I am writing a series of posts about a recent trip to Monument Valley. A long-time client asked me to go out and do some one-on-one shooting with him. I hadn’t been there in 15 years so I jumped at the chance.
The winter in Monument Valley is often my favorite time to go. The crowds are smaller (sometimes you seem to have the place to yourself,) the hotels offer lower-cost (off-season) room-rates, and if youre lucky, you’ll get clouds or even snow.
If you go in the summer (when everyone else does) you’ll have a better chance of capturing big, dramatic storm clouds. But you’ll compete with hundreds of photographers for space and it will cost more. Its a trade-off.
Whatever it takes, if you get a chance in your lifetime to visit Monument Valley – take it. Its what I call a Stevie Wonder location – meaning even Stevie Wonder could get great images here.
Its a special place. Its a spiritual place. Its almost other-worldly. Monument Valley was created as material eroded from the ancestral Rocky Mountains, and was deposited and cemented into sandstone. The formations you see in the valley were left over after the forces of erosion worked their magic on the sandstone. A geologic uplift caused the surface to bulge and crack. Wind and water then eroded the land, and the cracks deepened and widened into gullies and canyons, which eventually became the scenery you see today.
If youre a photographer, no matter when you go, pray for clouds. Ive spent approximately 60 days photographing this beautiful piece of the Colorado Plateau over my lifetime. I hate to say it but well more than half the time, Ive been cursed with bald, blue skies. Monument valley is always breathtaking, and I am grateful for every moment Ive been able to spend there, but from a photographers point of view, clouds are good – bald blue skies are bad. Clouds make everything seem more interesting and they also offer some cool interplay between shadow and direct sunlight.
We didn’t have much time (my client needed to get back to work) so everything had to be compressed into about two and a half days. Its easy to spend two weeks here. But if you get lucky (we did) and you get good light and some interesting clouds, you can get all the iconic shots in a few days. Oh and a word about photographing iconsplease remember that when you say thats been done to death but yet YOU don’t have that image in your portfolio, youre cheating yourself out of a thrilling experience. Grabbing YOUR version of the iconic Mittens in the valley will always be worth it.
We started our trip in Shiprock, New Mexico. It is near Farmington, New Mexico, on the Navajo reservation. The Four Corners area (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah) is a great starting point for any Southwest photo trek.
Shiprock is the remnant of an explosive volcanic eruption that occurred around 30 million years ago. The main part of the landform is just under 2000 feet high, and about 1800 feet in diameter. Ship Rock, known as Tse Bitai, or “the winged rock” in Navajo, is a volcanic neck, or the central feeder pipe of larger volcanic landform which has since eroded away.
We arrived about a half-hour before sunset which didn’t give us much time. My two favorite shots of Shiprock at sunset are from the south or from the west. We selected a western (shooting east) facing exposure so we could get the color in the clouds. We worked from a small pull-out on the road and got good results. We didn’t have much time but it worked out well. We even got a little snow on the rocks.
From Shiprock, its about 70 minutes to Bluff, Utah. Some people prefer to stay in Mexican, Hat, but if you want to shoot Valley of the Gods, and Goosenecks State Park on the way to Monument Valley, Bluff may be the better choice.
Bluff is also a little bigger than Mexican Hat, and has a nicer selection of hotels. I always stay at the Desert Rose Inn & Cabins. In February, rooms can be had here for about $75 and in less than 20 minutes you can be at Valley of the Gods. (Beware – Internet access here is poor but this is something you’ll encounter at most of the area hotels.)
The next morning, we got up about 30 minutes before sunrise. While most photo locations require you to be AT the shooting location 30 minutes before sunrise happens, Monument Valley has several locations that are actually better once the sun has risen a little. Plus, photographing landscapes in February means that the sun is lower in the sky at Noon than it will be in the Summer, so you can shoot later into the day and later still if you shoot HDR.
We had a rented Jeep Grand Cherokee for this trip and it came in very handy. The roads in this area are generally good, but no matter when you visit, they can go bad on you quickly.
