Change slowly comes to beautiful, remote Monument Valley

From her perch inside a rickety hut facing the Mittens, two glove-shaped sandstone buttes that define one of America's most iconic vistas, Louise Rock has an ideal vantage point from which to monitor the comings and goings in one of the world's most dramatic landscapes.

So, what's new, Louise?

"Hmm," she says, considering the question. "Well, there's a slab that fell off of East Mitten back in June of '08."

Change comes slowly to this rugged land of pinnacles, mesas and buttes. And that's only fitting, given that it took eons of wind, rain and other forces to carve the magnificent spires, alcoves and monoliths that have come to symbolize the untamed West.

But change has come to Monument Valley. And more is on the way.

Just beyond the hut where Rock and other local Navajos book tours into the heart of the valley, a new $14 million lodging, appropriately dubbed The View Hotel, rises from a sandstone bluff. The hotel is the first ever to be built inside the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a vast 29,816-acre tract that remains home to a handful of Navajo families who maintain grazing rights here.

Next door to The View, workers are building a new visitors center and museum, set to open in October. It will provide much-needed interpretive information (a scant commodity at present for those who opt not to hire a guide), and a museum honoring World War II Navajo code talkers.

And a few miles west of the park's boundaries, the sale of the venerable Goulding's Lodge is underway. If the sale goes through, plans call for convention facilities, a spa and an upgrade to four-star accommodations, says longtime manager Ronnie Baird.

The Navajo people have been in Monument Valley since the late 15th or early 16th century. But Harry Goulding and his wife, Mike, were the first Anglo settlers in the region and were responsible for sparking the tourism boom that took off in the 1930s and hasn't let up since.

When the couple arrived in the early 1920s, they bought 640 acres for $320 with the aim of ranching and trading with the Indians. Then, in 1938, Harry Goulding got wind that director John Ford was scouting locations for a Western starring John Wayne. The couple drove to Hollywood and convinced Ford that Monument Valley would be the perfect backdrop.

The movie, Stagecoach, won the 1939 Oscar for cinematography, and Monument Valley was firmly cast as Western icon.

This burnished red land tinged with the pale green of yucca, juniper and blue sage is populated by sleeping dragons, giant elephants, rabbits, bears and other fanciful shapes divined from the sandstone monoliths.

Goulding and early trader John Wetherill, christened many of them, which may have added to the allure of the place. (Navajo nomenclature is generally more direct. Pointing to a towering rock formation dubbed the "totem pole," guide Harold Simpson quips "in Navajo, the name would translate, 'skinny rock standing upward.' ")

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