Magnificent Monument Valley

Great Western films made Monument Valley famous. However, its reputation as one of North America’s greatest riding destinations is equally deserved.

When I was a kid, I used to keep a picture of Monument Valley’s famous Mittens, cut out of a tourism brochure, on my nightstand. Growing up in Paris, France, with a passion for horses and the American West, I longed for wild rides across wide-open spaces. With its unique red rock formations, massive buttes, wind-driven sand and vibrant sunsets, Monument Valley was, to me, the quintessential Western landscape.

More importantly, it was where cowboy greats John Wayne, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. had ridden.

It was in Monument Valley that the Duke led one last cavalry charge before his retirement in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; rescued his niece from Comanches at the bottom of a sand dune in The Searchers; and inspired rock-and-roll legend Buddy Holly to pen his classic song That’ll be the Day, after one of John Wayne’s signature movie lines.

Thirty-five years later, I set out to ride in the Duke’s hoofprints, across what today is probably the most enduring and recognizable landscape in the entire West. For me, riding through Monument Valley was more than just another ride through wide-open country. Here, my thoughts ran wild, whether I wanted them to or not.

The Magnificent Valley

The Monument Valley region straddles the Utah/Arizona border, encompassing more than 2,000 square miles, including the 91,696-acre Monument Valley Tribal Park. Once part of a vast inland sea, the valley lies at an elevation of 5,564 feet.

Traveling in from the north, I can only guess what lies ahead by looking at the rapidly changing scenery. It’s not until I reach the park’s visitor center that I am greeted by what is perhaps the most famous and stunning view of the West—the three imposing monoliths known as West Mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Butte. The late-afternoon sun casts a red glow over the majestic landscape as I remember the picture on my nightstand and smile. The Duke might be gone, but his backdrop remains, untouched.

Lorraine Black meets me at the Dineh Trail Rides booth, situated near the park entrance. She and her husband, Jamieson, own and run Dineh Trail Rides, located galloping distance from John Ford Point, in the heart of the valley. The couple offers hourly, half-day and all-day rides. Custom rides with overnight cookouts and hogan accommodations are also available.

Although a dozen organizations offer rides through Monument Valley, Dineh is one of only two located within the park, and is, as all outfits are, guided by members of the Navajo tribe. Though the majestic park can be explored through a 17-mile unpaved drive, many choose to discover its unspoiled beauty from horseback.

I meet Jamieson at the Dineh corrals, almost seven miles from the park entrance, between the Three Sisters and Cly Butte. Jamieson wastes no time and is quickly inside the corral, rope in hand. After scanning the dozen or so horses, he sets his sights on a tough little sorrel mustang. Two quick twirls and the loop settles around its target.

Handing me the sorrel’s bridle, he comments, “His name was Shotgun, but one night I had a dream that told me to rename him Bad Boy.”

With the afternoon sun waning, we ride from the corrals, breaking into a long trot. The valley’s soft and mostly sandy terrain keeps most horses barefoot in these parts. Bad Boy, despite his name, is an amiable mount – light in the mouth, comfortable and responsive. We’re loping by the time we reach the bottom of sandy arroyos that meander across the open desert landscape. Soon, Totem Pole looms before us. Towering 808 feet, the valley’s highest pinnacle casts its long shadow on the sand dunes as I try without success to locate the exact spot where John Wayne rescued Natalie Wood.

As the sun sets, it bathes the surrounding rock formations in red-gold light. Dark shapes loom over the valley. A long gallop takes us back to the main road, and a warm breeze suddenly fills the dry desert air. The only noises are the regular staccato beat of our galloping horses’ hooves on the hard-packed sandy trail and their blowing nostrils.

For the rest of this story, pick up the March 2007 issue of Western Horseman magazine.

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