Monument Valley & Canyon de Chelly Print

When Mark Comon at Paul’s Photo announced that he would be putting together a trip to Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, I registered immediately because (1) I had never been to either place, (2) the photographs I had seen of both places were beautiful, (3) Ansel Adams’ photograph of the White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly has always been one of my favorite photographs, and (4) Robert Hitchman’s excellent newsletter Photograph America covered both in issue #27 (updated in July 2008) and it was inspiring.


Monument Valley is within the Navajo Reservation and is a Navajo Tribal Park, not a national park.  For good photography, you must have a Navajo guide take you into the valley.  The same conditions apply to Canyon de Chelly, also on the Navajo Reservation.  Mark had arranged for guides to take us to each photographic venue.

Mark does a stellar job of leading these photo adventures and the trips are always exciting, both photographically and educationally, and loads of fun.  On this trip, I was very fortunate to be able to ride with Mark in Bill Shanney’s car.  Bill is a friend and excellent photographer whose company is always pleasant.  He talks about as much as I do (read, very little), he’s a good driver, and has loads of experience driving on these trips.  Made getting to and from everywhere much easier for me.

I took my D3, my D2X as a backup, my IR-modified D200 and my Casio Exilim point-and-shoot.  I took my 24-70mm and 70-200mm lenses and used both extensively.  I took my 14-24mm and 105mm macro lenses too, but only used the 14-24mm for a few shots and didn’t use the 105mm macro at all.

We left Mark’s house shortly after 6:00 a.m. Sunday morning and proceeded to the Grand Canyon, arriving at Maswik Lodge around 3:00 p.m.  We gathered for a sunset shoot outside the El Tovar Hotel and walked the rim for an hour or two, gathering afterward for the welcome dinner and orientation on the trip.  The next morning we walked out to Bright Angel for sunrise and after breakfast drove in a caravan to Monument Valley.  Clicking the thumbnail below will open a general map of the area.

We stayed at The View Hotel in Monument Valley, operated under license from the Navajo Tribal Council.  Its location is spectacular, being right on the rim of the valley with extraordinary views of sunrise and sunset. 


The view from the rooms is amazing:


After an early dinner (green chile stew with fry bread was quite good) we walked outside the hotel for a sunset shoot.


Yes, I took that photo a few steps from the south end of the hotel.  I took a shot of roughly the same view with my IR camera, too:


The following morning, our guide Tom Phillips and his crew picked us up at 5:30 a.m. and drove us to the location for shooting the formation called Yei Bi Chei and the Totem Pole.  Tom had brought along Malcolm Mosher, who joined us for the sunrise shoot and Hunt's Mesa camp shoot later on. Malcolm is an excellent photographer and was equipped with cool stuff like GPS locators for his work, and later on he sent files to us that are viewable in Google Earth showing where we were. Clicking the thumbnail below will open the image of the dawn shoot.

The combination of these rock formations in silhouette with the blue and orange bands of sky behind makes a dramatic photo.  Click the thumbnail below to see the photos.

From there, we went to another location to photograph the Totem Pole again, and then to a few other locations before coming back to check out of our rooms and store our extra luggage in Mark’s room.  We departed that afternoon for Hunt’s Mesa and our night of camping on the rim.  The drive out there was, to an inexperienced individual like me, arduous and, in the latter half, a white-knuckler.

After a few miles of off-road driving, we stopped to deflate all tires by about 10 psi because the sand from that point forward was deep and soft.  After getting stuck a time or two, we all arrived at the point where we would climb out of sand, up rocks, and into driving that was mostly over large rocks.  Mind you, these aren’t roads—it was all back country horse territory on the Navajo Reservation.

We bogged down in sand and after trying a half-dozen or so times to power through the area, and substantial shoring up of the trail, one of Tom’s guides climbed into Bill’s car and with Bill as the passenger ran the gauntlet at high speed and succeeded in getting the car onto the rocks for the climb uphill.


You’ve probably seen TV ads where 4-wheel drive SUVs and/or trucks careen up piles of rocks at 45° angles—that’s what this was like.  Pretty exciting stuff for a neophyte like me.  Clicking the thumbnail below will open Malcom's GPS map of the drive to Hunt's Mesa, including the Sand Trap where we were stuck for a while.

