TRAVEL: The awe-inspiring Monument Valley & Old West

Monument Valley is the spitting image of the old American West. By Jefferson Graham for the PhotowalksTV series

There is a very special place on the Arizona/Utah border that is synonymous with the American West and should be visited by every photographer at least once. This giant landscape is tailor-made for mobile phone cameras and the ultra-wide angle lens. No fancy gear needed!

It’s Monument Valley, part of the Navajo Nation, discovered by the director John Ford back in the 1930s, and immortalized ever since in such films as “Stagecoach” “Back to the Future III” and “Thelma and Louise.”

Monument Valley is not an easy place to get to, some five hours from Phoenix or six hour drive from Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. It doesn’t get the throngs of crowds that descend upon Grand Canyon, Arches National Park and other major tourist spots, perhaps because it’s so out of the way.

We visited in July as part of the PhotowalksTV `23 western road trip, by way of the South Bay and Prescott, AZ and it’s a visit I’ll never forget.

We only spent two days there, due to me being cheap. I can’t wait to go back, and in getting the edit done on the latest edition of #PhotowalksTV, there are several things I would do differently on the next visit.

What you need to know:

Driving from the South Bay will take about ten hours to arrive to Monument Valley. We stopped in the old western town of Prescott, Arizona (a six hour drive) for a few days before continuing on to the Valley.

Once there, you pay an $8 admission to enter the tribal land, and then head to your hotel. There’s only one! The one with the view, that is, overlooking the iconic three buttes, called the “Mittens,” and it’s appropriately called the View Hotel. Rates start at $399 a night during the summer and fall (if you could even get a room!) and drop to $229 in November and December, climb to $249 in January, February and March, $324-$349 in the spring months, and then back up to $399 for the summer months. (You can also stay at Goulding’s, down the road, for less money, but alas, no view.)

My friend Russell Preston Brown convinced me the View was worth every penny of the $400 bounty, as I’d be able to have my cameras on the balcony of our room without having to worry about theft. I had the cameras (iPhones and Samsung Galaxy S23+) running for two days solid on timelapse duty. Russell was right.

Watch the beginning of the PhotowalksTV episode, and you’ll see the shadows of the day slide across the desert and open up in a timelapse video. It’s quite a sight that the naked eye just doesn’t generally see.

Next time I’d stay three days minimum, and take more than one tour. Standing out at 5:30 in the morning and looking out at the Mittens and the vast desert landscape before the sun rose was an experience I can’t describe with words. I couldn’t wait to do it again the next day. But that wouldn’t happen.

We signed up with Navajo Spirit Tours for a private $150 three-hour photo exploration of the 17-mile loop that winds vehicles through the tribal park and starts at just after 5 a.m. But the guide was on a schedule, and we weren’t able to stay as long in each location as I would have liked.

This is no knock on our guide Will Cowboy, who did a tremendous job, but three hours just wasn’t enough. Especially as I learned that I couldn’t return to the loop the next morning before sunrise, as I wanted, because tribal officials block entrance before 8 a.m. Unless, that is, you’re visiting with a tour. So a second tour should have been scheduled. And there are many of them. (Footnote: Will drove a Jeep through this incredibly rocky road. My rental car wouldn’t have cut it.)

Beyond the 17-mile loop, the other photo highlight was driving about 20 minutes from the park to what’s officially called “Forrest Gump Point,” where the lead character of the 1993 film stops his long marathon run.

To this day, all these years later, people still line up here all day to act silly and take selfies on the road, which happens to have a killer view of Monument Valley. I liked my shot so much, it’s my new backdrop for live shots.

Photo tips: when you shoot the Mittens, reach for the ultra-wide lens (.5) on mobile phones to pull in the full expanse of the area. Try a closeup of each Mitte as well, and know that sunrise is when you’ll get the best shot. Sunsets happen on the other side of the hotel. You can see more about this in the episode.

Watch PhotowalksTV on YouTube. 

Monument Valley rock formations, by Jefferson Graham for the PhotowalksTV series



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