Into the Heart of the Valley of the Monuments – AZ/Utah Border

We first saw the incredible formations in Monument Valley during our drive through the area on highway 163 a couple of years ago.  At that time I was reminded of the amazing scenery of many western movies and photos from the distant past.  I only had time for a few photos during that passage, but we vowed to spend more time here and did just that during the last week of March this year.

Monument Valley was destined to be a hidden natural treasure, enjoyed by only a few intrepid travelers venturing into this area wilderness.  But we learned that thanks to Harry and Leone “Mike”  Goulding, it was transformed into an icon of the American west.  During our stay at Goulding’s RV Park, our eyes were opened to how it became a popular place to stay and play for Hollywood stars and many other folks passing through.

Harry Goulding posed at John Ford’s Point in the late twenties

And the story goes …

In the early 1920’s, Harry, a sheep trader and Leone (nicknamed “Mike”) came to Monument Valley looking for a business opportunity.  They were very fortunate to buy a substantial plot of land when the Paiute Indian Reservation relocated and many acres became available for sale.

The Gouldings immediately set up Goulding’s Trading Post at the base of Big Rock Door Mesa, while befriending and conducting business with the local Navajo people who accepted them.  Unfortunately, when the great depression hit the Navajo Reservation suffered immensely.

Harry and Mike went to Hollywood to show pictures of the beautiful valley to director John Ford.  They convinced him that Monument Valley was perfect for his next movie, and in less than a month Ford began shooting “Stagecoach”, which starred John Wayne.  Nine more Ford films were shot here, which not only helped the Navajo with much-needed money, but also opened to the world the stunning red rock formations standing tall in the middle of the desert.

Gouldings- the hub at Monument Valley

Many decades later, Goulding’s Lodge consists of a lodge, cabins, museum, restaurant and an RV campground.  Goulding’s businesses have grown and changed hands through the years as Monument Valley has continued as a backdrop for many movies and television shows and ads, as well as a popular tourist destination.

Goulding’s Lodge was placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 for its importance to the local area.

New Goulding’s lodges and cabins at the foot of Rock Canyon

This iconic stretch of land is in the heart of the Navajo Indian Nation, and home to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which spans the Utah/Arizona border.  The Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation manages the park valley, not the National Park Service.

The valley viewed from the windmill formations

To see what is beyond the walls of the monuments, several tours are offered by various Navajo operators located near the visitor center.  We opted for an all-day tour offered by Goulding Tours, which took us down not only the rugged 17-mile loop of Monument Valley to view the famous monuments, but also the restricted backcountry and Mystery Valley, amazing areas far away from public access.

All bundled and layered up this bright early morning!

Most areas here are off limits unless you are with a Navajo guide, and our guide Larry took us into several restricted areas.  He told many stories about Navajo culture and history during our excursion.

Our first stop was at a hogan, which was a primary traditional dwelling of the Navajo people, although today it is used for ceremonial purposes.

The entry to a hogan always faces east to welcome the rising sun for good wealth and fortune
The roof is constructed by criss-crossing Cedar tree sections.  No nails are used, and the exterior is covered with mud for structural strength and as a barrier against the elements

Inside the hogan, a grandma demonstrated the Navajo technique for processing raw wool fleece from sheep into a weaving yarn and ultimately looming it into a beautiful rug.  What’s amazing is there are no patterns to follow and the design comes completely from the weaver’s imagination.  She also showed us how blue corn is ground and some basket weaving techniques.

Grandma does not speak English so Larry interpreted for us the yarn weaving and rug making techniques
I was attracted to the beautiful jewelry as she ground corn

We continued our sandy and dusty excursion, as Larry narrated through a speaker system that was set up in the back of the vehicle.

Our open-air tour vehicle

When we were on top of a hill he related the story of how in 1863 the Navajo people were mistreated and forcibly removed from their ancestral land to begin The Long Walk of 425 miles from Fort Defiance, AZ to Fort Sumner, NM where they were exiled.  This year marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Navajo Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo and the United States government, which gave them the freedom to return home after four years of internment.

Larry showed us the area where uranium was used to be mined

For the next 29 miles we were led into Mystery Valley’s side-box canyons, visiting much of the valley’s secluded natural arches and windows.  There’s also an abundance of concealed and undisturbed Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs in this area.

Skull Arch
View from the right eye of the Skull Arch
We just had to pose on top of Honeymoon Arch, which got its name from the small “honeymoon suite” ruins located inside it
Honeymoon Suite Ruins
There was lots of this – short and strenuous hikes up and down slick rocks to rewarding views

Undisturbed House of Many Hands
Pictographs and petroglyphs
At the top left are the many hands which gave name to these ruins

While Larry prepared lunch we checked out more ruins and petroglyphs within the huge box canyon:

These unnamed ruins were reduced to rubble
Large goat petroglyphs
Soaring cliffs within a box canyon – our beautiful lunch spot

After lunch Larry drove us deep into the backcountry, where he continued his narration of the valley’s history, geography, culture and lore.  As we passed clusters of Navajo communities, he mentioned that 30% of Navajo people have no electricity and no running water.  Income is derived from tourism and sales of handmade trinkets, jewelry, and beautiful intricate rugs.

