From the back seat it appears the road just drops over the side of the cliff. Behind my head rest I hear the giggles, “We’re flying!” Navajo guide Robert Begay turns to the girls, points out the rear window, and laughs with them, “There! That’s where you’re flying, Eagle Mesa.” The two of them turn around craning their necks as I navigate a steep turn and aim downward into Monument Valley. We’re in the first quarter mile of the 17 mile Scenic Drive weaving our way between buttes and mesas.
“Where are Coyote and Road Runner?” pipes a voice from in back. The scenery definitely looks as if both will appear any minute racing us down the road. My eyes are glued to the switchbacks, and even though there are only a couple, my hands are nearing white knuckle on the steering wheel.
Then the road straightens out, flattens, and the pavement ends. We’re now on a wide smooth dirt road of red rock sand. The road takes us past the Merrick Butte, close enough to reach out and touch the Left and Right Mittens. Because we’re with a certified Navajo guide, Begay points to a narrow dirt road running between the Left Mitten and Merrick Butte. Although no guide is required to drive your family on the 17 mile Scenic View Drive, on a guided tour, there is an additional 15 miles for the scenic drive.
Driving slowly, so I can see what everyone is saying, Begay tells us the story that one Navajo legend says the Mittens are the hands of Standing God, left to remind all come that the gods will return to Monument Valley. Our side trip road meanders between Merrick Butte and the Right Mitten and crosses the wash between Merrick and Elephant Buttes. We rejoin the main road and head towards John Ford’s Point. Standing sentinel above the Point, the Three Sisters, frozen in time stare down at us. Begay relates the story about three sisters, and looks at the tittering pair and warns, “Pay attention, or there could be five sisters up there.” We all laugh.
Our tour continues around the Raingod Mesa, where we make another detour deep into the sacred land past lesser-known but richly colored mesas and buttes. Begay has us stop and get out of the car at the front gate of a Navajo family living in Monument Valley. He points out the traditional Hogan, the sheep corral, and the outdoor kitchen. Kneeling next to the girls, he talks about how children live in the Valley, and that they go to boarding school for months at a time. Weaving between Thunderbird and Hunts Mesas we pass by one of the most sacred sites in the tribal Park. Standing tall and lonely, the Totem Pole guards Yei Bi Chei, the gods’ council. These hoodoos, freestanding sandstone towers, rest on the edge of Sand Springs, a series of golden sand dunes. Many my age recognize the Totem Pole from Clint Eastwood and George Kennedy’s practice climb in the movie, “The Eiger Sanction.”
Rejoining the 17 mile Scenic Drive, Begay continues stories while we stop and explore rocks, ledges, and other Monument Valley features. When we “fly” up to the Visitor Center mesa, the kids are exhausted. Private tours, like ours, are more personal and more expensive. A number of certified Navajo guides run Jeep group tours over the same route we traveled sharing stories and experiences of this sacred Navajo land.
Returning to the real world, the pictures, souvenirs, and stories made for three weeks’ “sharing times” at school.
All images by Eric Jay Toll: The Three Sisters from the guided tour route (top); Taylor takes a leap (middle); Yei Bi Chei, Totem Pole (r) on the edge of Sand Springs.
Part 1: Icons and Indians
Part 3: Visiting the Four Corners
Part 4: How to Keep Your Family Safe in the Desert
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.