I never thought my wardrobe was missing a cowboy hat. Until I got to Monument Valley.
It was back in the 1930s and 40s that John Ford filmed a clutch of westerns there, but even though it’s now been some years since the last saloon brawl, there is still something about this corner of Arizona which makes a girl want to rock a pair of leather chaps.
It’s Harry Goulding’s fault. He was the owner of the nearby trading lodge who first got wind that the Hollywood director was scouting for suitable locations to film a series of cowboy films.
Ford had been looking at America’s southwest, but with the Great Depression having hit the Navajo reservation hard, Harry reckoned Monument Valley was a worthier backdrop. Along with his wife Leone, who was known to everyone as Mike, the couple used their last $60 to travel to California armed only with a set of photographs of the area and a determination to bring Ford back with them.
The rest as they say is history. By 1939 the world was watching the credits roll on Stagecoach, a film which made a star both of John Wayne and Monument Valley. The arrival of the big Hollywood juggernaut did what the Gouldings hoped. It threw the Navajo an economic lifeline, one which has since been replaced by tourism.
Like most of America’s great natural landmarks, from Yosemite’s Half Dome to the Grand Canyon, it’s the scale of the place which hits you first. The series of rock formations which pushed their way up through a plateau a few millennia ago are visible from miles away and make Brimham Rocks look like a couple of pebbles.
It’s worth setting aside two or three days to explore the area properly and don’t worry about the various signs warning that the 17 mile loop road which begins at Monument Valley’s iconic East and West Mittens, so called because they look like a giant pair of woolly gloves, is only suitable for 4x4s.
While it’s not exactly a smooth ride, most cars – and most drivers – should manage it with ease.
With enough stop-offs along the way to satisfy even the most enthusiastic photographer, the leisurely drive takes a couple of hours and is a good introduction to the most famous formations from The Three Sisters to The Totem Pole and Elephant Butte.
The undoubted highlight though is the spot now known as Ford’s Point, which somehow feels as though Wayne and a few gun-toting outlaws might still be lurking in the shadows.
It’s not that Monument Valley has been untouched by the passage of time. There are a few stalls selling jewellery and at Ford’s Point a kindly Navajo lets tourists sit on his horse for $5 a go, but, that aside, the park is refreshingly un-Disneyfied. In fact, if you head through the gates as soon as they open you might just be lucky enough to have the place to yourself.
Accommodation wise, the only place to stay in the park itself is the slightly pricey View Hotel. While that comes with the added advantage of being able to watch the sun rise over the Mittens without getting out of your pyjamas, if you are staying for more than a day – and you should – check out Goulding’s Lodge.
Based on the site of the original trading post and home to a museum dedicated to Monument Valley’s film cameos it has a variety of accommodation from motel style rooms to spacious lodges and a camp ground. Just four miles away from the park entrance it also has its own supermarket which makes self-catering an easy option.
While the park itself is still owned by the Navajo, which means the visitor centre isn’t quite the slick operation of the rest of America’s National Park Service, on the upside the tour guides used by the Lodge are all locals.
While the half- day tours focuses on the main loop road, it’s worth booking a full day to see the places you can’t access in a private car. Lasting eight hours, the jeep heads first into the appropriately named Mystery Valley and it’s a chance to see the rock art and ruined dwellings left by the ancient Navajo who somehow scratched a living in this dust bowl.
As with all the tribal parks, alcohol is a no-no. On the upside it means that getting up early is not a problem – and make sure you set your alarm at least once for an unforgettable sunrise and, if you have time, set aside a few hours to walk the four mile Wildcat Trail.
While hiking is fairly limited in the park itself, this loop which begins from near the main car park will get you up close to the Mittens. With the big coach parties largely confined to the main viewing platform it rarely gets overcrowded.
It’s at this time of year that people start thinking of New Year’s resolutions. Forget promises to go to the gym more and drink less. Instead, grab your bucket list and right at the top write the words Monument Valley. You won’t regret it.
For Goulding’s Lodge accommodation and tour details go to gouldings.com
For more information about visiting Arizona go to visitarizona.com
We visited Monument Valley as part of a two week road trip which began and ended in Los Angeles. A week’s car hire from LAX costs from £148, based on travel in February 2018 and the rental car company also operates from Phoenix airport in Arizona. Book online and explore the USA with Hertz: https://www.hertz.co.uk/p/american-road-trip-planner