Archive for the ‘Navajo’ Tag

Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

Here’s a sad story:  Imagine driving through a typical developed section of the United States.  You drive by a continuous series of shopping complexes, fast-food joints, theaters, condo developments and all the rest.  It’s just the way it is, right?

Now imagine a long-time local in the car with you.  Inevitably he or she would be able to point and tell you that not long ago this was all farmland (or forest, or grass meadows, or swampland, or tidal marshes).  I’ve heard this told of many areas across the country, and I could tell the story for numerous places that I’m personally familiar with.

America has experienced continuous growth and development for quite some time now, and the effects are many.  This blog series is about one of them, the swallowing up of rural farm- and ranch-lands as the suburbs have pushed outward.  We’ve lost much of the on-the-land character here, and visitors from other countries, along with younger residents, simply do not know what the country was once like.

When you come upon a rare round barn in rural America, you stop and take a picture: east Oregon desert.

Thankfully rural America does still exist in places.  But in order to see it, you must be willing to get away from the popular routes and sights.  It’s one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to put into effect during a trip.  The internet tends to push us into narrow tourist-trails, perhaps more so than travel books and magazines once did.  But the internet can also give you ideas for getting off those beaten trails to explore just a little bit of the original character of the country and its people.  It’s that rural character that made this country great in the first place.

The last few posts have been exploring the Desert Southwest with some of my favorite road-trips.  This post continues with that theme, moving east and south to explore the Four Corners region, especially the native tribal lands of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  It’s part of a big loop starting and ending in Page, Arizona.  Next time we’ll cover the southern leg of the loop.  If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, your trip could start in Arizona from either Phoenix or Flagstaff.  Or you could fly into Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico and start the loop on the eastern end.

The famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Page to Cortez

Page, Arizona is a little town on the shores of Lake Powell.  It’s popular with snowbirds and retirees, but is probably best known as a minor tourist town.  It’s the base town for house boat trips on the lake and also for desert tours.  The town is set in ridiculously scenic desert, so it’s popular with photographers.  There is a balloon fest the first weekend of November (image below).

If you love slot canyons and can’t resist an over-photographed location, visit nearby Antelope Canyon.  It’s on Navajo land and a guided tour costs anywhere between $20 and $40, not including the $6 tribal fee.  The cheaper option is for the lower canyon while the upper costs more.  Both are stunning visually.  Another superb but over-shot location is Horseshoe Bend just south of town (image above).  The whole area is like candy for landscape shooting.  I recommend a sunrise at Lone Rock Beach (image at top).  You can camp right there on the beach.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

If you have extra time a great side-trip from Page travels Hwy. 89A past Marble Canyon on the Colorado River and up to Jacob Lake.  Turn south on 67 and enjoy the cool pine forests on a short jaunt to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Our trip will take us east into very different country.  This is vast, unpeopled desert, dotted with small communities that are a mix of American Indian, white ranchers and more recent immigrants.  Many towns are dominated by native tribal people.

Looking east over the upper Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

Drive to Kayenta, AZ and turn north toward Monument Valley on the Utah border.  As you near this iconic place of the west, the terrain begins to look like an old John Ford movie.  There is a fee to enter the tribal park, and it is 100% worth it.  Make sure and stop for some Navajo fry bread at road-side and chat up the friendly locals.  I’ve camped out in the desert here and had locals roll up in their pickup trucks to check me out.  Instead of running me off their reservation they’ve been friendly once they know I’m just after a good night’s sleep.

A young Navajo pony is curious about the white stranger in Monument Valley.

Continue north, making sure to stop and look behind you for the view from the movie Forrest Gump.  Mexican Hat on the San Juan River is a tiny town typical of this part of the country.  Stop for lunch and learn something from a local or two.  Continue up the San Juan to Bluff, another interesting little place.  There are spectacular rock art panels along the river just west of Bluff.

Pictographs: southern Utah.

A side-trip north toward Blanding, Utah takes you into the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument.  You can stop along the roadside in this area and walk cross-country, exploring randomly, and come upon ancient Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins and rock art.  It’s that rich with prehistoric treasures.  A hiking trip into Grand Gulch will take you into the heart of this amazing piece of America.  This place has become a political hot-button issue, as the Utah state government attempts to convince the current president (who is sympathetic) to undo its protective Monument status.

Bear paw petroglyph: Bear’s Ears Natl. Monument, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries set in a cliff overhang: Bear’s Ears, Utah.

