Archeologists have identified more than 100 ancient Ancestral Puebloan (also known as Anasazi) sites and ruins dating prior to 1300 A.D. The valley was abandoned by the Ancestral Puebloans in the 1300’s, as were other areas in the Four Corners region.
The date of the first Navajo settlement in Monument Valley is unknown. For hundreds of years, the Navajo have raised sheep and other livestock, and farmed small quantities of crops in the valley. The Navajo regarded this area as an enormous hogan (traditional Navajo dwelling) with Gray Whiskers and Sentinel pinnacles as its door posts. Two soaring buttes, known as the Mittens, were thought to be the hands of a deity.
When the Navajo were forced out of Canyon De Chelly by the U.S. Army during the “Long Walk”, some took refuge in Monument Valley. An 1868 treaty allowed their return to their ancestral homeland and established the Navajo Reservation. Other parts of Monument Valley were added to the Navajo Reservation in 1884 and 1933. An estimated 100 Navajo people live in the valley today.
In 1958, the Navajo Tribal Council established the tribal park making the area accessible to tourists. Over 400,000 people from all over the world visit Monument Valley annually, which provides a major source of income to the Navajo people.
Near the center of the Colorado Plateau at almost 5,600 feet in elevation, the area was once a lowland basin. Over hundreds of millions of years, sediment layers eroded from the Rocky Mountains were deposited. A slow, gentle uplift elevated the sediment layers to a height of 1 – 3 miles above sea level, making the area into a plateau. Wind and water erosion over the last 50 million years cut into the surface of the plateau, carving the layers of soft and hard rock into the magnificent mesas, buttes, pinnacles and monolith rock formations of today.
In the mid-1920’s, Harry Goulding and his wife Mike, established a nearby trading post still in operation today. After the Depression and two major droughts, trading post income was markedly diminished. Learning that a major Hollywood studio was looking to film a Western on location, Harry, along with a photographer, began to photograph the valley and developed a breathtaking photo album. In 1938, the Gouldings traveled to the studio in Los Angeles. Without an appointment, Goulding arrived and stated he would wait until he could be seen. Soon, director John Ford saw Goulding’s photo album, and it wasn’t long thereafter that Ford began filming the 1939 movie, Stagecoach, with John Wayne in Monument Valley. Ford made 7 more films in Monument Valley over 25 years.
Film critic, Keith Phipps, stated that Monument Valley’s “five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.” Other movies such as Easy Rider, Thelma and Louise, Back to the Future III, and 2001: A Space Odyssey have filmed in Monument Valley. Most recently, The Lone Ranger filmed in the valley.
The park’s 17-mile Scenic Valley Drive is open from May – September from 6:00 – 8:30 p.m. In the winter season, from October – April, the drive is open from 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. General admission to the park is $5.00 per person. Children, ages 9 and under are admitted free. Camping is available at the Mitten View Campground for small fee.
Monument Valley is 50 miles southwest of Bluff on US 163, the only main road leading to Monument Valley. As you approach the park, you will most likely recognize a famous image of Monument Valley, and one of the most famous images in the Southwest – a long, straight, empty road running across the flat desert towards the stark red cliffs on the horizon. (Remember the shot where Forrest Gump stopped running and turned to go back to Alabama.)
Monument Valley is all about the view of magnificent buttes, spires, mesas, and pinnacles. You can drive the 17 mile, unpaved loop, but note the road can be quite bumpy in some areas. Jeep tours, available at Gouldings Lodge and from companies located nearby the Visitors Center, are also an excellent way to see the park, and learn more about Navajo tradition and history.
Along the 17-mile loop are 11 scenic stops with descriptive names such as John Ford’s Point, Totem Poles, Artist’s Point, North Window and Three Sisters. Some guides can also take you to Hunt’s Mesa. Camping on Hunt’s Mesa was rated by Cowboys and Indians magazine as the 2011’s Best of the West pick.
The newly remodeled Visitors Center is open from 6 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. from May – September, and 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. from October – April 30. Visitors Center displays include information about Navajo philosophy, the Treaty of 1868, and the Long Walk. Another important display involves the Navajo Code Talkers, a group who developed an unbreakable code from their ancient language used in World War II.
Monument Valley is part of the Grand Circle, which includes the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Parks, along with Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments.
1. Phipps, K. 2009, November. The Easy Rider Road Trip. Slate.com. Retrieved January 25, 2013. 2. Best of the West 2011. Cowboys and Indians. June 2011. 3. Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Navajonationparks.org. Retrieved January 25, 2013. 4. Perrottet T. Behind the Scenes in Monument Valley. Smithsonian. February 2010. 5. Leach N. 2005. Kit Carson and The Long Walk. In Cindy Bohn, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and the Navajo Reservation (p.22). Mariposa, CA: Sierra Press.