There are few places in the American West that call to a landscape photographer as clearly and compellingly as Monument Valley. Straddling the Arizona and Utah borders in the Four Corners region, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is home to an inspiring and iconic collection of buttes and natural landforms. For many, the significant time and effort required to get to Monument Valley can be a deterrent to making the trip but that effort is often rewarded with awe-inspiring views.
Anyone who has seen a John Ford western film knows this landscape. Ford, the Hollywood legend whose films defined the American Western for generations, used this remote area of the Desert Southwest as a location for numerous productions, including Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Searchers (1956). Timeless leading man John Wayne starred in many of Ford’s films, including the four just mentioned.
Before John Ford, Westerns had churned out by the dozens as film serials and held in low regard by film critics. Through Ford and his classic films, the Western rose to international acclaim as a genre that reflected American values of rugged individualism, and a willingness to risk everything in the pursuit of one’s dream or in defense of honor. Monument Valley came to be synonymous with the genre and to symbolize those cherished values. Today, more than 40 years after Ford’s passing, this place retains its status as the one location that, more than any other, signifies the mythology of the American West.
On a recent visit to Monument Valley, I had the opportunity to photograph the park from several locations. I arrived on a summer morning just before lunch. After paying the $20 entrance fee, I parked at the View Hotel and enjoyed the lunch buffet at the hotel restaurant. After lunch, I stepped out onto the tiered observation deck along the east side of the hotel. This platform offers an expansive view into Monument Valley, including the now famous arrangement of The Mittens and Merrick Butte.
The one drawback of The View’s observation deck is the visibility of the main dirt road visitors and tour guides use to explore the park. The road, vehicle traffic and associated dust will be prominently placed in any wide angle photograph taken from the deck. There is a spot just north of the paved deck where a pair of half-buried boulders can be used to good advantage. Visitors stand on or lean against the boulders for “we were here” shots. They can also be used as foreground elements in wide angle shots that hide the dirt road in a landscape composition.
The aforementioned dirt road is something of a double-edged sword, in my opinion. While it adds to the charm of the experience, the road’s poor condition is a practical liability. The posted maximum speed limit is 15 MPH, which is challenging to maintain over the steep half-mile descent from the east rim into the valley. Ruts, exposed rocks and sandy areas make navigation of the road a bit challenging. Drivers often weave from side to side in search of the least bumpy route.
For those who continue beyond John Ford Point, the road is posted as one-way. I encountered several vehicles traveling against the flow on this loop and had chalked it up to a tourist mentality of enjoying the view while ignoring the traffic signs. However, approaching the spur road to Artists Point, several vehicles had inexplicably pulled over to the side of the road and stopped. I did the same and walked up the road to find out what was going on. A vehicle was having a difficult time negotiating the uphill climb through loose, sandy terrain. After several failed attempts, the driver gave up, backed down the hill, made a Y-turn and began the long trek back the way he’d come…against traffic flow.
My trusty AWD Pontiac Vibe made short work of the hill. While high ground clearance is not (currently) needed to drive the Monument Valley road, a vehicle with AWD or 4WD might come in handy on some sections of road. The quality of light during my midday drive through Monument Valley was predictably poor. The high overhead sun and overcast skies painted the buttes and formations with a flat, harsh brush. The heat and generally poor placement of roadside viewpoints contributed to my decision to stay in the air conditioned comfort of my vehicle as much as possible.
Throughout the two-hour drive, I kept thinking about a sign I’d seen which indicated that the road was open only from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. While those are normal business hours, they exclude the optimum times to view the magnificent stone structures of Monument Valley. The best times of day to experience a scenic masterpiece are around sunrise and sunset. Those times of day are when the quality of light is reliably at its best. To deny visitors access to the park when the light is most likely to have that magical quality made no sense to me. I was really stewing on this issue when I drove through the roadway entrance gate on my way out of the valley at 3 o’clock.
It was time to find a place to make camp for the night. On my last visit to Monument Valley in March 2014, I had stayed at a worthless excuse for a campground located about a mile down the road from the park entrance station. It was little more than a series of picnic tables surrounded by bare ground. I had pitched my tent there for a few hours sleep on a cold late-winter night and, in a pinch, could do the same on this trip. However, The View Campground (closed during the winter) is located at the entrance gate to the valley. So, I stopped by the campground office to check on site availability. A few minutes later, I was out in the sand dunes choosing a campsite. I went with the first open site I found, which happened to offer a spectacular view of The Mittens and Merrick Butte.