Continue east on Hwy. 162 to the Four Corners area.  This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, the only place in the country where four states meet.  But let’s take a little detour to see some unique native ruins and drive an out-of-the-way little valley lined with pretty ranches and farms.  You can turn north on Hwy. 262 or the road a few miles to the east.  Or in Bluff just set your GPS to find Hovenweep National Monument.

Square Tower under winter stars, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

You’ll come to the main ruins of Hovenweep, where the visitor center and a nice campground are located.  A short loop hike takes you around Little Ruin Canyon, where the Ancient Ones built towers of the local stone.  Driving the dirt roads north from here will lead you to short hikes that visit other towers (directions at the visitor ctr.).  I recommend doing this for the strong feelings you’ll get with nobody else around.  The ghosts of a past long before this was called America haunt this lonely region of shallow sandstone canyons.

The towers of Little Ruin Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Retrace your steps back south and find Ismay Trading Post Road (ask a ranger for directions or study the map).  Take this straight east into Colorado.  It’s a beautiful way to enter the state.  You can stop and take a short hike into the public lands of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the north side of the road.  Too soon you’ll reenter the modern world at Cortez, where you can gas up and stock up.

Cortez is jumping-off point for Mesa Verde National Monument.  Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans whose ruins and rock art you’ve already been seeing, and visit their truly amazing cliff dwellings.  I recommend not stopping with seeing Cliff Palace but also doing the ranger-guided hike to Balcony House.

Rock art of the Fremont people, who came after the Ancestral Puebloans: Colorado.

Spruce Tree House on a beautiful October morning at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cortez to Santa Fe

From Cortez head south on Hwy. 491 into New Mexico. You will reach the Navajo town of Shiprock.  You are now in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, in both area and population.  Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles!  Nearby sits the “ship of the desert”, Ship Rock.  Approach it on undeveloped roads and tracks.  But remember you are not technically in the U.S. here.  It is Navajo land and you must abide by their rules.  On the plus side they are generally very chill and willing to let a person just be.

From Shiprock drive east to Farmington where you have a choice.  You can head south on Hwy. 371.  then, after about 35 miles, turn left on road 7297.  Drive a few miles on the sandy road to parking for Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness.  After hiking through this geological wonderland, continue on the unpaved roads to reach U.S. Hwy. 550.  Or you can continue east of Farmington to Hwy. 550 and head south.

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

Either way I recommend taking the turn off Hwy. 550 for Chaco Canyon.  The recognized center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, Chaco is home to a complex of dwellings, rock art and spectacular kivas (excavated places of spiritual practice).  The hike out to Penyasco Blanco ruin offers sweeping views of the canyon and passes the famous Supernova pictograph.

Continue southeast on Hwy. 550 to the oddly named town of Cuba, where a turn east on route 126 takes you up into the mountains.  The Desert SW is not all desert, especially in New Mexico’s high country.  Here you’ll find forest and grassy mountain meadows.  In some places ranches are still running cattle according to season as they have done for centuries.  In others the land has been protected to preserve its unique plants and animals.

A wind-powered pump at a ranch in remote northwestern New Mexico.

The road ends at Hwy. 4, where you’ll turn left and continue east through Valles Caldera Preserve, a lovely ancient caldera now covered with grass and pine trees.  You will finally leave forest and mountain behind when you reach Los Alamos.  Still an active research complex, this is where America developed the world’s first atomic weapon.

Continue east until you pass over the Rio Grande at Santa Clara Pueblo.  Here you can either turn south and go on into Santa Fe, or turn north on Hwy. 68.  The northern detour takes you alongside the beautiful Rio Grande River to the adobe-covered town of Taos, where you can visit the home of Jesse James on a self-guided walking tour of the charming town.  Taos Pueblo, a village adjacent to the main town, is a native community that you might consider visiting on a guided tour (click the link).

A frosty autumn morning along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico.

This leg of our loop ends in Santa Fe, a smallish city with many layers.  On the surface it might seem a little too slick with its modern adobe architecture.  But this place figures in the history of the Southwest from the very beginning and hosts a diverse population.  In North America you simply do not find places with this many layers of history.  At the least enjoy a good meal at one of its many restaurants and do a walking tour of downtown’s historic buildings.

Thanks for staying with this series.  I’m really getting a kick out of sharing some of my best road-trips through rural America.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Monument Valley at dusk.

One more Page: Antelope Canyon and Night Balloons   2 comments

An Arizona slot canyon catches a tumbleweed.

Hot air balloons are illuminated at night during the Page, Arizona Balloon Regatta.

I stayed one more day and night in Page, Arizona.  I am so glad I did!  I broke down and did the tourist thing at Antelope Canyon.  While this time of year sees the sun only peeking into the upper parts of this 150-foot deep slot canyon, it is still a great place to photograph.  Yes it is one of the most over-photographed places in the American Southwest, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this incredible natural wonder if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

A beam of light penetrates Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Your best bet if you have wheels is to drive the short distance out to the Navajo Tribal Park, where you will pay $6 for entry, then $25 for a tour of the canyon.  You can also book a somewhat more expensive trip direct from Page.  You can’t miss the signs in town.  If you go during mid-day, you will pay more ($40), since that is when the sun during summer shines directly into the canyon, and it is more crowded.  So make the tour at 10 a.m., or after 2 p.m.  If you really want that sunbeam onto the canyon floor shot, go in mid-April or later.  April is perfect, since it is a bit less crowded (and cooler) than high summer.

Traveling through an Arizona slot canyon in black and white.

In Arizona near Lake Powell, a small alcove in the Navajo Sandstone catches a small sand dune.

You will board the back of a truck rigged with benches and bounce along a sand track for 4 or 5 miles to the canyon’s lower entrance.  You only tour the lower 1/4 mile or so of the slot, but this is enough for the hour+  tour, believe me!  Although there are plenty of people in the canyon, it is just wide enough to allow you to pass.  People are pretty good about not getting in your shot, though you will need to be a bit resourceful in this regard.  I pointed my camera up for the most part, so people could pass under my shot.

Your exposures will be long, and flash is not a great idea (most guides do not allow them), so definitely bring a good tripod.  A wide angle lens is necessary, but also bring a longer lens, say a fast 50 mm. and maybe a 70-200 as well.  You will see compositions that require some isolation from surrounding darker or cluttered areas.  Get low, get high, include a lot of the wall, shoot straight down the slot, shoot straight up.  Do anything for variety.  Remember, this place has been shot to death.

You can take a tour specifically focused on photography, but then you might have a guide telling you where and how to shoot.  Unless you’re a beginner, be careful what type of guide you hire.  I noticed while I was there that the photo guides definitely have favorite spots to shoot, and were mostly telling not suggesting where to shoot.  This further compounds the problem of too many similar shots of the place being out there on the web.

There are two other sections of the canyon you can explore.  One is the lower canyon, just across the road from the upper’s staging area.  It costs $20 to hike this, and it is more of an independent hike than the upper slot.  It is also much wider and less of a slot canyon than the upper.  There is also a higher upper portion of the slot canyon, above the more popular section.  My guide told me it is possible to book a tour to explore this section, which is way less crowded but still a nice narrow, sculpted slot canyon.

After this I took a neat hike, just to explore some of the slickrock country visible from the highway.  I love doing this.  Nobody else ever thinks about just parking and taking off cross-country.  I believe I might have been on Navajo land in part, so I was risking an encounter to some degree.  Scrambling around, “friction hiking” the slickrock alcoves was very cool (image left).  But something happened to my heel, and now I have symptoms of the dreaded plantar fasciitis.

Later that evening, the weekend’s main event took place.  On the Saturday night of the Balloon Regatta weekend in Page, all the balloonists inflate their balloons along the main street in Page, and fire up their burners.  Instead of launching, the balloon pilots illuminate their balloons for everyone.  There is food, games and activities for kids, a beer garden, and a general atmosphere of festivity in the air.  I was pretty happy with the pictures I got of the glowing balloons.  It was a bit like shooting fireworks, where you open the shutter for a fairly long spell during the action and hope for good shots.  Since the pilots use walkie talkies to synchronize their burners, it’s easy to tell when to fire the shutter.  I set my exposure off of one of the glowing balloons, and then left the camera on manual and zoomed back out for the shots.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

It was a great long weekend in Page, on the shores of Lake Powell.  Warm weather, fun people, and red rock canyon country all around you.  What more could you ask for?  It was on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for me after that, and that is the subject of my next post.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

Shooting the Moon at Monument Valley   6 comments

The moon was near its full phase while at Monument Valley recently. I did some photography which included wonderful Luna, so I thought it might be time for a little photography talk. Don’t get too used to it though; I get bored easily with photography how-to (I’d rather do it than talk about it).

The full moon rises between Monument Valley’s famous stone sentinels.

As many photographers know, “shooting the moon” when it’s full can yield killer shots, but it can also be a pain trying to deal with the high contrast.  To be successful, be persistent, and keep in mind the following:

  • The moon needs to be one day before the full phase if you want to shoot it rising at sunset and include the foreground landscape.  It is ideal when at sunset the moon is as close to 24 hours before full phase as possible.  Realize that the moon’s full phase occurs at a specific time; it doesn’t stay exactly full all day and night.  One day before full means the moon will rise just before the sun sets.  This puts it in a good low position, where it appears bigger and is close in brightness to the foreground landscape.  A full moon means it rises right at sunset, which is really a little too late.  You’ll have a darker foreground, with too bright a moon, all of which means major contrast.  If you shoot when it’s more than one day before full, the moon will be too high at sunset.
  • The fact is that on some months, the moon’s full phase does not occur near the time of your local sunset.  Instead, it occurs closer to mid-day, or midnight.  And so you won’t hit that magical 24-hours before full phase, where the moon has fully cleared the horizon at the same time the sunset is at its peak.  It’s worth checking the actual time of the full moon.
  • A reflective landscape helps enormously, since your foreground will always be darker than the moon. In fact, the more reflective the landscape, the easier it is to get good shots even when the moon is very near full. Monument Valley, and really any desert landscape, is just the ticket. Snowy landscapes are also good.
  • A good view toward the eastern horizon is ideal, so you’ll catch the moon at the moment it rises.  You will have more options in terms of exposure, and the moon will be naturally color-saturated when it is adjacent to the horizon. Of course, as with any landscape photo, you’ll want an interesting composition.  It might be better in some cases to let it rise a little ways.
  • If you don’t like what you came up with, just wait a day or so.  On the day after full moon, get up before sunrise and make sure you have an interesting view toward the western horizon.  This time you’ll be photographing a setting moon at sunrise, instead of a rising moon at sunset.
  • All of the above assumes you want a fairly evenly exposed landscape shot.  But there are two other general options.(A)You can simply allow the moon to blow out (making it look like a little sun) while exposing for the foreground. This works best with a smaller moon; that is, shorter focal lengths (35 mm or less). See my image of the Totem Poles, where the moon is not technically blown out, but lacks details and is too small to form a major picture element.(B) You can use a longer focal length (300 mm or more) for a very big moon, and expose for the moon’s details.  Then you can place an interesting subject(s) in front of the moon and let your subject go black in silhouette.  If you don’t want to do a silhouette, you could use artificial lighting for fill light on your subject.  For the big moon/silhouette effect, it doesn’t really matter what phase the moon is in, though the most popular style is to use a full moon.
  • Speaking of focal length, remember that the shorter your focal length, and the further from the horizon the moon is, the smaller it will appear.  Also, the further from the horizon the moon is, the whiter and brighter it will be.  Again, the image of the Totem Poles is an example.
  • There is no chance to balance the brightness of the moon with your foreground when it is well above the horizon.  See next point for an option.
  • If you want to include the moon’s details when it is much brighter than your foreground, you will need to shoot a separate frame for the moon, then add this well-exposed moon back into your first shot using Photoshop (or Elements).  This is called compositing, and you can find many tutorials on the web.  Zoom in to the moon and turn on your spot metering.  Place the center focusing point right in the center of the moon, then snap the picture.  During your photoshopping, it might be tempting to make the moon much bigger.  Although it is probably okay to enlarge the moon by just a fraction, making it a lot bigger is not a great idea in my opinion.  You will see these sorts of silly, amateurish pictures all over the web, and they all look fake.  A better plan is to use medium focal lengths (50-70 mm) so that your moon is naturally bigger.

    Sand dunes and the Totem Poles in Monument Valley as the sun sets and the moon rises.

What with all this knowledge about shooting the moon, you would think I got super excellent shots at Monument Valley.  Well, the first night I tried, in the sand dunes by the Totem Poles, the moon had risen too high by the time the sun had set enough for nice color in the landscape.  So I just let the moon go bright and didn’t worry too much about it being small.  This is an example of making the best of your situation, rather than being disappointed that the shot you had in mind is not there.

On the next night, the moon almost rose too late.  This was one of those months, described above, when the full phase was much less than 24 hours after sunset time.  I knew this might be a problem, so I got to a high point with a pretty good view toward the east.  The dramatic monoliths that make Monument Valley famous formed nice framing elements for the moon.  I knew I had to shoot within a few minutes of the moonrise, while the moon was not too bright, and also showed some nice color.  I used the longest focal length I had – 200 mm.

Sadly, my 100-400L has been stolen on this trip (no more wildlife photography for the foreseeable future – bah!).  I tried for a very simple composition, just a few sandstone towers plus the moon (see top image).  It would have been better if I was able to zoom closer.  I did not want to move closer since then my viewpoint would have been lower.  Looking up at the towers would have made them appear a little shorter, and I would not have had a full view of the moon until it had risen too high.

By the time the moon had risen above the rock towers, it was too bright in comparison to the rapidly darkening landscape.  Though the shots I got are dramatic, they are also fairly two-dimensional, without much of a foreground.  This is a common drawback to using longer focal lengths in landscape photography.  I’m sure I could find a better place from which to get this type of shot at Monument, but since you only get two chances per month, that would mean hanging out here for quite a long time before I got it right.

At Monument Valley, dusk and the sand create a peaceful scene.

The succeeding night was bright with the essentially full moon, and it was tempting to get moonlit landscape shots.  But I had done some of that the previous night, and I had done a lot of staying up late and getting up early over this week.  So I found a lonely spot along the Douglas Mesa Road and drifted off to a deep sleep.  Next morning after breakfast I was on the way out, heading south. I saw a woman on the side of the road with a hand-painted sign that read simply “Fry Bread”.  I realized I had not had any of this Navajo staple on my trip, so I stopped and had her make me a couple.  They were delicious, and cheap!  The same thing was available at the restaurant for $5; she was charging $1 apiece.  I talked with her for awhile, letting her daughter pet my dog.

Friendly and down-to-earth she was, so I enjoyed chatting.  I finally drove off in a great mood.  There was no better way to bid goodbye to Monument Valley than to talk with this Navajo woman while chomping down on a hot Fry Bread covered in honey and cinnamon.  I was on my way to the Hopi Mesas, which is the subject of my next post.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

Monument Valley   2 comments

View of some of Monument Valley’s stone monoliths from the south.

I’ve seen my share of western movies.  In fact, I have to be honest and admit that they are one of my favorite film genres.  I have always wished I was born in St Louis during the mid-1800s.  When I was young I would certainly have headed west to be a mountain man, a guide on the Oregon Trail, or simply a cowboy.  John Wayne (the Duke) was most definitely a giant of western movies.  All this preamble is to say that some of my first impressions of the western landscape are of Monument Valley.

Old portraits of John Wayne appear throughout Monument Valley.

It was an area favored by John Ford and other directors at an early stage, and from the late 1930s through the 50s, large tent camps full of movie crews popped up from time to time amongst the buttes and mesas.  The era of big westerns, such as 1938s Stagecoach (the Duke’s breakout film) eventually came to an end.  But the valley still attracts crews filming car commercials and the like.  John Wayne’s image is a more common sight here than pictures of any Navajo.

Monument Valley is big country.  Lying in the arid American desert southwest, it straddles the Arizona/Utah border.  The valley is characterized by towering sandstone monoliths.  The rocks are reddish from iron oxides. Combine this with the fact that the monoliths take on such a variety of tall buttes, towers and extremely narrow fins, and also because the area between the monoliths is flat and mostly treeless, and you have a landscape that is dramatic in the extreme.  As a backdrop to wagon trains, or to big men in cowboy hats riding horses, it simply can’t be beat.  Photographers are drawn to the valley of course, and in the right light it certainly can yield amazing compositions.

The light was not bad during my visit just before Halloween.  When I arrived in the late afternoon on my first day, there were some promising clouds in the western sky, and so instead of trying to drive through the entire valley, I parked along Highway 163 near its high point and took off walking.  The countryside is easy to hike in this area, no trails required.

Of course, you want to be cautious about where you walk, since it is all Navajo land.  There are areas where one or a few families live, sort of like very small villages.  But by and large, the land is empty of people, so there is not much chance of being hassled.  Signs will warn you of private roads, or where trespassing is particularly frowned upon.  I found some pretty nice pictures in this area just west of Mitten Buttes, primarily because I was just high enough in elevation that trees, yucca and other interesting shrubs formed nice foreground elements.

I drove out onto the vast flat part of the valley lying north of Mitten Buttes, looking for a place to park and sleep.  I was tired and did not hunt in my usual careful way, so wound up parking fairly close to lights that indicated a settlement.  Soon a pair of headlights appeared, bouncing over the sagebrush, heading my way.  I pulled up to meet them (always a good thing), and was greeted by a three young American Indian men in a Bronco.

The driver informed me that I was on their land (which I knew).  But he also added that they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t a drunk or up to no good.  I offered to find someplace else to camp, but he waved me off.  He said I was welcome to camp there, as long as I didn’t hang around too long in the morning.  I was fine with that!  In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by their attitude.  I know that, were this land owned by a white person, and I was discovered there in the dark, that I would very likely be ordered off the land unless I wanted to deal with the police.

These native guys were naturally concerned about who was driving on their land.  But they were reasonable, able to tell immediately that I didn’t pose any danger.  Why not let me sleep a few hundred yards from their modest little houses?  What I’m saying is that they were not paranoid about a stranger, unlike so many folks I run into on the road.  They were secure men, secure in their judgment, and secure in their ability to handle me if they turned out to be wrong about me.  I like that because that’s the way I am.  And to think at Ship Rock I was worried about camping on Navajo land.  I should know better by now.  American Indians are more similar to the locals I met in African villages, or high in the Nepali Himalaya than they are to white Americans.  They are real!

The wind often blows through Monument Valley. piling sand dunes up against Rain God Mesa.

Over the course of the day, while taking care of laundry and the other necessary road trip duties, and while treating myself to a rare hot breakfast, I noticed a few things.  I never knew how much tourist traffic there was in Monument Valley.  This was the time of year when things wind down, and yet plenty of tourists were here.  There is an infrastructure under the name Gouldings – lodge, RV camp, restaurant.  Obviously this is not a Navajo-owned company, but they do provide jobs.  There are plenty of tour buses filled with overseas tourists (especially Japanese), and open-air tour vehicles ply the roads.  These are very much like safari vehicles in Africa, where the passengers sit above and behind the driver.  On the the gravel road that loops through the heart of the valley, this means a dusty ride.  It costs $5 to enter the tribal park and drive the scenic but very rough loop (such a deal!).

But as I was driving this spectacular loop, getting bumped and jolted by the rocks and dips, one thing was obvious: you don’t want to do this during peak season.  I can imagine that in late spring and summer, driving through the tribal park would resemble a sort of long, dust-choked follow-the-leader game.  I can’t recommend doing this drive unless you are visiting at a less-busy time, as I did.  Or perhaps you could start out at dawn.  You can certainly see much of Monument Valley without ever entering the tribal park.  There are other roads, including the one that heads out onto Douglas Mesa, and the road that goes to Oliato Trading Post and beyond.  Both of these roads explore the far western reaches of Monument Valley.

The Tribal Park is definitely worthwhile though.  Even the view from the spectacularly located visitor center is well worth the $5 entry fee.  From here, you can easily scan the loop road to see exactly how crowded with vehicles it is.  And finally, you can take a nice 3+ mile hike from near the visitor center.  Called the Wildcat Trail, it is a sandy desert walk that loops round the Mittens.

A lizard made its way across the sand in Monument Valley, Arizona.

I braved the dusty loop road through the tribal park late on my second afternoon in the valley.  I spied some decent-sized sand dunes from the far end of the loop road. Beyond the dunes stands several tall sandstone spires, called the “totem poles”.  And so I decided this was as good a place for a sunset photo walk as any.  I’m not sure it was legal to hike off-trail, but nobody hassled me about it.  I love photographing in sand dunes, and was looking forward to some shots of the rising near-full moon as well.  For some how-to discussion on moon shots (not on a rocket ship!), and using Monument Valley as an example, be sure to catch the next blog post.  It was not as colorful a sunset as the previous evening’s was, though there was some cloud cover to the west.  I still find it difficult sometimes to identify the types of clouds that will lead to a colorful sunset.

Desert sands and backlit rabbitbrush cover the southern portion of Monument Valley in Arizona.

I ended up shooting until dark, and since I was tired and the place had literally cleared out, I decided to just park it there and sleep.  Although it is not okay to camp inside the Tribal Park, I guessed (correctly) that nobody would be out there to hassle me.  If somebody did come by, I would have just apologized and left.  I think I know the Navajos well enough now to safely assume no undue officiousness on their part.  I shot some moon-lit landscapes, then slept until dawn.  I was alone when the sun first touched the rocks, burning them orange.  That little bit of sunshine was all it took to begin warming the clear, frigid air.  It warmed to 70 degrees that day!

Though hanging around on the Navajo reservation does involve small sacrifices (modern society’s conveniences, like a cheap grocery store, for e.g.), I really am getting used to it.  It is a bit like visiting a country like Mexico.  It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re there for a time, you begin to absorb and embrace the differences.  You begin thinking like the locals.  You begin to really be in the place, to really feel it.

Monument Valley shows off rare clouds at sunset.


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