Magnificent Monument Valley: Where God Put The West

The mesas, thin buttes, and the tall spires rising above the valley, and the contrasting orange sand, makes Monument Valley the most impressive landscape in the southwest

One of the most iconic and enduring landmarks of the American Wild West, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park has isolated sandstone mesas, buttes, and a sandy desert that has been photographed and filmed countless times.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley boasts crimson mesas, surreal sandstone towers which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet. Made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, the towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations, providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It is one of those sights that takes your breath away and makes you speechless—what the Western writer Zane Grey once described as “a strange world of colossal shafts and buttes of rock, magnificently sculptored, standing isolated and aloof, dark, weird, lonely.”

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Known as Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii (or Valley of the Rocks) to the Navajo, they believe it is a gift from their creator and each unique formation has a story.

Entering Monument Valley is to enter a world of mystery, incredible beauty, and age-old tradition.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Our visit to Monument Valley was in two parts: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Goulding’s Trading Post.

Our first stop was the legendary Goulding’s Trading Post located just north of the Arizona-Utah border, six miles from the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After arriving Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in mid-afternoon and obtaining information about available options for exploring this wonderland of rocks, we departed the Visitor Center at Lookout Point and started the Valley Drive, a 17-mile self-guided dirt road. The road winds past the valley’s best red rock buttes and spires, with 11 stops for photos.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is considered one of the world’s premier spots for landscape photography. The best stops for photographing the towers are the Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Camel Butte, The Hub, the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei, Sand Springs, Artist’s Point, North Window, and The Thumb. The best times for photography are early mornings and late afternoons when the shadows lengthen and the sun brings out the reds and oranges in the buttes.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Allow at least two to three hours at the posted 10 mph. Expect to eat the valley’ orange dust, because other vehicles will kick up thick clouds of it during the dry weather that you’ll find in this high desert most of the year.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a swirl of red dust we dropped down into the valley rim in our four-wheel-drive dinghy with guide map in hand.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road is dusty, steep in a couple of places and rather uneven, but does not need a four-wheel-drive—the journey is suitable for the majority of family cars, and small to medium sized RVs, though the surface is perhaps not improved too much in order to increase business for the many Navajo guides and 4WD Jeep rental outfits, which wait expectantly by the visitor center. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though rough in many spots and probably impassable in wet weather, the road was easily travel on this day.

We wound our way past the Mittens, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters, and to John Ford’s Point—named for the famous director who made movies in Monument Valley, many of them starring John Wayne.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The weather was perfect—sunny and warm—as we continued on past Camel Butte, the Hub, and to the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei. The changing light and shifting shadows created an never-ending stream of views. Continuing on around Raingod Mesa and Artist Point, we timed our drive to return to the

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After photographing the amazing sunset we drove our toad east to our camping site at Cottonwood RV Park in Bluff, Utah, a round day trip of 119 miles.

Worth Pondering…

So this is where God put the West.

—John Wayne

A Photographer’s Guide to the American West

Tips to ensure your photos are as striking as the American West’s breathtaking backdrops

From west to east and north to south, we have toured and photographed numerous National Parks Service sites including national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, and national historic sites and battlefield.

These parks offer a cross section of the best of the best for scenic beauty and historic significance across America.

Canyon de Chelley National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most amazing iconic landscapes in national parks and beyond are found in the American West. Few landscapes are as awe-inspiring as those found in the western states. And who can resist taking lots of photos?

Here are some pointers to help you bring back images you’d be proud to share.

Take the Iconic Photos and Move Beyond

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Everyone wants to capture those iconic images we’ve all seen in books and on postcards. Give it a try and you’ll likely realize it’s not as simple as it may seem. Many of those images were taken from high up on a mountain trail or from down below in a canyon.

Coronado National Memorial, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But even if you get that iconic image, push yourself to something beyond. Move around and go higher, lower, closer, farther away to find a different perspective—one that reflects your personal vision. Simple changes often redefine your image and give a more complete sense of the place.

Include an Interesting Foreground Element

Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One problem with many landscape shots is that the subject is far away and there’s nothing of interest in the foreground. That gives landscape images a flat sameness that we want to avoid. As you look at some stunning vista, pay attention to nearby rocks, plants, or even puddles of water that can add interest to your image.

Work with All Kinds of Natural Light

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Light is the primary ingredient in photography. You’ll encounter various types of natural light throughout the day and from one day to the next. Learn how to make the most of whatever light you have available.

Saguaro National Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even dull overcast days can work wonders with landscape photos. Such days bring out natural colors and eliminate what can often be annoying shadows. Take advantage by getting a high perspective so your image is mostly land with very little sky.

Since early morning and late afternoon are the choice times to photograph, plan out at a key location prior to venturing out.

Pay Attention to the Sky

Joshua Tree National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composing a landscape includes making a decision about how to deal with the sky. Finding the right balance between land and sky is often what makes or breaks a landscape image. Consider the sky and general weather conditions. A blue sky or one with puffy white clouds or threatening dark ones can be an asset to your image and you may want to include more sky and less land.

But if the sky is a uniform dull gray, minimize the sky or eliminate it completely. Nothing spoils a landscape photo more than a swath of white where the sky would have been.

Optimum Sharpness is Paramount

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great advantages of landscapes is that they don’t move, so you can take your time to compose and get optimum sharpness. What is optimal depends on the image you have in mind, but certainly you want the foreground and middle ground as sharp as possible.

Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For maximum control over sharpness, use a tripod. That allows you to take several shots of the same location with different settings so you can decide later which works best for you. Also, you’ll get a sharper image with a higher f-stop. If you’re shooting just the landscape, a slow shutter speed should not pose a problem. But if you’ve got your eye on some wildlife in the landscape or want to capture grasses bending in the wind, vary your shutter speed to get either a sharp image or an interesting blur.

After-Capture Techniques

Glen Canyon Recreation Area, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the great boons of digital photography is that the image-making process continues after you have taken your shot. Today’s digital photography offers an incredible number of options for improving or rethinking our images in the computer.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One simple tool lets you crop your image in case you were unable to keep an unwanted element out of the frame during shooting. Remember, you can always cut something out, but you can’t add something you didn’t include in the rush of shooting.

As you become more familiar and comfortable using after-capture techniques, they will become a natural part of your photographic repertoire, helping you achieve the aesthetic results you want within one or two minutes.

Petrified Forest National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As you work these pointers into your landscape photography, you’ll come up with landscapes that truly look out of this world.

Worth Pondering…

No matter how advanced your camera you still need to be responsible for getting it to the right place at the right time and pointing it in the right direction to get the photo you want.

—Ken Rockwell