Tips on Roads Less Traveled in Monument Valley | Travel | Smithsonian
Monument Valley is not a national park. There aren't signs and rangers all around explaining the landscape and wildlife. (iStockphoto)

Tips on Roads Less Traveled in Monument Valley

Driving through the southwest? Make sure to read our tips on the best ways to appreciate Monument Valley

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Too many Monument Valley visitors make the mistake of just driving through for a few hours at mid-day, in mid-summer; the bright summer sun flattens and washes out the landscape. They miss the wonderful shadows—on and from the monoliths--of early morning and late evening, and in the desert’s blast-furnace summer heat and brightness, few visitors spend much time outside of their air-conditioned cars. The other seasons, or early or late hours of the summer, offer much better vistas. Lucky winter visitors can see the valley and rock formations dusted in snow, an incredible sight. Full-moon nights are otherworldly; on moonless nights, stargazing—far away from light pollution--is magnificent.

Tip 1 — Camp on a butte

Tony Perrottet, the author of the February 2010 Smithsonian magazine article about Monument Valley, arranged his overnight trip to Hunt’s Mesa with local guide Lorenz Holiday, who takes visitors around the valley on hand-tailored excursions. “The only things you really need to bring are decent hiking boots, sun screen and water—lots of it,” explains Perrottet. “The climb took about three hours. Anyone who is in good condition could do it; there is no technical climbing involved at all. There are some steep rock scrambles early on, and on one stretch you shuffle for about 30 feet along a ledge that has quite a drop, which is a bit unnerving if you don't like heights, but otherwise it was pretty straightforward. The main problem was the heat; I was there in August, which was quite extreme. At other seasons, it would be much less intense! Holiday did the cooking. We had steaks over a big roaring fire, with potato salad, while listening to coyotes howling somewhere down below. In the morning, there was a huge pile of bacon and eggs and coffee. Delicious stuff!”

Holiday can be reached at his Web site: thenavajoway.com. The cost of the Hunt’s Mesa overnight is approximately $500; tent, sleeping bag and food are included. Roy Black is another local guide who does Hunt’s Mesa overnights, for about the same cost. His Web site is www.blacksmonumentvalleytours.com.

For a full list of guides and tour operators, see the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Web site, navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm

Tip 2 — Sleep beneath the monuments

Visitors must be out of the valley by nightfall, unless they make private arrangements to camp on land owned by Navajo farmers living there. The farmers often live very much off the grid, without running water or electricity, so plan to bring your own tent and other necessities. Holiday and some other tour operators can sometimes arrange camping in the valley with relatives who live there. “I lined up the camping through Lorenz Holiday, who contacted his aunt Rose Yazzie--it was all very relaxed and casual,” explains Perrottet. “I ended up paying the Yazzies $100 for the night, which I suppose must qualify it as the most expensive campsite in the West, but it was worth it. The view I enjoyed was the so-called “North Window” through the buttes; John Ford had used it in The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge. It would be amazing to camp in the valley in the full moon; I didn't, but there were incredible views of the stars in the clear Western sky; the nearest city is hundreds of miles away, limiting light pollution.”

If you can’t arrange camping inside the valley, there is a large campground at Goulding’s Lodge (gouldings.com); Holiday also has camping on his Moonlight Ranch, outside the valley, which is an easy-to-arrange alternative.

Tip 3 — Hire a historian

Robert McPherson, a professor at the College of Eastern Utah-San Juan Campus, is the author of nine books on Navajo history, culture, and the Four Corners area. He is highly knowledgeable about Monument Valley and available to accompany visitors (individuals and groups) through the valley while providing informal lectures and Q&A sessions. His rate is $200-$250 per day, plus expenses; he can be contacted at the College of Eastern Utah-San Juan Campus in Blanding, Utah. Goulding’s Lodge and The View Hotel can also suggest guides who are especially knowledgeable about Navajo history. If you can’t hire a historian, check out the books, listed at right, by McPherson and others, about Monument Valley history.

Tip 4 — Take a hike or ride a horse

“My favorite time to hike in Monument Valley is in early the morning--I love the cool air in the valley just after dawn, and the stillness of the valley has a truly mystical air,” notes Perrottet. The Wildcat Trail and the Mesa Rim Trail, both of which leave from or nearby the View Hotel, are the only trails in Monument Valley that visitors can hike without being escorted by an authorized guide. The Rim Trail is about a mile; it's not a formal, set trail but it's easy—and it’s virtually impossible to get lost. The Wildcat Trail is 3.2 miles, and drops down--and climbs back up!--900 feet. And you walk completely around the Left Mitten. For full moon hikes, the Park recommends hiring a guide. Holiday offers guided walks. One called Teardrop Arch takes about 2.5 hours; the cost is $65. Lorenz and other guides also offer horseback tours—1 hour about $70; two hours about $90.

Tip 5 — Contemplate Navajo culture

“While the Navajo are quite laconic, I would add that they have a great sense of humor; their dry remarks really broke me up sometimes,” observes Perrottet. “I would definitely put aside a couple of hours to look over the Navajo silver work and jewelry, which is incredible. The weavings, too.” Goulding's Trading Post has a range of books and DVDs, as well as the a map to the valley for $5; With a detailed line drawing of the buttes, it makes a visit much easier to manage. Allow a couple hours to visit the new Monument Valley Visitors Center, next to The View Hotel. Displays explain Navajo culture and how the monoliths were formed.

Tip 6 — Eat like a Navajo

With one dining room that offers sunrise views for breakfast and another that offers sunset views for dinner, The View Hotel (monumentvalleyview.com) serves a variety of Navajo dishes. There’s Navajo fry bread, Navajo Tacos, Mutton Stew, and Posole and Pork. Goulding’s Lodge (gouldings.com) also offers Navajo cuisine. Fry bread and what they call dry bread, which is the same as Fry Bread except that it’s baked. They also serve Navajo tortillas, Navajo huevos rancheros, green chili and—on some days—mutton stew. Mutton is a favorite meat among the Navajo, and the grocery store at Goulding’s sells various cuts of raw mutton. If you’re a dedicated food adventurer and can find a campfire, try cooking up another Navajo specialty: Acheé—mutton fat wrapped in mutton intestine. And don’t forget to ask for blue corn dumplings.

Tip 7 — Take it slow and easy, and be patient

Monument Valley is not like a national park. There aren't signs and rangers all around explaining the landscape and wildlife. Service isn't always snap-snap, and many visitors will have to adjust to the slower, quieter pace of many Navajo. You'll enjoy your visit much more if you watch the Westerns filmed in Monument Valley and read the books before you go. This is sacred land for the Navajo and understanding why will enhance your appreciation of it. If you can't watch the movies in advance, not to worry. Goulding’s Lodge shows them in the evenings, and in the summer, The View Hotel shows them outdoors. Lorenz Holiday does driving tours of the movie sets--$90 for a half day; $160 for a full day. Goulding’s also offers movie set tours—depending on the size of the group, a little less expensive than those offered by Holiday. Again, it’s best to shop around using the list of authorized guides at the Park Web site, navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm.

Tony Perrottet is a Manhattan-based writer who specializes in historical travel. He writes regularly for Smithsonian magazine, and also for the New York Times, Slate and the London Sunday Times. Four times his stories have been selected for the Best American Travel Writing series. He is the author of four books, including Pagan Holiday, The Naked Olympics, and Napoleon's Privates; his Web site is tonyperrottet.com.

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