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Monument Valley: A Landscape and A Culture

Quite possibly one of the most photographed spots on earth, Monument Valley is a striking testament to the impermanent nature of even the planet's most massive forms.

The isolated mesas and buttes that dramatically jut from the red desert floor are the last little stubs, relatively speaking, of the layers upon layer of rock that used to fill in all the space in between. It took hundreds of millions of years to lay down all those layers, and then 50 million or so to wear all but the remaining formations away to relatively nothing.

On a lighter note, you might expect to see the cartoon roadrunner zipping by with Wile E. Coyote hot on his heels. These formations scattered on either side of the Arizona/Utah border have stood as symbols of the desert and the West for ages, prominently displayed in countless paintings, photographs and films. The bold red shapes piercing the blue sky suggest to many visitors that they know the place, even though they may never have been there before.

A visit to Monument Valley will afford you more than a few snapshots and pretty scenery, however. The Valley is located in the Navajo Nation, is cared for by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department, and as a landscape is inseparable from what it means to be Navajo. If you want a little taste of Navajo history, culture and contemporary life, there's no better place to start than with a visit to Monument Valley and its surrounding settlements.

Gouldings Trading PostThe Navajo Nation includes most of the northeast corner of Arizona as well as parts of Utah and New Mexico, and contains 17 million acres. The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department is one of the oldest institutions of the contemporary Navajo Nation, and is charged with preserving the unique and beautiful land within its jurisdiction in accordance with Navajo values and beliefs. The stewardship of the land and the maintenance of values and beliefs aren't separate activities. The land is part of the belief system, one that considers man's relationship with the Earth as a fundamental element of his existence.

There is a 17-mile, suspension-busting dirt road that will eat your rental car alive but will give you the grand tour of the Valley's most famous sights. A more satisfying way to get to know Ts' Bii' Ndzisgaii (the Navajo name for the area) is to take one of the guided jeep, horseback or hiking tours offered at the Park's Visitor Center and a few other locations. A Navajo guide, who can fill you in on the geology of the formations and the cultural history of the area, must accompany any exploration of the Valley off the "Valley Drive" road. Some tours will also introduce you to the ways in which a few people still live in the valley, herding sheep, farming and melding ancient tradition with sometimes relatively few trappings of modernity.

There is a 17-mile, suspension-busting dirt road that will eat your rental car alive but will give you the grand tour of the Valley's most famous sights. A more satisfying way to get to know Ts' Bii' Ndzisgaii (the Navajo name for the area) is to take one of the guided jeep, horseback or hiking tours offered at the Park's Visitor Center and a few other locations. A Navajo guide, who can fill you in on the geology of the formations and the cultural history of the area, must accompany any exploration of the Valley off the "Valley Drive" road. Some tours will also introduce you to the ways in which a few people still live in the valley, herding sheep, farming and melding ancient tradition with sometimes relatively few trappings of modernity.

Gouldings SignpostThe Visitor Center also has a restaurant, restroom facilities and a small store with basic supplies. While there are no lodging facilities in the Park itself, Mitten View Campground is nearby, with 99 campsites for as little as $10 per night.

More lodging can be found at Goulding's Trading Post, a privately run tourist center originally established in 1923 as a trading post. Goudling's offers a lodge, a camping facility, several options for booking Park tours, and a museum featuring memorabilia from Hollywood's countless forays into the Valley and native art and artifacts. See www.gouldings.com.

Not as hopping, but definitely worth the short drive is Oljato Trading Post and Museum, located 11 miles west of the Park, right on the Arizona/Utah border. Oljato was established around the same time as Goulding's, but very little has changed since then. It's a fantastic source for authentic hand-made rugs, pottery and other traditional arts, and also serves as the main store for daily supplies for folks who live in the area. You'll hear Navajo spoken here almost as frequently as English. You can also sign up for horseback tours through secluded parts of the valley, including overnight trips that allow you to sleep under the stars under the shadows of the giant spires.
Oljeto Trading Post 1930

From Flagstaff, you'll drive about 65 miles north on US-89 until you reach US-160. You'll then take US-160 north for another 82 miles until you reach the town of Kayenta. Travel up US-163 for 22 miles to reach Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

For more information on Monument Valley and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, visit www.navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm.

Article by Sarah Horton. Trading post photos by Terree Duncan.

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