Anyway, we made it to Hunt’s Mesa and experienced fabulous views of the entire Monument Valley from 1,000’ up, camping for the night and getting up in the morning for sunrise photos.  Click the thumbnail below to see the photos from Hunt's Mesa. 

The camping itself had a few twists to it, though.  Since Duane wasn’t on the trip, I had no tent, although I did have my good sleeping bag and thin air mattress.  I elected to “sleep under the stars”, as did Mark and a few other people, because the weather was gorgeous.  I snuggled in for the night (it got down to 33°) and enjoyed the stars, notwithstanding the fact that the moon was so bright I couldn’t sleep very well.

At 2:41 a.m. I felt a drop of rain on my cheek.  I could still see open sky, though, and some wispy clouds floating by, and decided nothing would come of it.

At 4:15 I heard the first clap of thunder.  I scrambled out of the bag, laced on my boots, put my Gore-Tex parka on, strapped on my headlamp, grabbed my duffel, sleeping bag and mattress, and headed for Bill’s car.  In the five minutes that took, it was hailing liberally, which gave the camp a somewhat wintery look.


The morning cleared, though, we were all treated to several rainbows over the valley, and Tom and his crew made a great camp breakfast for us.  After breaking camp, we rode down from Hunt’s Mesa via a different route, stopping to see a few interesting places along the way.

We arrived back at The View, grateful for early check-in and subsequent shower and change of clothes, and after lunch took off on the 17 Mile Drive tour in Monument Valley.  There were lots of cool stone formations in dramatic sunset lighting and it made for a great time, including seeing Tom’s sister weaving in the traditional Navajo way.


Click the thumbnail below to see the photos from the 17-Mile Drive in Monument Valley.

We departed Monument Valley on Thursday and drove to Chinle, where Canyon de Chelly is located.  We checked into the Thunderbird Lodge, which is immediately adjacent to the canyon and operated by the Navajo people.  Their tours are good, the rooms basic but quite good, and the cafeteria is a local hangout.  If you’re in the mood for good cafeteria comfort food, it’s a great place to stay; it worked for me because they make very good creamed chipped beef and serve it on freshly baked biscuits.  Great breakfast stuff!

We took our first tour that afternoon, in a truck that was just barely big enough but worked fine.  Most of the canyon floor is deep, soft sand and without 4-wheel drive you would go nowhere.  You need a Navajo guide to enter the canyon anyway, so why not ride in their vehicle? Clicking the thumbnail below will open a map of Canyon de Chelly on which I have circled the places we visited.

I really enjoyed Canyon de Chelly.  It’s peaceful, beautiful, steeped in history and filled with historic Anasazi ruins and pictographs, some of which date back to AD350.  The canyon is large—the drive from the White House ruins to Spider Rock, for example, is seven miles and slow going—and the scenery is sufficiently tranquil and beautiful that your cares seem to melt away.  Our first stop was a grouping of pictographs right before First Ruin and things just kept getting better and better.


It was hard to decide the best way to shoot the ruins—big picture, close up, etc.—and it most cases I did both.  In this case, the steps that had been carved into the rock at lower right to allow for the climb up were important.


In some cases there were little details, like the pictographs immediately above the structure in this photo, that only became apparent after looking at the photograph that night.


Most of these ruins are 300’ to 400’ up from the canyon floor.  Archeologists assume that the Anasazi built their homes in this manner to protect themselves from predators such as mountain lions and wolves, and perhaps high water during the monsoon season.  A Smithsonian expedition in 1882 was the first to examine the ruins in detail and while the Navajo history is clear, there is no trace of the Anasazi culture because they had no written language and left no history.

We spent the following two days in the north and south canyons, shooting ruins, eating picnic lunches at Mummy Cave and Spider Rock, and having a marvelous photographic experience.  On our last day we stopped for fall color in the trees, which also happened to be prime infra-red territory.


We visited the White House ruins twice on our last day, in the morning and late afternoon, which was a high point of the trip for me.

400White House 12x18 b&w full spectrum

Click the thumbnails below to see my photos from Canyon de Chelly.

It’s an 11-hour drive back to L.A. from Canyon de Chelly but Bill got us back to Mark’s house at 5:00 and I was home in plenty of time for dinner.  It was another terrific Paul’s Photo adventure, filled with good times and great photography.