Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Monument Valley

 "Where are the monuments?!" I grew impatient as we approached the end of our four-hour drive to Monument Valley from Flagstaff. I spotted mural-covered buildings, cattle, and empty turquoise jewelry stands, but no spires, buttes or mesas were in sight.

At last, miles from Kayenta, road signs for the Utah border surfaced, and the first towering spires came into view. I've never been so ecstatic about visiting some rock formations in the middle of nowhere.

John Wayne once called the area home to those 400- to 1000-foot tall red-rock monoliths God's treasure. Monument Valley, on the Utah-Arizona border in the Navajo Reservation, treats visitors to ever-changing scenic vistas as the day progresses. Depending on the angle and cloud coverage, the sky above the sandstone giants can be painted in gold, orange, red, pink, purple or blue.

My bucket list calls for camping in Monument Valley under the stars, but the campgrounds are currently closed for construction. Also, temperatures in early February were in the 30s and 40s. But someday, on a few warm spring or autumn days, it'll happen. I've read about campers paying residents to camp on their private land, so this is something I may research instead of using the designated campgrounds.

We stayed at the sand-colored View Hotel, the tribal park's only hotel, which had the best view of any hotel room I've seen. From our hotel room's balcony, the view showcased a sea of desert shrubbery, as well as West and East Mitten and Merrick buttes. A dirt road snaked around the desert landscape and disappeared in the distance. Elephant Butte lies to the right of that, and from afar we could see Rain God Mesa and others. Most rooms face the Valley, where guests can admire the sunrise and day's changing shadows and colors.

Monument Valley Tribal Park visitors pay $5 per person to get into the park. (Hotel guests receive a receipt that gets them out of having to repay the entrance fee if they leave the park.) A hotel may sound out of place in a valley of rock art, but the hotel melds into the surrounding earth. Eco-friendly seems to be its theme.

The first item on the agenda was to get a closer look at the formations. Something quickly gleaned from reading the park's brochure is that the more of Monument Valley you want to see, the more you must pay. The Valley Drive, the signature attraction, is free, but its limited to a route that doesn't approach the east side of Thunderbird Mesa, Sleeping Dragon, Suns Eye, Submarine Rock, Ear of the Wind, Yei Bi Chei, and (closer to) Totem Poles.

Along the drive, you'll notice lots of trails, along with "No trespassing" and "No hiking" signs. These are reminders that along with being a natural wonder that draws people from around the world, Monument Valley is what some people call home.

Valley Drive does provide lots of admire and photograph. First you get a closer look at East and West Mittens and Merrick buttes. Chances are that when you see a photograph of Monument Valley the Mittens will be featured. These are the buttes I envisioned when the name Monument Valley was mentioned in the past.

We soon approached Three Sisters, a trio of pillars that are said to resemble a Catholic nun and her two pupils. There we saw the first of only three other cars we would encounter on the two and a half hour drive.

Camel Butte was to our left. The drive then curves around Rain God Mesa, a massive formation whose sides appear to have been chopped by a dinner knife. On the ground you can see broken pieces of boulders. It's impressive and a little intimidating. The face of a rain god is said to be visible on the rock face.

The stops near Sands Spring Aquifers (Stops 7 and 8 on the drive map) provide a view of Totem Poles and Yei Bi Chei from afar. The Cube seems to balance in front of Spearhead Mesa's edge. Restricted trails lead toward the Totem Poles, a temptation to go on a guided tour.

The drive then approaches Artist Point Overlook, where one can capture panoramic photographs of Sentinel Mesa, the Mittens, Elephant Butte, Cly Butte and, from miles away, Big Chief, Castle Butte, and other spires. Spearhead Mesa towers to the right. We later saw goats feasting on the desert flora in front of it. I could picture artists unloading their easels and paint supplies to record the view on canvas.

Snow was visible on mountains to the north.

Next up is North Window Overlook, which offers a new vantage point for photographs. Cly and Elephant buttes form a frame around the monuments in the distance, including East Mitten Butte, the closest sandstone giant. A jewelry stand was open near the turnoff to the overlook, and a flag captured my attention. It was an American flag with a Native American in the center. To the left stood the aptly named Thumb.

North Window

The road then completes its loop around Rain God Mesa and returns back toward the Mittens, ending at the View Hotel's parking lot.

The long drive can stir up an appetite. The only restaurants in the Monument Valley area are the View Hotel's restaurant and the Dining Room at Goulding's Lodge, about 4 miles from the hotel. The View's Restaurant closes from 2 p.m. until dinner at 5, so our only option was Goulding's. Meals at both eateries come with a view; the View's is obviously better, as it's closer to the monuments. Goulding's has lots of history though, which you can learn about at the museum. (John Wayne has stayed in a cabin there, and you can learn about movies filmed in Monument Valley.)

The menu prices weren't unreasonable at either; $8.99 for a veggie or beef burger with fries at Goulding's, for example. We were two out of 9 people in the entire restaurant, making for a quiet meal. The check arrived with a puzzling surprise. Our burgers and drinks added up to about $25, but only $20 was charged on my card. I decided to come clean so that the server could correct the error. To my surprise, I was given a local discount. I confessed to not being a local, but I received it anyway.

I wanted to take this home.

With bellies full and a nap under our belts, we decided to go on a hike. Unguided hiking options are limited to two trails. Wildcat Trail makes a 3.3-mile loop around West Mitten Butte, and a park brochure touted its spectacular views from the Valley floor. A guidebook in the hotel room suggested hiking Wildcat at sunrise. It also described the Mesa Rim Trail but gave no clue as to where to find it. The hotel's front desk worker directed us to the parking lot, where the milelong trail begins. It's easy but gets steeper as you approach Mitchell Mesa.

Along the way, I spotted about 15 or more "safe travels" piles of rocks. As you ascend, the easy-to-follow trail gets a bit tricky to discern in some spots, so these small markers helped immensely. We stopped on a large boulder to admire the sunset behind Gray Whiskers and Mitchell Butte. The ascent allows views of the Valley from a higher vantage point, but the wind also seemed to pick up as our elevation increased. Three layers of clothing helped.

Trying to stay warm on our hike.
Guided tours are the ticket to seeing the best of Monument Valley. Some tours take visitors to Mystery Valley, in the southwestern part of Monument Valley, to see natural arches, pictographs and Anasazi ruins, according to the New York Times. The tribal park's website lists authorized tour guides. Some of the tour operators offer discounts in the winter.

Later that day I would again be offered the local discount. I was flattered but stayed honest. At dinner, we tried the Navajo tacos, which reminded me of Mexican sopes, and nachos and a quesadilla. Neither of those options was too expensive, at about $8-9 each. When we arrived there were maybe six tables occupied; that increased to about ten when we left. It was too dark at this point to enjoy a view, but Native American flute music played and candles were lit. Don't expect to unwind with an alcoholic beverage, though you can sip on a glass of non-alcoholic wine or beer, tea, and other drinks.

Call it an early night so that you can experience one of the best parts of the Valley. Grab a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise either from a hotel-room balcony or the Wildcat Trail hike. In the winter, sunrise was at around 7:20. Bundle up on the balcony while you race against the clock with your camera. The images never seem to live up to what you see in person. If only our eyes could take photographs.

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