By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 11/17/2019
Occurred: 9/26/2010
Topics/Keywords: #MonumentValley #Arizona #Utah #FourCorners #DigitalPhotography Page Views: 3085
Michael and I take his sister, Surya, to Monument Valley.

Each year for several years, Michael and I have celebrated his sister, Surya's, birthday by taking her sightseeing to one of Arizona's most special places. We've been to Sedona and driven the Apache Trail, to name two. This year, Surya chose to go to Monument Valley, a place she said she'd always wanted to visit and had pretty much given up on ever actually seeing. Today, we went.

Monument Valley is located at the Four Corners region, where the northeastern tip of Arizona touches the tips of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. It is not right at the corners. The area is actually part of a huge, state-straddling Navajo reservation, which means it's sovereignty is Navajo. Thus Monument Valley, which would be a "national park" anywhere else, is a "tribal park", with more reasonable prices, even in the gift shop and restaurants.

We started out by picking up Surya from church, where she had just finished teaching Sunday School. We then returned to the church to pick up Surya's forgotten glasses. But then we were on our way. It took an hour to get "out of the Valley", another to reach Flagstaff (where we fueled up and got lunch), another to Tuba City (on the reservation), and another to Kayenta. We really made pretty good time, mostly because I did not stop to take pictures all along the way. There was plenty of beautiful scenery to catch our attention (and our breaths) but I wanted to get to Monument Valley by sunset, arguably the best time to view the rock spires after which the place is named.

Monument Valley was born of Jurassic era sandstone, made of mud from sea sediments. When the land uplifted, erosion wore away all but the oddly placed spires. Erosion continues, of course, so that each year the monuments have been altered by fractions of an inch.

The monuments begin, sporadically, before you actually get to the park.

Monument outside the park.

Although the monolith above originally caught our attention, you have to realize that there are others near it.

A string of monuments outside the park.

And, in fact, as we got closer "monuments" (monoliths and massifs) increased in frequency, and the red of the sun added to their naturally ruddy hues.

Sunset panorama.

The Navajo Nation adheres to Daylight Savings Time (since it spreads over four states, only one of which does not), so it was 7:30 pm local time when we pulled up to the entrance kiosk. The entrance fee was only $5 a person. Since closing time is listed on the park's website as 8 pm, I asked if we had to be gone by then.

Deck at the visitor's center.

"Oh, no," the gate person said. "Stay as long as you like. But the gift shop and restaurant will close at 8, and no one else can come into the park until morning."

The visitor center includes a beautiful hotel called The View, a restaurant and café, a gift shop, and a large deck from which one can look into the valley and see the monuments set off to best advantage. Plus, the sun was just setting so the view of The Mittens and Merrick Butte was breathtaking.

View from the Visitor Center.

We were looking east with the sun declining behind us.

Sunset at Monument Valley. The gift shop at the Monument Valley visitors' center.

Of course, the twin facts that there was a gift shop, and that it would be closed in a few minutes, proved irresistible to Michael and Surya. How delightful to find that even the gift shop was designed to show off the monuments: Those are windows in the photo, not paintings!

Not being as interested in curios as in the pace itself, I left Michael and Surya shopping to take a look over the edge of the deck at one stretch of the road we'd shortly be driving.

If this place looks familiar, it's because John Ford shot all of his Westerns here. It has thus become the quintessential idea of what the West was/is like.

The unpaved road through the monuments of Monument Valley.

There were a pair of Navajo women taking turns dancing, in traditional garb, on the deck. I know that Navajo dances are ceremonial and laden with meaning; but there was no signage indicating the meaning of the dances they were doing. Still, based on the outfits, I would guess they described a visit by the Thunderbird.

Navajo woman dancing in ceremonial garb. Navajo woman dancing in ceremonial garb. Navajo woman dancing in ceremonial garb.
Surya at Monument Valley.

Finally, Surya emerged from the gift shop and we waited for Michael. It was a beautiful place to wait, and a pleasant time of day to do it.

