Story & Photography by Jerry Ginsberg
Monument Valley Tribal Park, situated within the sprawling Navajo Nation, is not a National Park, nor is it federal land. It is a fascinating and wonderfully scenic, 30+ square mile chunk of Arizona and Utah belonging to the Navajo people.
In only a few places on Earth can we find such a concentration of fantastically-eroded sandstone formations in such a relatively small area.
A Famous Movie Setting
Drawn to this remarkable place by the photographs of Josef Muench, Hollywood came calling in the late 1930’s. The result has been scores of feature movies with this landscape as their unmistakable backdrop. Best known among these are the many famous Westerns of John Ford and John Wayne, still running frequently on TV many decades later. More recent productions have ranged from Forest Gump to a Transformers movie to the HBO series Westworld.
It is this same stunning landscape that continues to draw us photographers to Monument Valley in the 21st century. Tribal rules prohibit hiking through this vast, otherworldly land, but there are a couple of great ways to take in its wonders.
Photographing Monument Valley
Monument Valley contains a bunch of unique places that should not be missed. Included on that “shot list” are the iconic and unique forms of the Mittens, Three Sisters, Ear of the Wind, Eye of the Sun, Teardrop Arch and the Totem with its larger Yei Bi Chei group. The latter faces primarily east and west, and can be photographed successfully both morning and evening, often from either side at either time!
One of the easiest ways to see the valley is by taking the self-driving route. This dirt road passes several of the valley’s biggest highlights, such as the Mittens, but limits you to the valley’s “greatest hits.”
A better choice is to hire a local, private guide. This works best when the guide is a passenger in your four-wheel drive vehicle, though riding along in their vehicle works, too. In either case, you will be able to go most everywhere and get up close and personal with every possible composition in this fantastic landscape.
In addition to the valley’s stellar attractions, your guide can show you many hidden spots that will enable you to frame the major geologic features with gracefully twisted junipers and other dramatic foregrounds.
Getting to the Teardrop Arch, located well above Monument Valley High School, requires a short drive through a confusing maze of rock and sand. It is best done in a guide’s vehicle rather than your own. Try for an enclosed vehicle. The dust encountered in an open touring pickup truck can be dangerous to your gear.
Shooting through Teardrop Arch is an exciting experience with a stunning view. The light strikes this imposing rock in the afternoon, perhaps three hours or so before sunset. Broken clouds moving through the arch’s opening will be a big help in providing depth and interest to the scene. Note, however, that this is best photographed in spring; especially April & May. Once autumn arrives, a shadow falls diagonally across half of the arch badly disrupting the composition.
Side Trip I: Hunt’s Mesa
A very different excursion, one that can complete your ultimate Monument Valley experience, is an overnight visit to Hunt’s Mesa. From this lofty perch, you will have a very different and rarely seen perspective on the valley below. To make this trip, you will need to hire one of the many local outfitters who will drive you up the mesa and then down the following day. You might find one in the parking lot at the visitor center or you can email me for a recommendation. Make sure to carefully specify who will provide the necessary camping gear.
Side Trip II: Navajo National Monument
A terrific one-day side trip from Monument Valley is to Navajo National Monument. This sprawling canyon is reached by taking Rt. 160 west from nearby Kayenta, AZ, and making the well-signed right turn north onto Rt. 564 to the monument. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, you can take ranger-guided hikes into Tsegi Canyon, site of two outstanding 13th century Anasazi (ancestral Puebloan) dwellings that are spectacularly well-preserved.
- Getting to Keet Seel requires both a 17-mile (roundtrip) hike and a permit, obtained online and well in advance. Only 20 hikers per day are allowed on this trail.
- Visiting the spectacular Betatakin is a very rewarding and, happily, a much simpler affair. Instant permits are available early each morning. Just be at the visitor center at least 45-60 minutes before opening time to sign up for the morning hike into the canyon. This is a fairly moderate trek that includes an initial descent of several hundred feet down to the huge Betatakin alcove. While you do need to be prepared for the steep climb out, no special skills are needed.
Whichever hike you choose, make sure to bring plenty of water and your wide-medium zoom. Something like a 24-70mm lens (on a full frame sensor) will do the trick. Hiking sticks will be a big help and cut down on the effort needed. It can get mighty warm in the desert Southwest during the summer, so avoid planning your trip during the hottest weather. Instead, go as early in the summer and as early in the day as possible.
Monument Valley and Navajo National Monument are located approximately equidistant from the major gateway airports of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Albuquerque. Plan on a multi-hour drive from any of them.
A four-wheel drive vehicle with good ground clearance will prove very useful if you want to drive to many of the best locations in Monument Valley and to the many off-the-beaten-trail photography spots throughout the Southwest.
Lodging choices in or near Monument Valley are varied and will be key to your logistical success. The venerable Goulding’s Lodge is just up the road from the park entrance and offers many services, history and tradition. The View Hotel, sitting right on the rim of the valley, has the best views and closest location, but at higher rates. Kayenta, AZ, about 25 miles away, offers several excellent accommodations, usually available at somewhat lower cost. There are also campgrounds at Monument Valley and near Navajo National Monument.
Jerry Ginsberg is a freelance photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.
His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.