Even if you’ve never been to Monument Valley, you’ve probably seen it often without realizing it. Monument Valley is frequently used as a background for magazine ads and television commercials. Yet, Monument Valley’s biggest claim to fame is that it was often the site of movie westerns, especially those made by John Ford starring John Wayne.
In fact, John Ford made so many westerns in Monument Valley that a point was named for him. Some major films photographed here include Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), The Searchers (1956), How The West Was Won (1962), and many more.
Monument Valley has magnificent scenery with huge mesas, stunning buttes, and delicate pinnacles in dramatic formations on a flat desert plain. These stark formations are the “monuments”–their red colors standing out in sharp contrast against a deep blue sky, while ever changing light and cloud shadows create new images. First-time visitors are surprised to learn Monument Valley is not a national park. It is a tribal park administered by the Cultural Resource Department of the Navajo Nation. Indians still live in Monument Valley, herding sheep and goats, weaving rugs, and using hogans– mud and log structures.
For all its beauty, Monument Valley gets very little attention in the travel guide books, so many visitors make only a quick stop to view the Valley on their way between the National Parks of Arizona and Utah. However, photographers should plan to spend some time here. Different times of day produce different interpretations of the “monuments.” Changing skies provide a dramatic backdrop. Even the seasons can provide fresh new images as when white snow contrasts with the bold red buttes.
There are three ways to see Monument Valley: from the Visitor Center (a spectacular view), on a self guided drive through the valley (which limits you to certain areas), and with an Indian-guided on a four-wheel-drive tour into the heart of the valley. Although you should do all three, you’ll have to choose which ones suits your available time.
View From the Visitor’s Center
On your drive to Monument Valley, you’ll be impressed with the monuments along the highway, especially if you’re traveling early or late in the day when sidelight shows the monuments at their best. However, nothing prepares you for your first view of Monument Valley as you pull into the parking area at the Visitor Center. There before you, on a vast plain, are three magnificent buttes–Left (East) Mitten, Right (West) Mitten, and Merrick Butte. They’re huge (nearly 1,000 feet high) and more than a mile apart.
This view is superb any time of day, but it’s particularly impressive when the sky is full of white clouds. It is even more spectacular when the setting sun turns the buttes to gold, or before dawn, as the sun rises behind the buttes, silhouetting them against a dark blue and then red sky. The sunrise photo can be even more spectacular if your visit is a couple of days after the new moon when the emerging crescent moon rises above the buttes. Plan to return to this location several times during the day for an exciting new look each time.
The Mittens are good photographic subjects–either photographed alone or together, and all three buttes make an excellent composition. Although a 35mm lens is a bit tight for photographing all three, they do fit. A 28mm lens works better, and a 24mm lens is especially effective if the sky looks particularly dramatic.
Photos that have horizons cutting through the very center tend to be boring and static. Avoid this by tilting your camera up or down to include lots of sky in some shots (especially if it is an interesting sky), and lots of the foreground plain in others. You’ll like them both, and they’ll be more dramatic than your average pictures.
For sunset shots from the Visitor Center, you’ll want to close in on one or both of the Mittens. The bluff where the Visitor Center stands casts a shadow on the base of the buttes, creating deep contrasting shadows. This can be effective in a simple composition, but make sure the dark shadow doesn’t fool your meter into overexposing the highlights. Underexpose to compensate.
Self-Guided Valley Drive
As grand as the view is from the Visitor Center, you’ll want to photograph more of the Valley. If you have a few hours to photograph Monument Valley, take the 17-mile self- guided valley tour. The tour can be done in an hour and a half, although you should plan to spend more time. Go when the park opens in the morning or else in late afternoon for best lighting. Some areas of the self-guided valley tour are also included in the Indian- guided tours. If you can spend more than a half day at Monument Valley, take the Indian- guided tour first, and then the self-guided tour on your own time.
Although the self-guided tour takes you to limited areas of the Valley, you can return to certain locations at different times and take your time choosing the best photographic composition. Consider driving this route several times if you can so you can photograph the various views and landmarks in different lighting. Early in the morning the skies are clear, the colors are cooler, and sidelight adds definition to the buttes and pinnacles. In late afternoon the light is warmer, and the haze often makes the foreground buttes stand out in sharp contrast to a softer, hazy background.
The self-guided drive follows a dirt road that can be rough in spots. The worst part of the drive is the first half-mile steep descent into the valley, so take it slowly. The highlights of the self-guided tour are covered below.
Much of Monument Valley is off limits and accessible only on an Indian-guided tour. There are several reasons for this: the roads are bad, there are ancient ruins and artifacts that could be destroyed by eager tourists, and this is private land where Indians live. These tours also give the Indians a chance to tell you something about their land and culture.
The Indian-guided tours are worth it if you have time–they take from two-and-one-half hours to all day. On these tours you can photograph some outstanding natural formations, petroglyphs, ancient ruins, and staged events, where Indians dress in traditional costumes, demonstrate traditional skills, or pose as part of the scenery.
The disadvantages of these tours are that you’re not always at a location at the best time of day, and the stops are short, so you can’t devote much time to photography.
