There are a few places in the American West where the eons of time along with all the elements of erosion have worked together to create breath-taking landscapes for modern man to see and enjoy. One such place is found in southern Utah straddling the Arizona border on the Navajo Reservation and is known to the Navajo as Tse'' Bii' Ndzisgaii which translates to mean "white streaks amidst the rocks." The English-speaking world knows this spectacular place as Monument Valley.
The land of Monument Valley is part of the 130,000-square-mile (336,700 square kilometers) Colorado Plateau. It is not a true valley at all but rather a wide, sunken, high desert landscape interrupted by picturesque spires that reach hundreds of feet into the western sky.
Monument Valley is young in terms of geological time. During both the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, this region of the North American continent was often submerged by warm ancient seas with the last great flooding occurring only some 70 million years ago. Materials from the ancient Rocky Mountains eroded away and washed into the shallow seas, laying down layer upon layer of sediment that over time cemented together to form sandstone hundreds of feet thick.
Incredible pressures from deep within the mantle of the Earth began a general uplifting of the whole region, cracking the by that time dried surface and forming the many mesas and deep canyons seen there today. The forces of wind, rain, freezing and thawing began the erosion process again, leaving today only the hardest of these ancient sandstone layers, many looking like giant headstones to some ancient gods.
Iron oxide found within the stone gives the valley and its many monuments their red color. The rock at the monuments' base is made up of soft shale known as Organ Rock Shale. The middle sections are composed of hard shale known as De Chelly Sandstone. The upper regions of the spires are a form of Shinarump rock, mountain sediment laid down during the Cenozoic era.
Many of the rock monuments show signs of smooth vertical cracking known as joints. The joints indicate the weaker areas of the buttes and are indicative of how and where the rocks will erode.
Archeological evidence indicates that Ice Age hunters made the land of Monument Valley their home between 12,000 and 6,000 B.C. The Anasazi people were employing their dry farming techniques by early A.D., but abandoned the area by the early 1300s.
In 1884, President Chester Arthur by executive order made Monument Valley a part of the 16 million-acre Navajo Reservation. The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park welcomes visitors from all over the world to see and enjoy the iconic natural wonders found within the park.
A 17-mile (27 km) driving loop allows for visitors to leisurely explore and photograph the many giant monoliths found here while enjoying one of the most beautifully stark areas of the American West. The Navajo tribe also offers guided tours for those who want to experience the more isolated parts of the valley.
Over 40 of the rock monuments of the valley have been given unique and descriptive names by early settlers, government agents and the Navajo people. The East and West Mittens, shown here, look like two hands but are considered by the Navajo to be the hands of Standing God who left these behind to remind the Navajo that the gods will return to the valley someday.
Merrick Butte is named after prospector James Merrick who discovered silver in the area but was killed by Ute Indians before he could benefit from his mine. The top of Merrick Butte has an elevation of 6,078 feet (1,851 meters) and rises nearly 1,000 feet (304 m) above the valley floor.
This monument is known as the Three Sisters. In the Navajo tradition these spires were three holy people who once did wrong and were turned into stone. The tallest spire is 600 feet (183 m) tall, the middle spire is 325 feet (99 m) tall and the final spire is 575 feet (175 m) tall.
This formation is known as The Boot. Some suggest that this just might be the most accurately named rock formation found within Monument Valley.
The Totem Pole is one of the most spectacular of the monuments. Navajo tradition says that it is a god held up by lightning. It rises 450 feet (122 m) into the open sky. It just might also be the thinnest tall sandstone tower in the world, as it measures just 40 feet (12 m) in diameter at the base and 14 feet (4 m) in diameter at the top.
The top of Rooster Butte rises some 5,643 feet (1,719 m) above sea level and some 500 feet (152 m) above the valley floor. Rooster Butte is located in Apache County, Ariz.
The power of wind erosion is evident all throughout the valley. Here the sandstone has been worn away to create an open known as the Eye of the Sun. Other such openings in the valley carry such colorful names as Ear of the Wind and Big Hogan Arch.
Hollywood discovered Monument Valley in 1939 when producer John Ford came there at the request of Indian trader Harry Goulding and filmed "Stagecoach," the first Western movie filmed in the valley. Over the next three decades, Ford returned to Monument Valley and filmed some of his most famous Westerns, including "My Darling Clementine," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache." Moviegoers throughout the world were now seeing Monument Valley. Visitors began to flock to the valley to see firsthand the magnificent monuments and awe inspiring views.
A young actor by the name of John Wayne starred in five of John Ford's Monument Valley movies. On his first trip in 1939 to this spectacular land to shoot "Stagecoach," young Wayne just might have given the best description of the incredible beauty and marvelous views of this land while standing at the end of John Ford's Point, shown above. Wayne simply said, "Now I know where God hid the West!"