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Monument Valley: Road Trip to the Wild West

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is a magical place. Despite being only about a five-hour drive from my home in Phoenix, it feels like another planet entirely. At the same time, it has the vibe of a time-travel destination: The landscapes appear straight out of an 1950s cowboy film from the Wild West. Add in the hospitality and culture of the native Navajo people who reside there, and it becomes the kind of place I wish I could spend for an entire week or more.

I took advantage of the window of time between Christmas and the New Year to make the trek for an overnight visit to Monument Valley. As much fun as it is to travel with friends and family, all the holiday hustle and bustle had left me a little burned out on “people,” so I specifically planned this as a solo adventure. The isolation and quietness of the desert southwest offers a perfect atmosphere for retreat and meditation.

The first leg of my journey involved making the familiar climb of more than a vertical mile in elevation as I drove the 140 miles from Phoenix to Flagstaff via Interstate 17. My 1996 Acura SLX, originally marketed as the more familiar Isuzu Trooper, lumbered up the hill with relative ease, and soon I saw Mount Humphreys looming over Flagstaff. From there, the route traversed Highway 89 north and then Highway 160 toward the northeast. The landscape transformed to surround me in buttes, mesas, valleys, and sagebrush.

Monument Valley straddles the Arizona-Utah state line near Four Corners (where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah intersect) and sits on the Colorado Plateau. The valley’s sandstone rock formations range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet and are the product of millions of years of erosion.

The main attraction at the park is a 17-mile dirt-road loop with a combination of two-way and one-way traffic that traverses a series of noteworthy landmarks. Park entry costs $8 per person, and winter hours of operation are 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., with the last car entry allowed at 3:00 p.m. to allow for time to take the loop before sundown. I arrived by 1:00 and had plenty of time to get the tires on my SLX dirty.

Not long after leaving the pavement, the two famous “mitten-shaped” rocks were on prominent display, and a way down the road, the “three sisters” greeted me. I moved at my own pace and made it a point to park the vehicle and walk around periodically to soak up the scenery and get some fresh air.

By the time I had spent about two and a half hours touring the area, I had worked up an appetite. As luck would have it, I took a side-road from one of the main parking areas and came across a roadside building with a vendor selling Navajo tacos. The recipe includes a piece of frybread as the flat “shell,” topped with chili beans or refried beans, along with tomatoes, lettuce, and cheese. The meal was $12 very well spent!

My accommodations for the evening were at The View Hotel – aptly named for its hillside perch which allows panoramic views from every room’s balcony or patio. The in-house dining facility offered a long menu of options, but I went with a salad since I had eaten just a couple of hours prior. I strolled through the gift shop afterward to browse the pottery, arrowheads, jewelry, postcards, and handcrafted native artifacts of various kinds. I ended up coming up with a few trinkets as souvenirs.

Timing for my trip worked out perfectly, since northern Arizona was hit with a snowstorm the day after I rolled through on the return leg. That’s part of the risk of planning a road trip during the wintertime, but it was worth rolling the dice since I had greater unrestricted (and un-crowded) access to the park than I would have had during other seasons.

There’s a Navajo saying that reads, “Be still and the earth will speak to you.” The line of communication between earth and humankind is crystal clear in Monument Valley. I plan to get back to visit again soon, and next time I’ll remember my cowboy hat so I can truly teleport myself to a Wild West action movie.

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