Several types of Indian-guided tours are offered. Half-day tours go through Monument Valley and Mysterious Valley. While Mysterious Valley contains more ancient Indian ruins and artifacts, the Monument Valley tour has more spectacular scenery and you still get to see some Indian ruins and petroglyphs. A special eight-hour tour takes you through both Monument Valley and Mysterious Valley.
Tours go out in the morning and in the afternoon. Since midday is a pretty dull time to shoot, the stops during the last part of the morning tour and the first part of the afternoon tour will be pretty poor, photographically. For instance, one of the last stops is near red- colored sand dunes–a dull scene at 11:30 a.m. If you must choose one tour, the afternoon one is best. If you have more time, consider taking both.
Tours originate from the Visitor Center, Goulding’s Trading Post (six miles from the Visitor Center), and the towns of Bluff, Mexican Hat, and Kayenta. The tours that leave from the Visitor Center take fewer people, possibly allowing you more photography time. The half-day and full-day tours leave from Goulding’s. You ride in a small bus that carries about 20 people. On this tour you’re more likely to get a chance to photograph staged events, since these are often done only for larger audiences.
Self-Guided Valley Tour
The Descent into the Valley (Lower Valley View)
The road from the Visitor Center descends in a series of steep switchbacks. As you near the bottom, you come to a broad turnout on the right. Stop here and walk over to the edge of the bluff for a lower view of the three buttes. You’ll need a 24mm lens to include all three buttes, and the view is best in the afternoon.
Continue to the valley floor and then pull over to the right at Marker #1 for another view of the three buttes. A dead tree at the edge of the turnout makes a good frame for a wide- angle composition of Merrick Butte.
Marker #2 (Mitten View)
Pull over to the left at Marker #2. This is one of the best photo stops in the Valley, so you may want to spend some time here and, if possible, return at several different times of the day. To the left below you is a water-filled basin. Walk down to the edge of the pond for reflecting views of Left Mitten. This view is best in the morning when the sun reflects off the butte. Walk up the hill to your right where you’ll find a dead tree that makes a superb frame for Left Mitten–one of the best pictures in the valley. In the morning the sun glows on the butte. In the afternoon it’s a totally different picture with the Mitten as a dark silhouette. A 35mm lens does fine for a close-cropped composition, but try a wider lens to include more sky or more foreground for interesting compositions.
Drive to the sign that says “Elephant Butte.” This butte (to your left, or southeast) looks more like an elephant in the afternoon. In the morning, however, you have a good telephoto shot of the “Three Sisters” pinnacles to your right (south).
John Ford’s Point
Drive 0.7 miles to the turnoff marked “John Ford’s Point.” There is a lean-to here where, during the summer, you may find a Navajo woman weaving or selling jewelry. Continue down the road until it ends at John Ford’s Point. Here you have a closer view of the Three Sisters (a 70mm-100mm lens is sufficient). Out over the valley looking northeast is a panoramic view of the three buttes and, far behind them, Big Indian Butte and Castle Mesa. If you happen to be here between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. or 2:00 and 2:30 p.m. when the Goulding’s tour makes its stop, you may get a chance to photograph an Indian on horseback as he poses up on a bluff.
The Totem Pole and Sand Dunes
Return to the main road and drive 2.2 miles to a sign marked “Scenic Turnoff” and pull into the parking area. From this location you have a view of the “Totem Pole” and “Yei- Bi-Chei” pinnacles. This is also the beginning of the red sand dune area. Drive 0.3 miles to the next sign marked “Scenic Turnoff” and take the road to the right. Park in the area to your left before the road climbs up a steep hill. A shallow stream crosses the road here and nearby are magnificent red sand dunes–best photographed early in the day when low light adds definition to their form. This is also a good spot to photograph more views of the Totem Pole.
The road is steep up to the next stop, and if you’d rather walk, the walk is a short one. From here you have the best views of the Totem Pole and the sand dunes, and from this point, are best photographed either early or late in the day. This is also the location of Sand Springs, the major source of water in the area. Late in the day you may be fortunate enough to photograph Indians driving their herds of sheep down the sand dunes to the water.
Return to the main road and continue 0.8 miles to a log hogan on the right side of the road. There is a small turnout a little farther down the road where you can park. A sign at the entrance to the hogan makes it difficult to photograph from the front, so you’ll have to settle for a back view.
Take the turnoff to Artist’s Point and park in the large parking area for a terrific panoramic view of the valley–best if clouds break up the sky, casting light and dark shadows on the land. You also may find Indian women in colorful costumes selling jewelry here.
Return to the main road and take the next right at the turnoff marked “North Window.” Pull into the parking area just off the road, making sure you park on the road side of the tree that is in the center of the parking area. This tree makes a good frame for the view of Right (East) Mitten through the Window. The Mitten probably won’t look familiar to you from this angle. Across from the parking area is the thumb. With a wide-angle lens you can get close to the base of the thumb and silhouette it against the sky.
Continue down the side road until it ends at North Window and walk up the trail to the right for a magnificent view of the distant buttes with East Mitten in the foreground. A 100mm lens works well here, but consider using a wide-angle lens if the sky is particularly dramatic. If you turn around and look to the east, you have another good telephoto shot of the Three Sisters.
Rejoin the main road, which in turn rejoins the original road you came in on. Stop again at Marker #2–“Mitten View” on the way back–it’ll look entirely different.
Map of the Monument Valley Area
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