Exploring and Photographing the Dramatic Vistas of Northern Arizona
Monument Valley, or Tse' Bii' Ndzisgaii as the Navajos say, is the symbol par excellence of the American Southwest. Used hundreds of times as a backdrop for films and video clips, seen in innumerable TV and magazines ads, Monument Valley has become a kind of "transitory object" of humanity's collective psyche. Its subliminal imagery invokes a powerful associative reflex. The entire world intuitively knows that such a landscape only exists in the American West. A simple image, a profile on the horizon is enough to make us dream of great spaces, infinite possibilities, and escape from the daily grind and worries of our lives. Even its audacious name, "Monument Valley" who would think of calling a piece of the planet such a name somehow conjures up a prehistoric world patrolled by dinosaurs. In any case, whether it's dreams or products, Monument Valley delivers.
The visit to Monument Valley won't disappoint you and you'll get your money's worth for the dream that made you come here in the first place. Everything is here just as you envisioned it: the hundreds of miles to get there, the long rectilinear ribbon of the road seen glimmering in the heat waves miles ahead and the fantastic monoliths profiled on the horizon. But it's no longer just a vision...you are now living the dream.
The visit to this park administered by the Navajo Nation begins at the Visitor Center where your gaze embraces a scene of extraordinary beauty over the valley and the landmark buttes of West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick. These buttes, like the majority of formations in Monument Valley, look like a block of blond sandstone that's been cut with a sharp knife, covered by a hard, protective layer, while friable shale forms the base. This geologic combination gives these buttes their characteristic stair-step effect produced by the scree of the shale bed leading to a deep-cut mass that is protected on the summit.
To get the most out of Monument Valley and bring back quality photos, you have to spend a bit of time and descend by car into the valley. A 17 mile circuit will lead you into the middle of the monuments, and you will pass some extremely photogenic spots along the way. The road is a bit rough on the descent, but it becomes much easier later on, so don't hesitate.
I have found that the best and most complete way to visit Monument Valley is to make two forays inside the park: the first in the afternoon in the company of a private Navajo guide and the second early in the morning in your own car.
A visit in the company of a private guide offers great flexibility and allows you to penetrate much further into the valley than you could with just your car. A guided tour will also take you around Thunderbird Mesa, the mesa just south of Rain God Mesa. This allows you to see various arches and get very close to the Totem and Yei-bi-chei, so you may photograph them with the dunes in the foreground. This is otherwise impossible from the scenic turnoffs of Totem Pole and Sand Springs where the dunes are almost invisible. The guide can also take you behind Mitten and Merrick buttes allowing you to vary the angles and lighting effects. In addition, the guide may offer you a visit to a hogan?the traditional Navajo homebuilt of wood and topped with claywhere you can meet Navajos in traditional costume working at their weaving looms.
Early in the morning, familiar now with the circuit road and the layout of the place, you can take your time to return and photograph the valley. Outside the park, coming from Kayenta, you'll encounter a gigantic conical monolith on the right. This is Agathla Peak, better known as El Capitan. The mass of El Capitan makes a sensational photograph, captured with a telephoto lens from about a mile away on either side depending on the time and angle of the sun.
Getting there: Coming from Page or Tuba City on the 160, take US 163 towards Kayenta; from Moab by the 191, turn onto US 163 right after Bluff. A 4-mile long paved road takes you to the Visitor Center. Except after a rain, the valley road poses no problems for passenger cars or campers. In front of the Visitor Center, you'll find half a dozen concessions offering organized tours of the park. Group visits don't offer the same flexibility as one in the company of a private guide.
Photo advice: There are plenty of things to photograph and happily, the beginning of the morning and end of the afternoon are both interesting. However, the afternoon is always preferred since colors are very warm and sunsets can be absolutely unreal if you are lucky enough to have clouds. Making only the Scenic Drive circuit can be unfulfilling because, as signs at each stop remind you, walking around is prohibited. This is very discouraging since you'll really want to get closer to the formations (in particular the dunes at Totem). If the sky is cloudless, you'll only get good photos at sunrise or sunset, but a blue sky with thick white clouds will make for good results all day long. The ideal situation: a stormy sky towards evening with a few sunrays on the buttes.
The perspectives are extremely varied and you'll be constantly changing focal lengths. A zoom lens will prove extremely useful. A very wide angle lens (28 mm minimum, 24 mm preferred) is necessary to photograph the three buttes from the Visitor Center. A short telephoto can isolate each butte and eliminate the shadow zone produced by the vast mesa on which you are standing. The ideal time to photograph is in the evening as the setting sun embraces the buttes, but you can also get great back lit shots of the buttes profiled against a blue and red-charged sky by coming back just before dawn.
On the Scenic Drive, the loop made by the road around the Rain God Mesa will let you adapt to the lighting conditions. You can photograph just as well in the morning as in the evening. After leaving the Visitor Center, the road descends in switchbacks to the valley below. It's possible to get some lovely shots of the buttes from a wide opening located at one of the bends in the road, or from the dunes situated at the bottom of the descent.
John Ford's Point offers an excellent view of the Three Sisters group. You can capture it with a short telephoto lens, preferably in the morning since you would be shooting against the light in the afternoon.
In the morning, you can get a very nice photo of the Hub with a long telephoto lens that will compress the area between the Navajo hogans situated in front of the Hub with Weatherhill Mesa in the background.
The scenic turnoffs of Totem Pole and Sand Springs lead to two remarkable views of the Totem, Yei-bi-chei and the dunes. A 135 to 200 mm lens is necessary to photograph them, preferably in the warm light of afternoon. The Sand Springs viewpoint offers the best angle to photograph the Totem.
Further ahead, be sure not to miss Artist's Point for a fantastic panorama of the valley using either a wide-angle or a telephoto lens. It's particularly spectacular at the end of the afternoon. Finally, the stop at North Windows offers a superb view of the Mittens that you can frame in the"window" that opens in front of you.
Between Artist's Point and North Window, you have a very nice perspective over the Three Sisters, very different from what you saw at John Ford's Point an hour earlier.
Finally, you have probably read or are aware of the fact that it is forbidden to photograph the resident Navajos without their permission. You can usually find some Navajos at the main viewpoints who will pose for a modest sum. During summer, tours organized by the Gouldings Trading Post will allow you to photograph costumed Navajos posing for the tourists....if this is what you want.
Time required: One and a half hours if you are in a hurry and can only stop at the Visitor Center to admire the panorama, linger a bit in the boutique or bargain for jewelry in the Navajo stalls located at the entrance to the park. Allow one and a half to two hours for the Scenic Drive. Finally, plan on a day and a night if you want to photograph in the morning and the evening. For this you can stay at Kayenta or, even better, at the luxurious Goulding's Trading Post, just a short distance from the park.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication