When most of us think of the American West, this is what clicks into our mental View-Masters: a vast, flat sagebrush plain with huge sandstone spires thrusting to the sky like the fingers of ancient Mother Earth clutching for the heavens. Ever since movie director John Ford first started shooting westerns here in the 1930s, this landscape has felt familiar to millions who have never set foot here. (Just outside the park, Goulding's Trading Post Museum recreates the era in the 1920s and 1930s when the moviemakers first discovered the area.) We've all seen it on the big screen, but oh, what a difference to see it in real life.
Because the park is on Navajo tribal lands -- their name for it is Tsebii'nidzisgai, "the valley within the rocks" -- there are only three ways to tour the area: driving the 17-mile Valley Drive past 11 photo-op overlooks; taking an off-road jeep tour with a Navajo guide; or on guided hikes and trail rides, which range from 1-hour loops to 8-hour excursions. The classic way to experience these dramatic scrublands, of course, is from on a Western saddle, the way John Wayne saw it. The native guides, born and bred to this barren landscape, will not only lead the ride, they'll help you appreciate the intricate beauties of this landscape, which is sacred to their tribe. One of the most comprehensive tour companies (jeeps, hikes, horses, you name it) is Sacred Monument Tours (tel. 435/727-3218; www.monumentvalley.net). Many of the trail rides follow the Mittens trail, which heads north to Sentinel Mesa and then comes back along the floor of the West Mitten mesa; longer rides add on the Castle Butte, Stage Coach, or Big Indian Spire mesas. Another popular option for more experienced riders goes into backcountry, outside the official park boundaries, to visit Teardrop Arch and Horseshoe Canyon. If you possibly can, time your visit to include sunset -- as the sheer walls of these monoliths capture the light of the setting sun, they truly seem to catch fire.
As you stare at them, take an extra moment to imagine the forces of nature that have sculpted the soft desert stone into these incredible shapes. It's an only-in-America panorama that the kids won't ever forget.
Nearest Airport: Flagstaff Pulliam, 180 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Goulding's Lodge, Monument Valley, UT (tel. 435/727-3231; www.gouldings.com). $$ Hampton Inn Kayenta, U.S. 160, Kayenta, AZ (tel. 800/HAMPTON [426-7866] or 928/697-3170; www.hampton-inn.com or www.monumentvalleyonline.com).