After Michael rejoined us, we got into the car to take the road that winds around the monuments. This road is dirt and quite rough, as the sign warned us. I switched to 4WD but it really wasn't necessary; any car should be able to navigate this road though I wouldn't recommend trying to thread a needle while doing it.

The sun having already set, it was quite dark before we had descended into the valley. Still, I was determined to take as many pictures as I could. After all, there probably aren't many nighttime photos of Monument Valley. Certainly, there were no other tourists on the road.

Monument Valley at Dusk.

The buttes are clearly stratified, with three principal layers. The lowest layer is Organ Rock shale, the middle de Chelly sandstone and the top layer is Moenkopi shale capped by Shinarump siltstone. Of course, at this hour, only their outlines were visible.

The first "star" to be seen was, of course, the amazingly bright conjunction of Jupiter and Uranus.

The conjunction of Jupiter and Uranus was the first star of the night.

By now the darkness was such that I had to end my reliance on ISO 3600 "film" in my digital camera, and switch to actual time exposures to capture enough light to create an image. This would have been easier with a tripod; I own two full-size tripods but the "quick-connect" component of each is missing. So I had to use the car itself as a stable foundation for the camera.

The first stars in Monument Valley.

And then the moon rose over one of the buttes.

Moonrise in Monument Valley. Thunderbird Butte.

We had waited for the moon to rise at a scenic turnoff. It had been so dark we couldn't tell what was so scenic as to require a turnoff. But by moonlight we could see a huge spire just ahead of us. A sign said it was "Thunderbird Butte".

I tried capturing its image by moonlight alone, but the moon wasn't yet high enough to make it possible. I got the photo on the left by using my headlights to augment the natural lighting.

We made our away along the road, literally stopping every couple hundred feet as a new aspect of butte and moon made for a compelling image or at least a gasp of breath. We would stop and turn off the car lights, and then exhale with awe as a new wonder came into view.

The moon reflected on the car hood.

At one point we were treated to a textbook-perfect view of the Big Dipper.

The Big Dipper over Monument Valley.

Artists' Point is either the name of a place frequented by artists, or of a pointed butte that artists like to paint. In any case, a fifteen-second exposure captured it for me.

Artists' Point

The reddish color of the rocks, visible even by moonlight, is due to iron oxide in the sandstone. Where there are red rocks there are usually "vortexes", or energies brought up from deep in the earth that can be sensed by people who learn to do so. Sedona, Arizona, is famous for its vortexes. We all sensed vortexes here, too, but agreed they were more subtle than the ones in Sedona. Still, their presence explained Monument Valley's traditional status as sacred ground.

Monument Valley butte at night.

As I took each photo, I showed it on the camera's display to Surya and Michael, who appropriately oohed and ahed. Surya's favorite, though, was one in which the moon seemed to be cradled by rocky hands.

The moon is in good hands at Monument Valley.

I liked the composition of one showing the road, illuminated only by moonlight, even though the long exposure meant a little blur.

The road through Monument Valley by moonlight.

Following the map we'd been given at the park entrance, we came to Elephant Butte which seemed to me to have multiple parts, none of which looked very elephant-like. But maybe it does during the day.

Elephant Butte.

These long exposures, by the way, resulted in a lot of "noise" in the picture that resembles film grain. Ironically, film grain also increased in low-light situations. There's software that processed digital photos afterwards and minimizes the noise, which I've applied to these pictures.

Monument Valley by moonlight.

The road curved back toward the visitor center which, despite the hour, was still brightly lit. It resembled more than anything one of the UFOs from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The Visitor Center at Monument Valley.

Around midnight, we came to the end of the loop road when it climbs out of the valley and back onto the level of the visitor center. Just before getting back onto the paved parking lot, I turned back toward the valley and got a last photo of the moon over the Mittens and Merrick Butte, which were the first we'd seen when arriving.

The Mittens and Merick Butte.

So, just after midnight, we left Monument Valley. We'd spent four hours creeping along the road taking pictures. But Surya had loved every minute of it; and, truly, so did Michael and I.

Even though we would not make it home until about 5 am.