March 7, Friday
If the drive from Cottonwood, AZ to Navajo National Monument was scenic, the drive from Navajo National Monument to Valley of the Gods is grand indeed.
East on 160 are great bluffs of carved sandstone. The town of Kayenta is surrounded by them.
At Kayenta I get on 163 going north. Out of the flat terrain on the border between Arizona and Utah rise monoliths that loom over the desert floor. I’ve seen pictures of Monument Valley of course but the reality is so much more impressive. They’re so big! And how did they even form? I’m guessing all the rock around them was softer and eroded away leaving just these pillars and ridges behind. Nature is so amazing.
I’ll be going back to visit Monument Valley without Cas in tow, but in the meantime I’m on the hunt for my next camp. I do stop at the famous Forest Gump pullout though and get the obligatory road picture.
Between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat, UT are a series of grades, but they’re all short with flatter ground in between to rest engine and brakes, much easier than a lot of mountain passes. This is my very first 10% sign.
North of Mexican Hat on 163 a brown sign points down a dirt road: “Valley of the Gods”. This is a scenic loop on BLM land that is much like a miniature Monument Valley. But dispersed camping is allowed here and it’s free. You can also get to this road from 261, but the eastern side of the loop off 163 is less rough for an RV.
Like a lot of dirt roads in this part of the country, this is not a good place to camp in wet conditions. Almost immediately after crossing the cow grate is a water crossing. The creek is just a trickle right now and the bottom is a solid slab of rock, but right after a rain it could become impassable.
Let’s cut to the chase. Valley of the Gods is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever boondocked. I snag an open spot about a mile in near two sandstone towers and think I must have gotten lucky to nab the best spot on the loop. The next day I drive a bit farther down the road and discover a number of other excellent sites with a view just as good. Even better, the crowds are nothing like the Cottonwood/Sedona area. There’s no doubling up in sites, in fact plenty of spots remain open every night. Granted once school gets out next month it will probably be a different story.
March 10, Monday
After two cloudy and windy days where I stick close to camp, this morning the sun is breaking through the high clouds and the breeze is a mere whisper. Monument Valley time! The drive back along 163 is uneventful, and then it’s four miles down a site road to get to the park. Two hoofed pedestrians wander down the lane, crossing the road in front of traffic bold as you please. They remind me of the bison in Yellowstone.
Monument Valley is a tribal park owned and managed by the Navajo. As such, National Park passes issued by the government will not get you in. The fee is $20 per vehicle, but when I pull up to the kiosk the two ladies are on break out back it seems and they wave me through without taking my money.
Shortly after that is the Visitor Center complex. There’s a museum dedicated to the history of the Navajo (or Diné, as they call themselves), an information desk, gift shop, restaurant, and hotel. Right next door is a campground with cabins and spots for RVs and tents. My attention though is immediately drawn to the view from the visitor center. There they are, the Mittens! This is arguably the best view in the park, and for those with limited mobility there’s absolutely no hiking required to enjoy it. It seems almost unreal, that those two formations should be so symmetrical and yet are a natural occurrence. I can see why the Navajo consider this a sacred place.
The paved road ends here and for those who want to see more of the park there are two options. Valley View road (42 on maps) is rated as passable for everything from cars to vans (no ATVs allowed, and low-riding sports cars and motorcycles are not recommended) when conditions are dry but let me tell you, it’s rougher than a lot of the dirt roads I camp down. If you don’t want to beat your own vehicle up, there are tours that leave from the visitor center parking lot that’ll take you along 42.
Taking your own vehicle gives you freedom over where you stop and for how long, but there are a few places tour vehicles can go that visitor traffic is not allowed – such as the window. You’ll have to check prices and decide for yourself what’s worth it. Being on a budget (and not having a new vehicle worth babying), I take Bertha.
42 is kind of like a maze. It’s got one big loops, and then other little side roads that lead to various attractions. Hiking is not permitted in most places, it’s very much a driving park. Scattered along the route are stops with jewelry vendors and outhouses. At John Ford Point is a food cart, and I pay $5 for fry bread. It’s delicious. This is a famous movie spot and you can pay $5 to get a photo of a cowboy on a horse, for $10 I think you can have someone take a picture of you on the horse. Not my thing but the kids seem to love it.
Depending on if you visit in the morning or afternoon, different points of interest will be lit by the sun. The Mittens look fantastic in the afternoon, but the Three Sisters are back-lit and not as impressive. If you have the opportunity to drive around at both times of day, that would be ideal. Many are relatively easy to photograph without zoom, but for a good photo of the Totem Pole zoom is necessary.
The farther back on 42 I go, the less crowded it gets. The best towers in the park are at the visitor center, but the sheer bluffs and jagged fins in the backcountry are nice too in their own way. There are private residences out here, a herd of cattle peer at me as I drive past.
The road never stops being bumpy and uneven and it takes me a long time to make the loop despite the relatively short distance traveled. A few other favorites along the way are Spearhead Mesa:
And the Thumb. At a few different locations are corrals of horses and you can get tours on horseback. A horse trail leads to this nice view of the Thumb.
Back at the visitor center, I plop myself on the wall and settle in for nearly two hours of Mittens watching as the sun goes down. Patches of high clouds make interesting shadows across the landscape and last light is as spectacular as I’d hoped it would be.
During those two hours a lot of tourists come and go, and I hear snippets of conversation about travel plans and deadlines. I smile, falling in love with my life all over again. I can sit here as long as I please and don’t need to worry about trying to cram All The Things into a week-long vacation. An older couple sitting on a bench to the right of me stay nearly as long as I do and we share a nod at some point. I think they understand.
A full moon rises on the way back home. What a wonderful day it’s been!
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