Where God put the West: Monument Valley

By Jim Chamberlain

When the famous American actor John Wayne first saw the buttes, mesas, and spires of Monument Valley, he is quoted as saying “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.” I felt the same way as I stared across the valley from Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post beneath Rock Door Mesa. Formations called The Stagecoach, Big Indian, Bear and Rabbit, and Sentinel Mesa jutted from the red sands of the valley floor straight up into a clear azure blue sky.  I grew up on westerns featuring the “Duke” such as “Stagecoach”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “Rio Grande” and “The Searchers” and it was inspiring to see the actual monoliths I saw in those movies.

Goulding’s View

The Navajo people, who call themselves the Diné, the people, have lived here for over 500 years. Their stories and legends of how this magical place came into existence are just as fascinating as the legend of how Hollywood came to this remote valley on the Utah/Arizona border. I could not wait to visit this land of legends.

I passed the visitor center of the Navajo Tribal Park on a bluff overlooking the most famous of the landmarks in this valley: the Mittens.  These giant buttes look just like the left and right mittens of mystical Navajo gods who are said to have left them here so they would have them to wear upon their return. This incredibly colorful panorama greeted me as the Goulding’s truck transported me into the valley along the dusty red dirt road. The truck stopped at one of the most famous viewpoints in the valley, John Ford’s Point.

John Ford’s Point

Legend has it that it was 1938 when Harry Goulding heard on the radio that United Artists was looking for a location to film a western movie.  Harry packed his bedroll, wife, and some photographs and left his small trading post in Monument Valley for Hollywood.  Once Director John Ford saw the photographs of this unique place, he gave Harry a check and headed east to film the classic Western “Stagecoach” in 1939.  Ford filmed 6 more movies in Monument Valley and the point I was standing on was named for him. A Navajo cowboy on his horse posed on the point with Merrick Butte glowing behind him from the afternoon sun as I grabbed for my camera to capture the iconic image.

The sky turned dark as the sun set and the bright planet Jupiter could be seen glowing above the southern horizon.  Night descended on the valley, but it was not dark as hundreds of stars blazed from the sky and the Milky Way glowed in various hues silhouetting the spires of the Three Sisters. I have never seen the sky filled with more stars, planets, galaxies and colors.  Most visitors do not get to see this natural spectacle as the park closes at 8 P.M.  However, I was on a photography tour with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes which arranged to stay late into the evening to try to capture images of these glittering crystals of Navajo legend.

Three Sisters

Navajo storytellers describe how First Man and First Woman made the sun and the moon from large pieces of quartz to provide light for the Diné.  There were numerous small crystals and a lot of quartz dust left over on a blanket when Coyote, a dark and mischievous creature, grabbed the blanket and flung it into the sky creating the stars and nebulas including “Yikaisdahi”, the Milky Way.  The Navajo believe that “Yikaisdahi” is a pathway for the spirits traveling between Heaven and Earth.  I could almost believe those stories as I gazed at the numerous and colorful points of light above me.

I awoke early the next morning and with my fellow shadow catchers went to see the sunrise behind the most famous Buttes of the valley.  Buttes are eroded Mesas like the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Spires, towers, or pinnacles like the Three Sisters are the slender remains of further erosion by wind, water and time. Mesas, Spanish for “table,” are large flat-topped remains of plateaus that stand high above the valley floor. After sunrise, I packed my gear for a four-wheeling adventure to the top of one called Hunts Mesa to see one of the most panoramic views of Monument Valley.

The trip took over two and a half hours.  I climbed into a blue Suburban and traveled over red sand washes, climbed featureless slip rock ridges and crept along sheer sandstone walls into the remote desert along a path that could hardly be called a road.  I would be staring at a windshield filled with the blue sky as the truck climbed a steep ridge and in the next instant at a red sand wash as it descended the hill.  Henry, my Navajo driver with Mitten View Tours, told me that this was the “good” road as he pointed across the valley to another ridge line about a mile away.  This was the old road he used to use which he said made his back ache—mine already did.  The pain quickly vanished as I walked to the rocky edge of the cliff and gazed at over a dozen red rock monoliths covering Monument Valley below me.

Dawn at Hunts Mesa

Names like Rain God Mesa, North Window, Thunderbird Mesa and the Totem Pole remind me of the how the Navajo believed these sentinels of rock came to exist.  They are the stony remains of monsters that plagued the “Glittering World” of the Diné until the children of Changing Woman, called the Twins, cast magical spells upon them turning them into rock.  This is a more interesting explanation than the geologists’ belief that it took 25 million years to create this stunning place.

I camped under the stars so I could encounter the view at sunrise from another viewpoint along the north face of Hunts Mesa.  A hearty breakfast prepared by our outfitter greeted my return to camp to pack for the journey down the mountain to my more comfortable accommodations at Goulding’s. I passed the old potato cellar of “Mike” Goulding, Harry’s wife, which was used as the cabin of Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne) in the movie “She wore a Yellow Ribbon”. You can still visit the cabin which is filled with memorabilia and even see the movie which plays in the small movie theatre at the Lodge.

My final night was spent capturing sunset and the stars at Artist’s Point.  The sky turned a deep red over the buttes and mesas as I pressed my camera shutter capturing the colorful sunset.  After dark, I captured the stars above Cly Butte and the Milky Way above Hunts Mesa with the help of my expert photography guide, Beth Ruggiero York.

Milky Way at Artist’s Point

The next day, I headed back to Phoenix with hundreds of images, indelible memories, and a head filled with the legends that made me believe that I had visited the place where God put the “Old West”.

Arizona Highways PhotoScapes has trips to Monument Valley in September 2021 and May 2022.  The photographers and photo guides are experts in helping you get great images. They know the local guides, best viewpoints, and secret places that will make your experience memorable.  Check them out at https://ahps.org.

Jim Chamberlain is a Photo Guide with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes