Daylong tour allows for longer, deeper look at Monument Valley

A Navajo man astride a buckskin horse poses for photos and tips at John Ford’s Point, named after the famous movie director renowned for his Westerns who filmed a number of his movies in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

A vivid sunrise over Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park paints the sky in orange and pink above the silhouetted monoliths of Sentinel Mesa, East Mittten Butte and Merrick Butte.

Lying back against the sandstone cliff below, one can see the head of an eagle with the hole open to the sky as its eye in the ceiling of Big Hogan Arch, according to Navajo tour guide Art Nelson.

Elvina Holiday of Monument Valley uses bundled straw as a comb while Franny Atherton of San Jose holds the yarn that Holiday will use to put Atherton’s hair up in the traditional Navajo hairstyle inside a mud and cedar hogan within the tribal park.

Square House is one of the many stops at Anasazi ruins, rock art, moki ladders and more sites during the full day tour that includes parts of the tribal park’s restricted area where one must be accompanied by a guide.

A collection of ancient pottery shards and rocks joins two small corncobs on one of the sandstone blocks of a ruin below Square House in the restricted area of the park.

Ancient rock art decorates the cliff face at the Many Hands ruin in Mystery Valley within the restricted area of the tribal park.

Tour guide Art Nelson of Kayenta drums and sings a traditional Navajo song wishing the people on his tour a safe journey at Big Hogan Arch in the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

“Yá’át’tééh Shik’is,” read the small wooden plaque in Navajo by the door of the mud-coated hogan.

“Greetings, friend.”

My husband, Mike Page, and I stepped through the door and into the past.

In the cool dark, Elvina Holiday spun colored yarn from sheep’s wool in front of her loom as she described how the Navajo create their famous rugs. Dressed in traditional skirts with silver and turquoise jewelry, she twisted the yarn in the domed home as her ancestors had for centuries.

The traditional hogan was one of several stops during the first half of a daylong tour my husband and I booked through Goulding’s Lodge of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park — Tsé Bii’Ndzisgaii in Navajo — with guide Art Nelson of Kayenta, Arizona.

Originally a trading post begun in the 1920s by Harry Goulding and his wife “Mike,” the old building is now a museum filled with artifacts from the area’s mining and Native American past. One room is dedicated to posters and photos of the many movies that have been made in Monument Valley.

During the 1930s, the Navajo were hit hard by the Great Depression. According to the lodge’s website, Goulding heard that a movie production company was scouting locations, so he and his wife took their last $60 and headed to Hollywood, where they managed to arrange a meeting with famous director John Ford. When Ford saw Goulding’s photos of Monument Valley, he knew he had found the perfect location for his next movie, “Stagecoach,” starring John Wayne.

Local Navajo were hired as cast and crew members. The Gouldings expanded their trading post to a lodge as they hosted movie production crews, photographers, artists and eventually tourists over the years.

The distinctive buttes and mesas of the valley came to epitomize the Wild West. Thousands from around the world now visit the iconic valley with its geologic monoliths made famous through films.

As a result, the first half of our tour was spent sightseeing in the most famous part of the valley. Nelson pointed out legendary geologic formations while driving an old Chevy truck with seats in the back for customers: West Mitten and East Mitten, Mitchell and Merrick Buttes (named after two soldiers who were killed trying to mine and steal silver from the Navajo), Gray Whiskers Butte, the Setting Hen and Elephant Butte.

We stopped at the Visitor Center to take the mandatory tourist photo of the dirt road winding back to the Mittens, and again at John Ford’s Point, where a Navajo man in a brilliant red shirt astride a buckskin horse posed for photos and tips.

The truck bounced down the dirt road to the hogan where Holiday answered questions about rug weaving, the construction of a traditional round house with its only door facing toward the rising sun, and a “male” hogan out back that doubled as a sweat lodge where the men would stay for four days before setting out on a hunt or going to war.

The tour moved on to natural arches — Ear of the Wind and then Big Hogan, where Nelson drummed and sang a traditional journey song to his customers before taking the half-day tourists back to the lodge.

As we resumed our daylong tour, the truck rumbled and rattled down the highway for about 10 miles before Nelson turned onto an unmarked dusty road leading to Mystery Valley. A sign announced that no one was allowed beyond that point without a guide.

The bumpy road wound past a few homesteads made up of rectangular houses with a hogan, vehicles, animals, stick corrals and dogs. About 300 Navajo live within the boundaries of the tribal park, many without running water or electricity.

Nelson turned off the dirt road and onto a set of tire tracks that led to a broad dry wash bed and back into a canyon.

He parked and cooked our lunch over a campfire while we explored the Many Hands ruin with its fading pictographs of dozens of hands scattered across a cliff wall.

At the head of the canyon several hundred yards away, the remnants of a small, crumbling Anasazi village clung to the earth below an overhang.

For the rest of the afternoon, Nelson trucked us through the desert valley, stopping at ruins, faint pictographs and petroglyphs worn by wind and rain, an ancient planter of rock by a tiny stream, a moki ladder, granaries and arches.

There was Honeymoon Arch, Half Moon Arch and Skull Arch, which stared at our group with its double arch “eyes.”

At Square House ruin, a sandstone wall held a collection of pottery shards in a variety of colors and textures along with two small corncobs.

A few dozen feet away was another collection of shards, a metate y mano grinding stone, and about a dozen round sandstone pebbles Nelson said the ancient ones used for a gambling game.

Solitary ravens glided along the cliff faces, flying in perfect rhythm with their shadows cast across the sandstone and their calls breaking the silence of the abandoned landscape and its wondrous, half-hidden treasures.

As the sun slid closer to the horizon, we headed back to the lodge down the rough, dirt road.

Hágoóneé, Mystery Valley.

“Happy Trails.”


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