Just over 13 miles north of the Arizona border, Highway 163 runs straight as an arrow south towards the silent stone monoliths of Monument Valley. The flat-bottomed valley itself is a park administered by the Navajo Nation, where tribe members still live and farm among the skyscraper-size sandstone buttes and towers that soar from the plain of sagebrush scrublands.
To the Navajo, the whole valley is sacred. It’s special to Hollywood, too, since countless classic Westerns have been filmed here. Get an introduction to the area’s celluloid history at Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post, established in 1924 by trader Harry Goulding and his wife ‘Mike’, and the only lodge actually located in Monument Valley. It was Goulding who convinced director John Ford that the local scenery would make the ideal mythical backdrop for his films about the West. Ford and John Wayne shot film after film here, from Stagecoach (1938) to Fort Apache (1948) and more. Goulding’s original trading post has been turned into a museum chock-full of movie memorabilia and historic artifacts.
Next door is a spotless 62-room hotel with private balconies that promise spectacular views and a dining room built when the crew for Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon came to town; this 1949 classic won an Oscar for best cinematography—little wonder, with scenes of Monument Valley competing for the leading role.
A highly scenic (and very rough) 17-mile dirt loop road runs from the Visitor Centre past starkly eroded buttes and sculpted spires with telling names such as the Totem Pole, the Mittens and Elephant Butte. Some of the most awe-inspiring monuments to nature, they capture the light at various times of the day, and have transfixed artists and visitors alike for centuries. Allow at least an hour for the drive—also great on mountain bikes—to drink it all in.
This is sacred land, and the only way you can wander off the road to explore (on foot, in a jeep or by horse) is in the company of a Navajo guide. Arrange to be in the valley at sunset, and you’ll feel as if you just stepped into a classic ’40s Western as the closing credits roll.