Welcome to Monument Valley, a Navajo Tribal Park in northeastern Arizona’s red rock country. Monument Valley is the backdrop to hundreds of movies, commercials and photographs. It is considered a holy site by the Navajo, and for international travelers, it is the icon defining the American West. The park is open before dawn, because one of the most amazing natural views on the planet is the sun rising behind the Left and Right Mittens next to Merrick Butte.
Waiting for the Dawn
It’s 20 minutes before dawn. The kids are antsy. There’s a chill in the air. It’s pitch black and the family should still be in bed. There are several dozen people standing with you on the edge of the mesa staring into the dark. Were it not for the low stone wall, it would be possible to step off into the blackness of space surrounded by stars so bright, the map is readable by their light. Whispered conversations drift through the air like a light breeze. English, Japanese, German, French are heard.
Watches are checked, it should happen momentarily. This international gathering takes place every morning before dawn at the icon of the American West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Few other landscapes are so worldly recognized as the Mitten Buttes at Monument Valley. Starring with John Wayne’s in his first movie, “Stagecoach” the Mittens and Merrick Buttes are the stars of the West in hundreds of movies, videos, photos, and commercials.
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This is more than just watching a sunrise. It’s a learning experience. Like taking a Scenic Drive tour with a Navajo guide teaches how the Navajo live with their land. For me, the joy is in the learning and watching my daughter’s eyes open in wonder at the Native tales of Monument Valley. Bumping down the Valley’s dirt road, the Guide tells the legends behind each rock formation, the sand dunes, and buttes.
Navajo guided scenic tour
The tour takes several hours and there is a rest stop for bathroom break. However, it’s a pretty rustic tour. Pack a few snacks for inevitable grumbling stomachs. Some of the tours stop and let riders touch and explore the landscape. A number of Navajo families live and ranch in the Valley, and our guide told the story of typical Navajo family life.
Afterwards, we were too tired for making lunch at the campsite, so we went into the Visitor Center for burgers on the upper level outdoor deck. Following lunch, my 12 year old and I wandered into the Navajo Code Talkers museum. This was more interesting to me, a World War II buff, than to her, and watching her eyes glaze while I explained Windtalkers, I sighed and steered her out to the patio.
Artistic, a dancer, and fledgling pianist, her interest was immediately captured by the six Navajo in full native dree singing around a monstrous drum. As a sacred site, such spontaneous demonstrations of Navajo culture are common. A group of adults and children stood wide eyed as the drummers were joined by dancers in traditional regalia.
The stone-and-bead decorated costumes shone brightly in the desert sun. The feathered drumming hammered in powerful rhythms, voices raised in praise to the sky—it was obvious our afternoon hike was going to be delayed until her interest waned. A little further down the patio, several artists worked by easels painting the famous landscape of the Mittens and Merrick Butte as the lowering sun turned the rocks to fire.
Monument Valley connects a family with its incredible familiar but alien landscape, and its deep spiritual power.
Getting and staying at Monument Valley
The tribal park is located north of Kayenta, Arizona on U.S. 163, about six hours from Phoenix and about the same from Albuquerque. The park charges a per-person admissions fee. This is a sovereign nation within the bounds of the U.S. The Navajo Nation is larger than Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined with a popular of less than 250,000.
The tribe has a hotel located in the park, The View, which is set on the rim of a butte giving each room a private view of the Mittens at sunrise. A restaurant serving Southwest and Navajo foods bridges the hotel into the gift shop, visitor center and museum. The rooms are delightfully decorated in Navajo art with a traditional Navajo blanket on every bed. Rooms are a little tight for a family, but the beds are comfortable and large, bathrooms sparkling and well-appointed.
There are also other hotels in the area, Gouldings is literally across the street from the park, and in Kayenta, there are several local and chain motels.
A campground opened in 2015, nestled into a shallow bowl below the towers buttes and spires of Monument Valley. The tribe classifies the campground as primitive, which means pit toilets, limited access to water and no showers. This is disappointing considering the campground that used to be located where the View hotel now sits had really nice showers and bathrooms.Purple storm clouds are lit by the sun as it silhouettes Mitchell Butte at Monument Valley Tribal Park. Photo: Eric Jay Toll