The Heart of the Southwest: Monument Valley Road Trip

from The Most Scenic Drives in America | 217

Length: About 260 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Spring to autumn.

Lodging: Available in several nearby towns, but reserve in advance.

Words to the wise: On Indian reservations abide by local customs. Ask permission before taking photos; never disturb artifacts.

Nearby attractions: Grand Canyon National Park, near Flagstaff, AZ. Petrified Forest National Park, near Holbrook, AZ. Zion National Park, Springdale, UT.

Further information: Utah Travel Council, Council Hall, Capitol Hill, Salt Lake City, UT 84114; tel. 801-538-1030. Arizona Office of Tourism, 1110 W. Washington, #155, Phoenix, AZ 85007, 866-298-3312, www.azot.com.

Listening to mission bells while dozing beneath a shady cottonwood tree … watching the last glimmer of daylight as it turns a distant mesa from fiery red to faded umber … hearing the call of a coyote beneath a full desert moon. The pleasures of the Southwest are simple and subtle yet deeply satisfying. And they are found in abundance along this drive through the Arizona–Utah border country. 1. Dinosaur Tracks The land of the Navajos is one of timeless splendor and quiet grandeur. Both of these virtues are embodied in the dinosaur tracks that can be seen just a few miles west of Tuba City as the drive heads northeastward on Rte. 160. The fossilized footprints bear silent testimony to the reptiles who once lumbered across Jurassic sediments that have long since turned to sandstone. Farther along, the drive passes two more ancient landmarks: massive twin buttes called the Elephant Feet. Also composed of sandstone, these monuments were worn by time and the elements into the wrinkled, leathery finish that inspired their name.

2. Navajo National Monument With the bulk of Black Mesa brooding to the south, Rte. 160 forges northeast into Navajo country. No less than today’s travelers, the Navajo people, too, have played the role of stranger in these parts. Long before they arrived, some four centuries ago, this was the home of the mysterious Anasazi people, possibly ancestors of the modern Hopis. A remnant of this lost tribe can be seen at Navajo National Monument, which sprawls across broken high country at the end of Rte. 564, a nine-mile drive through pygmy junipers and piñon pines.

Here, in the clear, dry air nearly a mile and a half above sea level, the remains of Anasazi pueblo villages slumber beneath beetling ocher cliffs, accessible to hikers by trails through steep terrain and sand. Note that backcountry travel requires ranger guides or permits.

Clustered within a great cavern in a canyon wall, the 700-year-old ruin called Betatakin contains inner walls still sooty from cooking fires long since extinguished.

Another site, Keet Seel, is one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest. It welcomes only those visitors hardy enough to venture eight miles on foot or horseback from the Navajo National Monument visitor center. 3. Agathla Peak At the wind-scoured little town of Kayenta, veer north on Rte. 163 and traverse a mile-high valley where ravens often can be seen wheeling overhead. Before long, as if to announce the approach to Monument Valley, a sentinel pierces the desert sky: to the east stands Agathla Peak (Spanish explorers called it El Capitán), a great black thunderhead of a mountain believed to be the core of a prehistoric volcano. Across the road, on the west side of the highway, another monolith commands attention—the sandstone needle of Owl Rock, which soars from the edge of Tyende Mesa. 4. Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park Even if this is your first trip to the Arizona-Utah border country, you probably aren’t seeing Monument Valley for the first time. Chances are good that a man named John Ford has already shown it to you. Beginning in 1938 with his landmark film Stagecoach and continuing a decade later with his cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), the celebrated director used this setting so often that it came to epitomize the rugged terrain of the Old West.

Within this vast tableland—punctuated by spires, buttes, and pillars—lies the 30,000-acre Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Visitors can explore the area on a well-marked, scenic 17-mile route. (But be forewarned that a guided tour will save your car a good deal of wear and tear, since the road is unpaved and rutted.)

However you experience it, the valley is a wonder to behold, a harsh yet hauntingly beautiful landscape. View it in early morning, when shadows lift from rocky marvels with names such as Rain God, Thunderbird, Gray Whiskers, and Spearhead. Admire it in springtime, when tiny pink and blue wildflowers sprinkle the land with jewel-like specks of color. Try to see it through the eyes of the Navajos, who still herd their sheep and weave their rugs here.

Spaced grandly apart on a wide-open range, these stark buttes and sculpted pinnacles form one of the most dramatic assemblages of rock formations to be found anywhere on earth. The ingredients of stone, water, and time combine here to form a whole that’s infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

5. Goosenecks State Park This stretch of Rte. 163—called the Trail of the Ancients in honor of the vanished Anasazis—cuts across Monument Valley at the Utah border on its way to the little town of Mexican Hat. Named for a rock formation there that resembles an upside-down sombrero—a whimsical footnote to the magnificence of Monument Valley—Mexican Hat is the nearest settle-ment to Goosenecks State Park, just ahead and to the west via Rtes. 261 and 316.

The Great Goosenecks of the San Juan River are what geologists call entrenched meanders: by anyone’s definition they are a prime illustration of the unhurried power of natural forces. Look down a thousand feet or more at the waters of the San Juan River. The lazily looping pattern of the river’s gooseneck turns took shape over 300 million years, with the result that in six meandering miles, the San Juan makes a westing of barely a mile and a half on its way to Lake Powell.

Snaking between its eroded walls of sandstone, limestone, and shale, the gorge looks like something akin to the Grand Canyon tied into knots, a reminder that although we might consider a straight line to be the shortest distance between two points, nature couldn’t care less.