OLJATO-MONUMENT VALLEY, Ariz. — Deep wonder.
Like one's first sight of the sea, a sky-piercing peak or soaring redwood forest, this iconic red-sand desert region straddling the Arizona-Utah border is indelible, a marvel to behold. Famed for the towering sandstone buttes of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, it is instantly recognizable from many a classic Western movie.
Rising 5,564 feet above sea level and spanning some 91,696 acres, the valley (Navajo name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii) is a geological gift that never fails to enchant, or awe.
Great pinnacles of rock standing 400 to 1,000 feet are surrounded by mile upon mile of mesas and buttes dressed in harmonious valley colors and the shadowplay of clouds. Stunning at any time of day, at sunrise or sunset it is extraordinary.
The 30,000-acre park is accessed by a looping Valley Drive, an unpaved, 17-mile rough dirt road best suited to trucks and jeeps. Guided tours are the way to go, not only to spare your vehicle, but because some areas of the park like Ear of the Wind and other landmarks are inaccessible or closed to visitors without a Navajo guide at the wheel. The renowned, steeply sloped Mittens buttes can be viewed from the road or from overlooks such as the panoramic (and iconic) John Ford’s Point.
Speaking of whom ...
Location, location, location
First among the most storied Westerns shot in Monument Valley are the films of director John Ford, most often starring John Wayne: “Stagecoach” (1939), “My Darling Clementine” (1946), “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), “Rio Grande” (1950) and, perhaps most memorably, “The Searchers” (1956).
Guests of the aptly named The View Hotel overlooking the park are regularly treated to outdoor evening screenings of “The Searchers,” projected large-scale against an exterior wall as sunset paints the valley below.
Other celebrated films shot here in whole or in part include “How the West Was Won” (1962), “Easy Rider” (1968), “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), “Thelma & Louise” (1990), “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Mission Impossible II” (2000).
Unfortunately, “Windtalkers” (2002), a movie that was supposed to honor the important contribution of the Navajo “codetalkers” of World War II, was turned into a routine Hollywood-ized dud that focused on the Anglo character played by Nicolas Cage. People around these parts are still disappointed over that missed opportunity.
Often, filmmakers have split time between the valley and the scenic areas around Moab, Utah, to take advantage of both. As an aside, visitors to the fine Moab Museum of Film & Western Heritage on state Highway 128, 14 miles east of the city at Red Cliffs Lodge, will be treated to a history of filmmaking in the region in words, images, film clips and artifacts. It's a can't-miss stop for buffs.
Like many parts of the West, what is now Monument Valley once rested more than 2,000 feet beneath the so-called Western Interior Seaway, a vast inland sea that dates to the mid- to late-Cretaceous period at least 70 million years ago. This sea divided the North American continent into separate landmasses — Laramidia to the west and Appalachia in the east — before joining the Arctic Ocean to the north.
But the processes that chronicle the valley's geologic history go back much further, beginning with tectonic upheavals beneath the Earth's surface during the Paleozoic era, more than 500 million years ago. At the end of the Jurassic period, the mud from the ocean floor turned into sandstone held together by Organ Rock (the erosion-prone formations that still act as the pedestals for the valley's monoliths) and mountain sediments such as limestone.
What was once a lowland basin became a plateau.
The composite forms one sees today are of Organ Rock, De Chelley Sandstone (the towers of the lower valley) and Navajo Sandstone, the soft layer of the upper valley that creates arches, ledges and alcoves. As always, wind and water are the sculptors.
Hiking and tours
The parks' only real access for unguided foot traffic is the Wildcat Trail, a four-mile round-trip hike that starts at the northwest corner of the Visitor Center parking area. Also open to those on horseback, the trail ushers you past Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte and affords a feeling of having passed through a time portal. Easy in terms of gain, the hike is deemed moderate due to sections of soft beach-like sand that often deters casual strollers. You'll likely see few others on the trail.
Assuming you haven't made reservations in advance, you can also purchase guided tours from Navajo operators at the Visitor Center (6 a.m.-8 p.m., seven days a week during peak season from April through October). Park admission is $20 per vehicle up to four people and $6 for each additional passenger. For more information call 435-727-5870 or go online at https://navajonationparks.org.
Navajo art and crafts are sold at the Monument Valley Trading Post and at several guided tour stops. In summer, the Visitor Center offers the Haskenneini Restaurant, which specializes in native Navajo and American cuisines. Guests of The View Hotel (www.monumentvalleyview.com) can dine on similar fare at its smallish but well-staffed restaurant overlooking the valley. The hotel also offers wilderness and RV campsites (no hookups) on the valley's left rim.
But there is more to this area than the park, however magnificent. Close by are many other remarkable attractions, among them Agatha Peak and Navajo National Monument in Arizona and, in Utah, the Valley of the Gods, Muley Point (overlooking the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area), Goosenecks State Park and Hovenweep National Monument.