The kids are antsy. There’s a chill in the air. It’s pitch black and the family should still be in bed. There are several dozen people standing with you on the edge of the mesa staring into the dark. Were it not for the low stone wall, it would be possible to step off into the blackness of space surrounded by stars so bright, the map is readable by their light. Whispered conversations drift through the air like a light breeze. English, Japanese, German, French are heard.
Watches are checked, it should happen momentarily. This international gathering takes place every morning before dawn at the icon of the American West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Few other landscapes are so worldly recognized as the Mitten Buttes at Monument Valley. Starring with John Wayne in his first movie, “Stagecoach” the Mittens and Merrick Buttes (photo) are the stars of the West in hundreds of movies, videos, photos, and commercials.
This is more than just watching a sunrise. It’s a learning experience. For me, the joy is in the learning and watching my daughter’s eyes open in wonder at the Native tales of Monument Valley.
Bumping down the Valley’s dirt road, the Guide tells the legends behind each rock formation, the sand dunes, and buttes. The tour takes several hours and there is a rest stop for a bathroom break. However, it’s a pretty rustic tour. Pack a few snacks for inevitable grumbling stomachs. Some of the tours stop and let riders touch and explore the landscape. A number of Navajo families live and ranch in the Valley, and our guide told the story of typical Navajo family life.
Afterwards, we were too tired for making lunch at the campsite, so we went into the Visitor Center for burgers on the upper level outdoor deck. Following lunch, my 12 year old and I wandered into the Navajo Code Talkers museum. This was more interesting to me — a World War II buff — than to her, and watching her eyes glaze while I explained Windtalkers, I sighed and steered her out to the patio.
Artistic, a dancer, and fledgling pianist, her interest was immediately captured by the six Navajo in full costume singing around a monstrous drum. As a sacred site, such spontaneous demonstrations of Navajo culture are common. A group of adults and children stood wide eyed as the drummers were joined by dancers in full, traditional regalia. The stone-and-bead decorated costumes shone brightly in the desert sun. The feathered drumming hammered in powerful rhythms, voices raised in praise to the sky—it was obvious our afternoon hike was going to be delayed until her interest waned. A little further down the patio, several artists worked by easels painting the famous landscape of the Mittens and Merrick Butte as the lowering sun turned the rocks to fire.
Monument Valley connects a family with its incredible familiar but alien landscape, and its deep spiritual power.
Image source: Sunrise at Monument Valley (top) and Monument Valley landscape by Eric Jay Toll.
If you go:
Staying at the Park: Neaby Kayenta, AZ, has a Hampton Inn, and two locally-owned motels, the Kayenta Monument Valley Inn and Wetherill Inn. Across U.S. 163 from the Park is Goulding’s Lodge – a historic lodge where almost all the actors to have filmed in the Valley hung their hats. In the Park itself is The View, a Navajo-owned property that opened in 2010. Every room has a view of sunrise behind the buttes. Gouldings and the Park have campgrounds.
Getting to the park:A family visit to Monument Valley is a memory and an experience. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is located on U.S. 163 in the center of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona and southeast Utah—the state lines run through the Park. It’s 6-1/2 hours from Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, and longer from Albuquerque or Las Vegas. The nearest regional airports are Flagstaff, AZ (three hours) or Cortez, CO (two hours). From Phoenix or Flagstaff, take U.S. 89 to U.S. 160 at Tuba City, go east to Kayenta, and north on U.S. 163 to the Park. While there are organized bus tours, Monument Valley is best reached and explored by car.
For more information:
Eric Jay Toll is a travel writer living in Scottsdale, Arizona. During their childhood, he dragged his two children (sometimes kicking and screaming) from one coast to the other and parts of Canada. His blog, For Whom The Toll Bells, is at EricJayToll.WordPress.com. Eric’s travel writing appears regularly as the Four Corners travel writer on Examiner.com. He has been published in USA Today, LiveStrong, Trails, and Golflinks and is a regular contributor to eHow.com. He is an avid camper, an accomplished chef and not bad with a camera. His son, Michael, turned 29 in May 2011.