, let alone hike it. At the park entrance, a Navajo woman takes $5 and tears off an admission ticket from a roll, like a raffle ticket. Cars crawl into a dusty parking lot to find vendors selling tours, horseback rides, silver work and woven rugs.

All this may change. The park’s first hotel, the View, built and staffed mostly by Navajo, opened in December 2008. The 96-room complex is being leased by a Navajo-owned company from the Navajo Nation. In December 2009, a renovated visitors center opened, featuring exhibits on local geology and Navajo culture.

Throughout the 19th century, white settlers considered the Monument Valley region—like the desert terrain of the Southwest in general—to be hostile and ugly. The first U.S. soldiers to explore the area called it “as desolate and repulsive looking a country as can be imagined,” as Capt. John G. Walker put it in 1849, the year after the area was annexed from Mexico in the Mexican-American War. “As far as the eye can a mass of sand stone hills without any covering or vegetation except a scanty growth of cedar.”

But the valley’s isolation, in one of the driest and most sparsely populated corners of the Southwest, helped protect it from the outside world. There is no evidence that 17th- or 18th-century Spanish explorers ever found it, although they roamed the area and came in frequent conflict with the Navajo, who called themselves Diné, or “The People.” The Navajo lived in an area today known as the Four Corners, where Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet. They called Monument Valley Tsé Bii Ndzisgaii, or “Clearing Among the Rock,” and regarded it as an enormous hogan, or dwelling, with the two isolated stone pinnacles to the north—now known as Gray Whiskers and Sentinel—as its door posts. They considered the two soaring buttes known as the Mittens to be the hands of a deity.

The first non-Indians to stumble upon the valley were probably Mexican soldiers under Col. José Antonio Vizcarra, who captured 12 Paiutes there on a raid in 1822. In 1863, after U.S. troops and Anglo settlers had skirmished with the Navajo, the federal government moved to pacify the area by relocating every Navajo man, woman and child to a reservation 350 miles to the southeast, in Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. But when U.S. soldiers under Col. Kit Carson began rounding up Navajo people for the notorious “Long Walk,” many fled the valley to hide out near Navajo Mountain in southern Utah, joining other Native American refugees under the leadership of Chief Hashkéneinii. The Navajo returned in 1868 when the U.S. government reversed its policy and, through a treaty, gave them a modest reservation along the Arizona-New Mexico border. But Monument Valley was not initially included. It lay on the reservation’s northwestern fringe, in an area used by the Navajo, Utes and Paiutes, and was left as public land.


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