The dirt/gravel road through the Valley of the Gods is always best traversed with a four-wheel drive. While I am sure a passenger car could make it over the road in perfect circumstances, why chance it? The roads can be tricky here because there are lots of blind curves and elevation changes. Thankfully, one of the benefits of being here in February is that we didn’t have too much traffic to navigate. You do need to drive with care. Ive seen more than one vehicle go off the road here. And be careful if the roads are wet. Some of the little puddles you see are actually deep ruts that can harm your vehicle.
From the highway, I usually find most of the morning photography to be best in the first three miles of the Valley of the Gods Road. There are numerous photo opportunities and you will have no trouble finding things that you want to capture. If you choose to travel the entire route you can get more intimate details. Either way – if there are clouds this location is MUCH more fulfilling. If you get a bald, blue sky, try working detail shots and macro. Wait for the clouds. They will be worth the wait.
After youve had your fill at Valley of the Gods, move on towards Monument Valley and stop off at Goosenecks State Park. Here you can see the results of 300 million years of time, where the San Juan River winds and carves its way through the desert 1,000 feet below. This primitive park offers a spectacular view of this amazing and rare geologic formation, known as an entrenched meander.
If youre forced to do Monument Valley on an extremely tight budget, Goosenecks is the cheapest place you can spend the night. Primitive camping spots are $10 a night. But theres no water, no shower, no services. A pretty rough pit toilet offers the only creature comforts. On the flip-side, you can pitch your tent (or camper van or backseat of your car) mere feet from one of the most astounding views in North America.
Goosenecks requires a super wide lens. Anything from a fisheye to a 21mm (35mm EFL) will give you a nice wide view of the canyon below. In February, the canyon lights up around 9:30 am. You can go earlier if your tastes run to illustrating the interplay between light and shadow and later if you want full sun on the canyon. You can be there at sunrise this time of year if you want to try to get the shot of the sun coming up directly behind the canyon. If there are clouds in the background, you might want to use a polarizer here.
At this point you can either head back to Bluff for a nice breakfast and shower or head on to Monument Valley. There are plenty of things to distract you on the way to Monument Valley. If you want stay closer to the valley, then Mexican Hat is as good as anyplace. The San Juan Inn is the best hotel in town but beware the falling rocks that have been known to flatten a car or two in their parking lot.
If you want the very BEST Monument Valley experience money can buy, then stay inside the Tribal Park at the View Motel. Rates run from low $100s to low $200s a night in February, and each room has a great view of the valley and the night sky. Theres also a decent restaurant at The View Motel. This property is new since my last visit to the park and its much nicer than almost anything in the area. If youre on a budget remember there is a $20 fee to enter the park (whether or not youre staying at the View) and you can save money if you want to camp. Sites are available within or very near the park for $20 a night.
One of my favorite looks at Monument Valley is from the View Hotel (if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can still shoot from anyplace on the grounds other than a hotel room balcony) in the afternoon and sunset/sunrise. You can shoot from the comfort of your balcony if you’re a guest and anything from 20-35mm is a good focal length to work with. I gotta admit that extra 45 minutes of sleep was worth more to me than the money it cost to rent the room.
Remember that Monument Valley is tribal land. Obey local laws and customs. If you want to pay a guide you can go off the main road and if you have a few days I highly recommend doing this. If you only have a day or two drive the main road and then work the areas outside the park. For instance, try the iconic shot of the valley from mile marker 13 on Highway 163, with the highway leading the eye to the rock formations.
I have just scratched the surface here. If you have the time, visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Navajo National Monument, Berland Lake, Antelope Canyon, Bisti Badlands, and more. This entire region is pure eye-candy.
People come from all over the world to see these sites. I am very fortunate to have had so much time here. I hope those of you who want to go can make the trip. It will be worth it.
P.S. About the title of this post. On the first two days of the trip we had decent to good cloud formations. On day three – you guessed it – bupkis. The sunrise photo I posted here was the only photo I kept from that day. I really like the simplicity of it but generally, bald blue skies will kill you.
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