The hotel restaurant and snack bar at Monument Valley were closed, and the only dining alternative was six miles away. Most other public areas inside the hotel were closed, along with the visitor center, but the gift shop was open.😎 The hotel’s free continental breakfast in a bag consisted mostly of processed carbs. Masks were absolutely required. To be sure, there were inconveniences. And we had an amazing time!
You may recall that the Navajo Nation was slammed by COVID early on and instituted a strict lockdown in March 2020 to contain the virus and protect members’ health, with severe penalties for violators. Even so, ~1,500 of their residents have died from COVID so far. If our home county experienced the same mortality level, we would have >3,000 deaths by now, compared to 321 actual.
After 16 months and with most of their eligible population vaccinated, the reservation cautiously reopened to tourists with strict rules in place to limit the spread of the virus. So despite the minor inconveniences, we were more than happy to comply.
The Navajo Nation is huge – larger than West Virginia at 27,413 square miles, and includes land in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Some of the Southwest’s most stunning landscapes are found here – this article highlights just two – Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon.
Approaching Monument Valley, we stopped for a quick snapshot near Forrest Gump’s turnaround point in the 1994 movie.
Our hotel – The View – was located inside the Monument Valley Tribal Park and lived up to its name with stunning views – West Mitten on the left, East Mitten in the center and Merrick Butte on the right.
From our hotel room:
We signed up for an all day group tour with a Navajo guide that, lucky for us, became our own private tour since it was just us two. The outdoor seating was fantastic for its unobstructed views but downright cold during the morning hours.
Herbert, our tour guide, grew up on the reservation and lives there now with his wife and young daughter. He, like the majority of locals, is fluent in the Navajo language and seemed to enjoy sharing information about his heritage and upbringing.
There’s one road through Monument Valley available to the public for a scenic drive. And it’s spectacular. Our guide also took us on back roads to other areas not accessible unless escorted by a tribal member. He pointed out the names of the various rock formations, which I don’t remember, of course. Many are of historical or spiritual significance to the Navajo people, and some are primarily known for being featured in movies. Here are a few examples of the big rocks:
We also examined old petroglyphs, or rock carvings . . .
. . . and stopped to view three unique arch formations.
Our morning tour was 3.5 hours. Then we reconvened with Herbert after lunch for another 3.5 hour tour through Mystery Valley, which is adjacent to Monument Valley but has fewer visitors.
The Mystery Valley area has many cliff dwelling ruins tucked away in the rocks that date back hundreds of years to the Ancient Puebloans.
And there were more arches to explore.
We also climbed to the top of the second arch, which contained ruins.
And three more arches – no climbing.
Our day with Herbert was super cool.
On day 2, Bill and I hiked the Wildcat Trail, the only option for non-tribal members to explore on foot without a Navajo escort. The trail circumnavigates West Mitten Butte, which takes a surprisingly long time because of its size. We made it to the trailhead at 11:11.
Back to the hotel at 1:17. A few other views from the trail:
We loved our visit to Monument Valley, and two full days was the right amount of time to see the sights.
Antelope Canyon, the most photographed slot canyon in the American Southwest, is located just outside the small town of Page, Arizona. Because it’s also on tribal land, non-members can only visit with a Navajo guide, and there are plenty of tour companies to choose from.
The canyon was formed (and continues to be shaped) by water erosion of the sandstone rock, primarily from flash floods that sweep through the area during monsoon season – July through September.
This tour was all about experiencing and trying to capture the fantastic shapes and colors created by the light entering the canyon, which has two distinct sections. Visiting both requires booking two separate tours.
Lower Antelope Slot Canyon
We did the lower section first. So MANY amazing views – here are a few of my favorite photos.
Our little group of eight was led by outstanding tour guide Ryan. We only made it as far as the first room before there was a kerfuffle. Despite the explicit requirement to wear a mask at all times and to acknowledge that if you remove your mask for any reason, your tour is over, one person in our group did it four times in the first five minutes – “I just wanted to get a quick photo!” So Ryan tried to escort him out, but the guest refused to leave. In fact, he bounded past the rest of us and up the ladder shown in one of the photos above, continuing onward through the canyon.
Before Ryan could follow him, an elderly couple in the group just ahead of us appeared at the top of the ladder from the other direction – they were making their way back to the entrance. And one or both were obviously in some distress. It took about 15 minutes for them to descend the stairs. In the meantime, the rest of us are just hanging out waiting for the situation to resolve before we can continue on. And all the groups behind us are stacked up wondering what’s going on.
Ryan called Security to deal with the scofflaw from our group, and I guess it got addressed, because we didn’t see him (or his wife) after that. Hopefully the situation with the elderly couple also turned out OK. At any rate, our tour lasted about 30 minutes longer than planned.
Here are a few photos of the terrain and entrance to the canyon.
And it was pretty cool how you just popped out of the ground at the end!
Upper Antelope Canyon
Whereas the lower canyon is shaped like a “V” – wider at the top than at the bottom, Upper Antelope Canyon is just the opposite – wider at the bottom than at the top. The result is that the light patterns are very different between the two, with the lower canyon being darker overall.
We were once again in a small tour group of eight people, and this time there were no rule-breakers. Our tour guide for the upper canyon was Sandra, who was both highly knowledgeable and efficient. Her forte was pointing out dozens of named rock and light formations in the canyon and using our phones to take some pretty amazing photos. Here’s the best of the bunch from the upper canyon tour. Notice that these photos aren’t necessarily oriented “right side up.”
And a few more . . . .
Entry and exit points to Upper Antelope Canyon are a little more obvious than with the Lower Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon is truly incredible, and I’m still amazed that we could capture those shapes and colors with just a phone camera. This experience, as well as our two days in Monument Valley, will stay with us forever.
Thanks for coming along with us! For a look at our full road trip itinerary, click here.