Leading up to my trip to the Monument Valley, I sat for hours, scanning hundreds of web pages full of confusing, ill presented information. All that work can simply be summarized thusly.
Monument Valley is on the Utah/Arizona border, entered from the Utah side. Don’t be a day tripper.Spend at least a night and two full halves of a day, preferable on either side of it.
There are five choices for places to stay.
- View Lodge in Monument Valley: Hotel sits on the rim, has mind blowing view. Expensive to boot. Book 8 months in advance. No alcohol served, you are in Navajo nation.
- Gouldings: 5 mile away, clean hotel with a nice view, You can order beer after a hot day.
- Kayenta and Mexican Hat: Each a 30 minute drive with Motel 8 type accommodation and no restaurants worth talking about
- Hunts Mesa: How adventurous are you? Tent, sleeping bag, breakfast in bed. Views. Super expensive.
There are two ways to tour the valley
- Rent your car, drive down the 17 mile scenic road. at will. Stay on the road. Take your time. You don’t get to take the shortcuts.
- Book a tour with a Navajo guide – cultural, tourist or photography. Tours starts when the guides arrive. Navajos follow Navajo standard time. Their watches sometimes have 13 hours. Or 11 even.
For a photographer, there are four choices:
- Sunrise in the valley: 4:30-8:30am, Navajo guide will drive you on his 4X4
- Sunset in the valley: 4:30-8:30pm, Navajo guide will drive you on his 4X4
- Mystery Valley Sunset: 4:30-8:30pm, Navajo guide … you get it by now.
- Hunt’s Mesa (See above): Overnight. Navajo…
Here is my recommendation for a photo tourist:
|Rent a 4X4. A real one. Stay for two nights at the View Hotel. Dine at Gouldings. Book a sunrise and sunset trip of the valley with the Navajo guide. Don’t worry about spot, light, time and direction. The Navajo get all that. Carry your telephoto lens and a tripod. Wear hiking shoes. Don’t wear white socks. Give mystery valley a miss. Then put that 4x4 to use and drive down the 17 miles road by yourself either at sunrise or sunset Yes, the road is rough, don’t be a such wuss. Try Navajo Tacos. Try Polygamy Porter. Try Provo Girl. (It’s a beer!)|
I wish somebody had laid it out like that for me.
Approaching the Monument Valley
Everybody has this shot. So should you. On the approach to Monument Valley from Mexican Hat, you will see a road-side Navajo jewelry stall, don’t stop there. You will then see a hillock on the left with space to pull over, let it pass too. Finally a gravel pullover on the right. Pull over. It is the last place you can park before you cross the scene.
This was probably one the most dangerous photo I have shot. I am standing in the middle of a busy road. I had marked two safety spots on both sides of the road. At no point in time did I kneel on the road for more than 8 seconds - the time it would take an average vehicle to reach my safety spot from the horizon. But I was always feeling creepy when I has my back to that road.
Sunset at Monument Valley
I had hired Ray, the late Tom Phillips’ nephew, for the sunset tour. Amidst a thousand apologies from Ray - apologizing for the weather! - we had lurched in Ray’s 4X4 from one photo spot to another in search of good light. We found none. Finally, having given up on sunset, we settled down on a sand dune waiting for the moon. The full moon rose diligently between the Totem pole and the Yei Bi Cheis. As I worked to rearrange the exposure for the gentle white disk, a glorious orange light surged from behind, as if jealous of my shifting attention, and lit the Totem pole formation in the most glorious hue.
I got to shoot an awesome moonrise at an awesome sunset.
This classic Monument Valley shot can be bagged by gently leaning on the railings of the View Hotel balcony. Every grandma and her nephew with a point shoot has this shot on their memory cards. Get yours.
I had expected to raid the light showered sceneries of Monument Valley like a bandit, having to judiciously pick my loot from the riches available in plentiful. The cloudy skies reduced me to a scheming burglar, having to plan and plot my steal. The photo above has been forcefully eked out of what was a drab scene. In a distant nook, escaping the grey, I noticed a sprinkling of orange. Thirsty for a warm hue, I shot with my telephoto racked out, later having to carefully massage the image in Lightroom.
Sunrise at Monument Valley
After returning to the hotel way past midnight, I was back in Ray’s truck at 4am, in search of the glorious desert light. The cloud stoically maintained their canopy overhead but the horizon on the east was clear. Ray strategically placed me on a sand dune such that the Totem pole and the Yei Bi Cheis framed the rising sun. Sitting on that sand dune, the whole valley to myself, the cool desert breeze giving me goose bumps, the light show was spectacular. At one point I wanted to stand up and applaud.
Ray was now beaming. He knew I had captured a photo I would keep.
The rest of the morning followed the pattern of the previous evening. After the mesmerizing sunrise, the golden disk disappeared behind the dark curtain. It emerged sporadically, unpredictably, showering light in a nearby canyon. By the time we got there, it was gone. Ray continued to cluck his tongue, shaking his head in dismay. I felt for him – this part of the world has had a long dry and hot spell. The locals have been desperately praying for showers, and here he sat with me, genuinely wanting the clouds to disappear so that I could take a photo. I liked Ray.
We finally caught up with the sunshine at the John Ford point. The Navajo astride his steed provided a good foreground for the gorgeous Monument Valley buttes. I told Ray I was ready to packup.
Around Monument Valley
I passed by Agathla’s Needle, the beautifully craggy diatreme, everyday on my 30 minute commute Monument valley from Kayenta. Every time I promised myself that I would stop the next time to take a photo. Finally, the very last time in this trip I would pass by the volcanic plug, I pulled over. The light was right and I sat besides the road trying to figure out an appropriate foreground.
A car zoomed by. That gave me an interesting composition.
Since I was shooting from a tripod using the timer, it took me sometime to time the vehicles exactly where I wanted them in the photo. Then I waited another 45 minutes for the right vehicle. I was looking for a classic American icon – A rugged Bronco, a vintage Ford pickup, a red Jeep with big tires, a RV pulling a boat, a Harley Davidson, a cop cruiser even. After several Subarus, Minis, Lexus, Mercedes and finally a Porsche, I decided to settle for a black Suburban.
I drove eight miles east of Kayenta for this picture. In the foreground is an amazing formation called Church rock, the spine of Comb RIdge emerging from the ground in the middle and Agathla in the background.