The Navajo Nation: A Photography Guide

The famed Mittens, calling card of Monument Valley Tribal Park, Utah and Arizona. © Jerry Ginsberg
The Famed Mittens, Calling Card of Monument Valley Tribal Park © Jerry Ginsberg

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

These days, whenever I think of the innumerable terrific photo destinations throughout our county, especially the great Southwest, my reaction has become, “Wait until next year.” With travel planning now stuck in limbo waiting out the coronavirus, it doesn’t hurt to catalog some of the places that await us when we are once again free to roam around in search of great places and great images. High on that list are the lands of the Diné Bikéyah or Navajo Nation.

At over 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, this sprawling tract is home to about 180,000 Native Americans. Tragically, they have been hit very hard by the coronavirus. As a result, the reservation has been locked down and prohibiting visitors for some time with an end not yet in sight.

Looking forward to brighter days, let’s take stock of some of the region’s visual highlights.

The Mittens © Jerry Ginsberg
The Mittens © Jerry Ginsberg

Monument Valley Tribal Park

By any standard, the top spot on all lists has got to be the famed Monument Valley. Before we delve into the specifics of this land that teems with fantastic forms, a word of history is in order. The Navajo have lived in the Four Corners area for centuries. They were preceded by even older native peoples dating back to the Ice Age. Among the best known white settlers to make their home here were Harry & “Mike” Goulding, who arrived around 1921, bought about 640 acres, and set up shop to trade with the locals. After the first structures of Goulding’s Trading Post went up in 1928, Harry continued looking for more opportunity. Eventually, he recruited pioneering landscape photographer Josef Muench, father of the legendary landscape master David Muench and grandfather of Marc Muench, to make some images of the fantastic landscape. Harry Goulding then took those prints to Hollywood where he caught the interest of Director John Ford who made his iconic 1939 Western “Stagecoach” right there in Monument Valley.

That started a decades-long trend during which Ford and others shot numerous films, many now classics, within the valley and adjacent lands.

Many of those now familiar Monument Valley scenes are all over the place just waiting for us to make fresh interpretations. Surprisingly, the classic composition of the Mittens and Merrick Butte can be seen right from the parking lot, but that’s just scratching the surface of all that this place has to offer.

As a quick orientation you might wish to take a standard valley tour during the often harsh light of day, but to get serious, you will need to hire one of the many local guides to take you around both well before sunrise and again in the late afternoon.

Distinctive Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei © Jerry Ginsberg
Distinctive Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei © Jerry Ginsberg

With a competent private guide, you can learn the names of the many distinctive forms and when they can be photographed in the best light.

Such iconic spots as Yei Bi Chei and its columnar Totem Pole, North Window, the Three Sisters, John Ford Point, the Stagecoach, King on his Throne and the fancifully named Mystery Valley are all there for you.

However, for some even more special images, you will need to go a bit off the beaten path and wander beyond the heart of the valley itself. For these you will need one or two more specialized guides who really know what they are doing.

View through the Teardrop Arch into Monument Valley  © Jerry Ginsberg
View through the Teardrop Arch into Monument Valley © Jerry Ginsberg

First, catch a ride up to the Teardrop Arch above Monument Valley High School. Try to be there in the late afternoon in spring. About 3:00 PM in April and May works best. Autumn light can cast an objectionable shadow line right across this unique redrock window.

Right alongside Route 160 between the valley entrance and the town of Kayenta stands mighty Agathla Peak. This volcanic plug rises dramatically from the flat ground surrounding it. Its dark and brooding form has been a backdrop in several Hollywood movies, notably the closing scene of the classic Western “My Darling Clementine.” 

View from Atop Hunt's Mesa © Jerry Ginsberg
View from Atop Hunt’s Mesa © Jerry Ginsberg

For the quintessential Navajo Nation experience, hire an experienced outfitter and spend 24 hours camping on top of Hunt’s Mesa. The afternoon and evening views from a thousand feet above the valley floor are simply stupendous!

Even though this is a dry desert climate, the summer months here bring monsoon season. Strong thunderstorms accompanied by lots of lightning can be present here in spring, but June, July & August are more likely to see them, especially in the afternoon. If you own an electronic lightning trigger, this is definitely the place to use it.

The old adage “Bad weather makes great photographs.” is certainly true. So is “Lightning is dangerous to photographers.” Be careful.

From Monument Valley we can explore other great places both on and off Reservation lands. Spoke roads radiate out to the north and west. Let’s first head north.

View from Atop Hunt's Mesa during a Thunderstorm  in Monument Valley © Jerry Ginsberg
View from Atop Hunt’s Mesa during a Thunderstorm in Monument Valley © Jerry Ginsberg

Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park & Valley of the Gods

Lying just a short drive northeast of Monument Valley and across the San Juan River is the tiny town of Mexican Hat, Utah. Here you will find an overlook offering a panoramic view of the convoluted twists of the river and the repeating land forms shaped by its flow. With its largely monochromatic look, this is a really good place to consider making images in black & white.

Moving on a bit further north will bring you to The Valley of the Gods.

Its many red sandstone formations are interesting and can be photographed successfully in the right light, but after a couple of days in nearby Monument Valley, might seem quite understated.