Clusters of Navajo families can be seen scattered across the valley
Monument Valley
In some places we saw hogans alongside modern homes and cars
It was common to see cows and horses roaming along our route
A Navajo Indian coming home from shepherding
Big Hogan
The Big Hogan arch is like an amphitheater
Big Hogan
Inside the Big Hogan Arch Larry performed a Navajo ceremonial chant

After his chant we were asked to lie down on our backs along the rock wall, and to look up at the arch to see the eye and beak of an eagle:

Big Hogan
Can you discern the eagle’s head and eyes?
This lone tree blended well with the surrounding cliffs
Erosion has caused some interesting patterns here
For perspective note our tour vehicle under the Eye of the Sun arch
Running goats at the base of Eye of the Sun Arch

Large sand dunes are the result of monument erosion

The Valley

Finally we were in the shadows of the amazing rock statues, the monuments that Harry and Mike introduced to the world.  Our tour’s final stretch was over the rugged 17-mile loop that is open to the public.  Larry pointed out places where famous scenes from movies, TV shows and commercials had been filmed over the years.

The dusty and rugged 17-mile loop can be driven by folks in their own vehicles
Monument Valley
Scene from the 1939 movie “Stagecoach”
Monument Valley
The valley that made John Wayne exclaim, “So this is where God put the west.”
John Ford's point
A resident cowboy poses for tourist’s tips at John Ford’s Point, mimicking a scene from the 2013 movie “Lone Ranger”
Monument Valley
Totem Pole and Yei Bichei rise from the valley’s dusty landscape
Totem Pole
Clint Eastwood stood on top of the 450′ tall Totem Pole in the movie “Eiger Sanction”
Monument Valley
North Window framing the King’s Throne and Brigham’s Tomb buttes
West Mitten Butte – that sliver of rock appears to be God looking down at the valley

We were completely covered with orange sand at the end of our bumpy, dusty ride, but through Larry we had learned a lot about the Navajo Indians and what exists behind the Navajo Nation wall.  This all-day tour is the only way to see the heart of the valley of the Monuments!

Monument Valley
Larry and our tour ride

Native Americans’ name for Monument Valley translates to “the sand that lights up the valley,” and below you can see why:

Monument Valley
Moonrise over Sentinel Mesa
Peace, says the Big Indian Chief
Steve’s enjoys his daily sunrise view from our dining area window
This formation is King on the Throne, but Larry says it’s John Wayne sitting on a toilet 🙂
Monument Valle
West and East Mitten buttes, note the tourists below for perspective
Golden hour
Shadows form on the King’s Throne as the sun gets low in the horizon
Forest Gump Hill
Betsy and Steve pose at Forest Gump Hill





  1. Your pictures are spiritually beautiful. Love to dream about where we might go by scoping out your adventures. Our own personal travel agents. You guys habe a lot of energy 👍

  2. Your pictures are spiritually beautiful. Love to dream about where we might go by scoping out your adventures. Our own personal travel agents. You guys have a lot of energy 👍

    • Totally agree Karen! These photos and the composition with PERFECT sun and moon shine, and human perspectives, along with wonderful narratives are a joyful read, thank you Mona Liza 🙂 I could almost feel all the red dust settling down on me . . .

  3. The Native led tour looks fabulous MonaLiza. We’ve drive through this iconic area many times and have visited the nearby, and similar Valley of the Gods, but the behind the scenes views you captured make me put this tour on “the list”! Love the Honeymoon Suite and I’m fascinated by the construction of the Hogan’s roof. Never too many pictures!

  4. Thank you for the great information in this magnificent place. It’s been on our list for sometime. After reading your post, I want to visit now.

  5. Beautiful photos! That “totem pole” rock is just incredible, I’ve never seen such a tall and skinny spire!

  6. What a fabulous experience! We’ve driven through Monument Valley but have never done an in-depth tour. It looks like it was well worth the time and the red rock dust. 🙂 Thanks for including so many interesting details—love the insights into Navajo life and culture, the petroglyphs, and the view of the rock eagle. Your photos are beautiful.
    I’m excited that you made it to Betatakin! I hope you were able to do a hiking tour there with a Navajo guide.

    • We decided to do the all day​ tour considering that this might be our last swing in this area. Glad we did we got more than we expected. Beautiful area!

  7. Wow, what an amazing place! yes, I definitely need to come here with my camera. 🙂 If you are ever in Oregon please look me up – it would be fun to hike with you guys again.

  8. This place has been on our bucket list forever and your photos have convinced me that we will not be disappointed. We are staying at Goulding’s as well. Did you book the tour before you got there or when you checked in? We’d love to wait and make sure the weather will be good, but if it’s something we need to get set up beforehand, we’ll just roll the dice. Either way, can’t wait!

    • We booked it after checking in. Might be a good idea to book ahead especially that it has started to warm up when we left and the season has began.

  9. Excellent post, MonaLiza!! This tour looks wonderful. I would love to do the back country part and visit the arches, ruins, and petroglyphs. The small group made the day more personal. And you got a good workout, too! The photo of Steve’s sunrise is beautiful!! Love the photos of you two on and in the arches:)

  10. This is a wonderful post MonaLiza! We did an extensive back-county tour with a Navajo guide several years ago. It was one of my all-time favorite experiences and Monument Valley may be my favorite place in this country. Great photos!

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