Saturday, August 21, 2010 : Monument Valley, Mexican Hat, Moab


I begin the day by withdrawing a fistful of dollars at the nearest ATM. The guide with whom we have an appointment at Monument Valley has requested to be paid in cash. It is also the end of our second week, which went by even faster than the first one.


We leave Page by route 98, to Monument Valley. In another last-minute arbitration, we give up on visiting Antelope Canyon. It will be next time.


Near Page, AZ, magmatic push

Igneous intrusion in the middle of the plateau


We see several of these rock formations. We will learn later that they are igneous intrusions, more or less moldable rocks reaching up to the surface of earth crust and leaving these heaps. We already saw a few, we will see more. These igneous intrusions have too much energy to be stopped by limestone rock layers, but not enough to become live volcanoes.


Monument Valley, the Mittens, trailhead

Monument Valley, view of the Mittens, the trail starts here

With a little advance on our schedule, we make it to to Monument Valley by the scenic US-163 route, with a first view on the mesas. The place is called Oljato by the Navajo, it straddles both sides of the Utah-Arizona state line. For practical reasons, the whole Navajo nation uses daylight savings time, although the rest of Arizona does not.


We find two men in the hotel lobby. One is Tom, the man with whom I spoke last night. The other one is Sam, our guide for this day. Both of them are obviously ethnic Navajo. I give Tom my bundle of banknotes, and he gives back Sam at most a quarter of the sum. Then we climb at the back of an AWD, covered with a tarpaulin, to protect us from the sun. Given the weather, that is an excellent idea !


The hardly passable trail begins just at the end of the hotel parking lot. To my utter bewilderment, tourists drive their standard sedans on that awful trail peppered with potholes. I'd never have dared drive here with our rental Ford Fusion !


We are now right in the midst of a typical western landscape, which we can't possibly get tired of, though we have seen it hundreds of times in movies. If it were not for a few quite contemporary vehicles on the trail, I'd expect to be caught up by horseback Indians or a cavalry regiment. It's striking !


Monument Valley, John Wayne terrace

First stop : the John Wayne terrace


Sam is a highly skilled guide, it won't be long before we know why. He describes the valley in minute details. I really enjoy his comments, his descriptions of Navajo culture (he knows what he's talking about !), of flora, fauna, geology, weather ... I ask him many questions, and each time I get an answer. And, if he happens to ignore something, he is honest enough to tell. Sam owns his subject, and I warmly recommend him as a guide.


Our first stop is at the John Wayne Terrace. It is not an official name, it just designates the slightly elevated place where the house that can be seen in The Searchers is located. The house still exists, a bit derelict. The place in front of the house is a kind of market, where Navajo craftsmen sell their wares. As can be seen on the picture, the view of the valley is beautiful. The two glove-shaped buttes, one right-hand and one left-hand are, quite logically, nicknamed the Mittens.


Although it was not the first movie made at Monument Valley, The Searchers put the place on the map in the late-1930s. After that, moviemakers would all flock there, and not only for westerns. The story of Monument Valley is intricately woven with the story of movie-making.


All in all, we will make about a dozen stops.


Monument Valley, Welcome Visitors

WV = Welcome Visitors

Here too, erosion had a lot of fun. These rocky needles draw the letters WV which, according to Sam, means Welcome Visitors. I had already been educated about Native American humor, I get my share of it ... and, let me say, I enjoy it !


Monument Valley, hogan, Navajo village

Hogan, or indigenous village. Our guide was born here


A bit further, Sam slows down without stopping. On our right is a hogan, or small village. Our guide was born here, and his grandmother still lives here. Out of modesty, he does not wish to take us closer to the village, and out of respect, I do not ask him. We are fully satisfied with this distant view.


I now understand a little better why Sam knows the Valley so well. He is simply at home !


Monument Valley, Chief's Head

The Chief's Head


Monument Valley is an anthology of more or less appropriately nicknamed rock formations, be it by the Navajo themselves or by the tourists. We see the Camel, the Hippopotamus, the Mittens, the Elephant, and a significant number of Tables.