Hovenweep Tower in Hovenweep National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg
Hovenweep Tower in Hovenweep National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg

The Moki (Moqui) Dugway and Beyond

Once you are ready to move on from the valley area, head north up the steep and winding Moki Dugway toward Cedar Mesa. Once reaching the top, look for the inter-agency ranger station on the right. It holds a wealth of good information in the area. This large mesa is just honeycombed with countless centuries-old Native American sites, many as yet undiscovered. These are mostly granaries and small dwellings.

One of the most photogenic and my personal favorite is a small spot within Mule Canyon popularly called House on Fire because of its brilliant red overhang that seems reminiscent of many tongues of flame reaching up.

Close by Mule Canyon is Natural Bridges National Monument. A one way loop road of about ten miles passes the trail heads of all three of the huge stone arches for which the monument is named.

This area is west of Rt. 191 and the little town of Blanding, UT. Wandering further afield – east of Blanding is Hovenweep National Monument with its many wonderful historic Anasazi structures lining the edges of an oval shaped canyon. A loop trail will take you past most of them.

White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg
White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg

National Monuments

Let’s turn our attention now to a couple of great chunks of Navajo land that lie east and west of Monument Valley.

One of the anomalies on the Navajo Nation is the overlay of National Park Service jurisdiction within Navajo lands. Two such locations stand out: Canyon de Chelly and Navajo National Monument (aka Tsegi Canyon). While the Res. nominally holds sovereignty, the Feds have rights of way to specific roads and trails. It’s a delicate, if sometimes ambiguous balance that requires all visitors to respect the wishes of their hosts and be on their best behavior at all times.

Navajo National Monument

A fairly short drive from Monument Valley through Kayenta, AZ is the canyon known as Tsegi. It’s interesting to drive through, but to appreciate the essence of this special place, you will need to lace up your hiking boots.

Check with monument administration for availability of the early morning ranger led hike down to the huge and elegantly curving Betatakin niche enclosing its ancient homes and other buildings.

Spider Rock towers over Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg
Spider Rock Towers over Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Jerry Ginsberg

Canyon de Chelly

Just outside the tiny town of Chinle, AZ (southeast of Monument Valley) lies this large and very scenic eroded sandstone canyon. Years ago it was a simple matter of driving up to the visitor center and hiring one of the many local guides available there. In today’s age of mass tourism brought about largely by Instagram, the process has become far more regimented and less favorable for our specialized needs. Most group tours are run during the day when the light does not lend itself to photography.

There is another option. By simply driving the rim roads and adding in a little hiking, you can take in a few of the primary Canyon de Chelly spots at your own convenience. The paved road will get you to the sandstone monolith called Spider Woman Rock and around adjacent Canyon del Muerte. Perhaps the most iconic place here is White House Ruin, famously expressed in high contrast black & white by none other than Ansel Adams. Since his visits to Canyon de Chelly predated the age of social media, he was able to explore where and when he chose unencumbered by group tours.

The best opportunity to see White House Ruin under the most favorable light is to hike down from the road in mid-late afternoon. Once reaching the canyon’s bottom, walk a short distance along the Chinle Wash until reaching the ruin. The trail cuts through private farmlands so it’s important to be mindful of the privacy of the local folks.

Light filters down into a unique slot canyon. This image of the Corkscrew in Lower Antelope Canyon has appeared on the cover of Arizona Highways magazine.© Jerry Ginsberg
Light filters down into a unique slot canyon. This image of the Corkscrew in Lower Antelope Canyon has appeared on the cover of Arizona Highways magazine.© Jerry Ginsberg

Page, Arizona

No visit to the lands of the Navajo can ever be complete without adequate time spent in Page. This once sleepy reservation town is now a tourist magnet thick with hotels of every possible stripe. It has been fairly well established that the catalyst for this explosion in tourism is social media.

Page is surrounded by several great natural features. The best known high spots among these are:

In recent years, several of these have become extremely popular tourist spots. Be prepared for crowds and some level of regimentation. Each one of these locations provides the elements to help you come home with outstanding images. A few of them have enabled me to produce some commercially-successful work.

The unique sandstone forms of Lower Antelope Canyon were carved by wind and water. Basically just a crack in the Earth that allows sunlight in, slot canyons are unique places found in the Southwest.© Jerry Ginsberg
The unique sandstone forms of Lower Antelope Canyon were carved by wind and water. Basically just a crack in the Earth that allows sunlight in, slot canyons are unique places found in the Southwest.© Jerry Ginsberg

Logistics

If flying into the area, the best airport choices are Las Vegas and Phoenix. Both will still require a bit of a drive to reach the Navajo Nation.

Lodging choices can be a bit limited if aiming for the most convenient locations. For Monument Valley my favorite is venerable Goulding’s Lodge. The newer View Hotel is perched right on the rim of the valley overlooking the Mittens. Reservation towns such as Kayenta and Chinle, Arizona, as well as Blanding, Utah, offer a few excellent options. However, Page now has what may be an over-supply of choices.

After leaving the highways behind, you will find that many of the roads in the area are unpaved. Consider renting an SUV with 4 wheel or All Wheel Drive.

A well known and seemingly ubiquitous local dish is the popular Navajo Taco or ‘Frybread.’ This is best enjoyed by folks who have really low cholesterol.

Photo of Jerry GinsbergJerry Ginsberg is an award-winning and widely-published 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 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.