Returning to the campground office to let the attendant know which site I had selected, I asked about the road hours sign I had seen. “Can I go into the valley at sunset and sunrise to do photography.” The attendant confidently reassured me that the gate remains open throughout the night. If I wanted to go into the valley to do photography, that would be fine. With a campsite secured and my concern eased over after hours park access, I drove over to the View Hotel restaurant for an early dinner. The hostess seated my at a two-top with a window view of the valley. While enjoying my sandwich, I watched as the harsh midday light gradually softened and warmed in response to the sun’s race toward the western horizon. There weren’t many clouds to add a sense of drama to the sky but at least the light was improving.
About two hours before sunset, I drove a short distance down the valley road to the first large pullout I could find. After parking the Vibe and strapping on my photo pack, I walked across the road and followed a well-worn social trail over the flat, sun baked surface. I wanted to find an elevated vantage point offering a clear view of The Mittens and Merrick Butte. From a location east of the dirt road, I should be free to compose wide angle shots without having to contend with a dirt road cutting across the frame. A short hike delivered me to the perfect venue. Soon, I was setting up for the evening.
The location I chose was an elevated shelf with a clear view of the most recognized collection of buttes in Monument Valley: West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte. As the day drew to a close, I experimented with composition and exposure, eventually making a fine image of The Mittens and Merrick Butte. The soft, warm quality of the light gave the entire scene – foreground desert, buttes, sky and clouds an inviting summery quality. It wasn’t the only keeper of the evening but is my favorite exposure from the session.
At 3 o’clock the following morning, my watch alarm went off and I begrudgingly awoke to start the day. This reluctance didn’t last long as the thought of a sunrise in Monument Valley peaked my enthusiasm for the predawn expedition. I decided to save time by leaving my tent set up. More than likely, I would be back before most of the other campers were even awake. I made the walk to the restroom where I was treated to a most wonderful surprise. The bathrooms at The View Campground have complimentary showers…with hot water.
The shower left me feeling refreshed and energized for the day. It was about 3:45 AM when I rolled out of the campground parking lot in the Vibe, making the short drive to the same pullout I had used the previous afternoon. With my headlamp shining at full brightness, I had little problem finding the overlook in the July morning darkness. By 4:25 AM, I was making test exposures and at 4:40 AM, the horizon was showing enough color to nicely frame the landscape in silhouette. Low, thick clouds negated the obligatory starbust shot of the sun’s initial peak over the horizon. As soon as the deep, rich colors behind the buttes started to fade, I made the decision to move to another location.
The previous afternoon, I had surveyed Artists Point as a possible sunrise location. Nearby rock formations block a clear view to the east where the sun rises but the vista does offer a fine view of the major formations to the west. If the early morning light were of the right quality, some fine landscapes and panoramas would be on the table. I raced the Vibe down the dirt road, taking a shortcut against the posted traffic flow to cut a solid 20-30 minutes off the drive time.
Within minutes of my arrival at Artists Point, I was setup and checking compositional options. Eventually, I settled on working East Mitten, Merrick Butte and the flat, open desert to the right (east). It wasn’t spectacular light but there was a warm, soft quality to it that produced several pleasing frames, including the one above. After a half-hour, the last of the golden hour light yielded to a duller, somewhat lifeless glow and I began packing up my gear. It was just then that several vehicles arrived at Artists Point, all filled with visitors and cameras hoping to make a memorable photograph.
The spectacular landscape of Monument Valley really deserves more time than I had available to give. After Artists Point, I drove back to the campground, packed my tent and went over to the hotel for breakfast. Afterwards, I would hit the road for a sunset date with Arches National Park in Utah. The meal allowed time to reflect on the previous 18 hours. This was my third trip to Monument Valley. I had come for one sunset and sunrise cycle, and had successfully captured several keeper photographs. Having focused on making images of the more popular vistas, I was already thinking about my next visit and the opportunity to explore the less frequented scenes found within this iconic symbol of the American West.
Hey, you should get out and shoot.
Bill Ferris | August 2014