Soon we leave the main trail for another one, in pretty bad condition. Later on, we will understand that Sam has made a diversion to show us more places than we could have possibly seen otherwise.


Monument Valley, signs carved in the rock

Signs carved in the rock. The valley has been inhabited for a long time !


At a stop, Sam shows us these primitive carvings in the rock. It seems that the Valley has been settled pretty long ago by the Natives. It has been discovered by the white man only in the 1930s.


The dryness of the soil not permitting agriculture, the only available indigenous activity was cattle raising. Of course, everything changed with the advent of movie-making in the 1930s and tourism in the 1960s, with its cohort of tourist guides and local handcraft. And, for a few years now, the Navajo Nation has financed the construction of an hotel complex, complete with cultural exhibitions, displays of the Navajo institutions, the local government, the judicial system, and so on. Before leaving, I take some time to read the very instructive displays.


Monument Valley, storm remains

Yes, it does rain in Monument Valley


Further on, we have to leave the trail to get around a large pool. Sam tells us this is what remains of a big thunderstorm that hit the Valley a few weks ago. Considering the heat, evaporation is expected to be very high. So, if such a pond remains, the storm must have been pretty intense !


Conclusion : it does not rain too often in Monument Valley, but when it does, it is not half-heartedly !


Monument Valley, Ear of the Wind

The Ear of the Wind


As in other places, the limestone is very soft, and wind erosion has created extremely diverse shapes. We see several openings similar to this one, the Ear of the Wind.


The Navajo gave these formations very suggestive names. The Ear of the Wind owes as much to its shape as to the slight whistling of the wind in the opening.


Monument Valley, the Old Squaw

The Old Squaw


This opening in the top of the cave let water pass thru, thus sculpting the rock and blackening one side, giving this old lady profile.


Monument Valley, creative erosion

Erosion, again


And, when erosion chews the base of a rock without touching the top, we see these strange hat-like shapes. We will see more.


Monument Valley, another ear

Another ear


Further on, we see another ear-shaped hole in the rock. The opening is actually almost circular, but the combination of shadow and light gives it this specific ear shape.


Monument Valley, the Totem, The Eiger Sanction

The Totem. Clint Eastwood climbs it in The Eiger Sanction


We exit the narrowest part of the Valley for a much wider part, where we see this group of needles. The leftmost is the Totem, which Clint Eastwood climbs in The Eiger Sanction. After the shooting, access has been prohibited, for safety reasons.


Monument Valley, sand dunes

Sand dunes in Monument Valley


Then we cross a few sand dunes, much like in Sahara.


Monument Valley, last glimpse of the Valley

One last panoramic glimpse of the Valley


Our visit of Monument Valley is nearing its end. Sam stops us on the side of a mesa, at about half-height. After a short walk, we get this superb view of the whole Valley. It is the last one. We are soon back at our starting point. The visit, which was supposed to take 2 1/2 hours, lasted about an extra hour. We warmly thank Sam. It was a very instructive and friendly tour, with lots of places we would never have found by ourselves.


Then we have a picnic in the shadow of the visitor center and we hit the road again.


Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat


We leave the Navajo Nation at the very appropriately named Mexican Hat small town. We take this picture of this surprising rock. It can stay like it is, balanced on its base, for another 1,000 years. Or it can fall tomorrow. Erosion will decide.


Close to Moab, UT, La Sal Mountains

View of the La Sal Mountains 


We proceed on our road to Moab. A few miles before, we get this beautiful view of the La Sal mountains, meaning something like Moutains of Salt, in Spanish. They are not real volcanoes, just big igneous intrusions, who heaved and pushed all surrounding rocks.


Owing to its location between two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, Moab is a city that lives mostly off tourism. There are many hotels and other activities. For once, we will stay two nights at the same place. It's nice not to have to repack everything each morning !

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