Southwest 2015 – The Land of Towering Sandstone

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Monday, December 7th, 2015

Julia and I got hopping to another awesome adventure that would have us traveling eastbound through the Great Navajo Nation today. We had a light breakfast, showered up, then packed all our camera gear and equipment into the Starship. We had a long drive ahead of us and no time to spare. We left our hotel in Page, Az and started our drive along Highway 98 to Monument Valley. About 30 minutes into our drive, I saw a hitchhiker which I typically avoid, but something compelled me to pick him up. I hit the brakes as we approached and stopped to pick him up. Our new passenger was a Native American kid in his twenties who was trying to get to Tuba City for a job. I told him I wasn’t heading that way exactly, but I could take him as far as I could before the next Highway and he was good with that.

I dropped him off at a dirt road intersection just before I hit the 160, I hope he got to his destination on time. Well, from then on forward, we drove the 160 northeast and watched how the terrain was changing from a flat desert to rough and rocky terrain. We could also see the massive Navajo Mountain to the north of us along the way. Eventually we reached the city of Kayenta which was bigger than I last remembered it. It appeared to rival Page in size these days. We took Highway 163 northbound and continued our drive to Monument Valley, but then moments after leaving the city limits of Kayenta, Julia and I spotted our first photo opportunity so I pulled over.

“Julia fires of her first of many shots for the day on this wondrous rocky beacon.”

Agathla Peak

GPS Coordinates: 36.8267° N, 110.2607° W

Agathla Peak (Navajo: Aghaałą́, Spanish: El Capitan) is a peak south of Monument Valley, Arizona, which rises over 1500 ft (457 m) above the surrounding terrain. It is 7 miles (11 km) north of Kayenta and is visible from U.S. Route 163. The English designation Agathla is derived from the Navajo name aghaałą́ meaning ‘much wool’, apparently for the fur of antelope and deer accumulating on the rock. The mountain is considered sacred by the Navajo.

Agathla Peak is an eroded volcanic plug consisting of volcanic breccia cut by dikes of an unusual igneous rock called minette. It is one of many such volcanic diatremes that are found in Navajo country of northeast Arizona and northwest New Mexico. Agathla Peak and Shiprock in New Mexico are the most prominent. These rocks are part of the Navajo Volcanic Field, in the southern Colorado Plateau. Ages of these minettes and associated more unusual igneous rocks cluster near 25 million years. (Source: Wikipedia)

Agathla Peak has an elevation of 7,099 ft (2,164 m) and is what Julia and I consider to be one of the most photogenic rock formations we have seen on this venture so far. One can’t help but see it as a backdrop for some incredible fantasy or science fiction themed story. I highly recommend anyone to see this amazing geology in person.


We continued driving north along Highway 163 until we hit the Arizona/Utah border. The curious thing about Monument Valley is that it sits in both Arizona and Utah, however the side we were going to visit was mostly on the Arizona side. After passing the border, in less than a half mile, we found ourselves turning right onto Monument Valley Road which eventually put us back in Arizona. Essentially, we were in Utah for 1.5 miles (2.4 km) before getting to our destination.

“Now Entering Utah… for about 3 minutes…lol”

The Entry Station

Once we arrived, we paid $20 bucks which covers up to four people per vehicle, so Julia and I basically paid $10 bucks each to get in, not too bad. The fact that it was a Monday and that we were traveling in the off season made visiting this usually overcrowded park a breeze. We decided to bypass the visitor center to take advantage of as much daylight as we could. We found the access road that allows you to drive through the towering sandstone giants in this valley, but before setting off down that road, we stopped for a quick shot or two at the vista point.

“While Julia worked on getting in some shots with her iPhone, I worked on setting up the POV Cam.”

“Mounted my GoPro Hero 4 Silver to the roof of the Starship for this one.”

“It was time to take the Indian Route 42 off road safari option into the valley, music is ‘Five Spirits’ by Apache.”

Once we made the drive to a reasonable part of the valley, we stopped and observed the wonderful scenery that lay before us. The road is a pretty well graded trail and the speed limit is 15 mph (24 kph). There were plenty of places to stop along the way, but we wanted to get a brief tour along this awesome off road trail while scouting the areas all around us for photo opportunities that we absolutely had to have. The place we stopped was John Ford Point, a small plateau off the main trail that provided a great view of the valley. There were a few tables and stands laid out with Native American jewelry, dreamcatchers, and more, but we had our fill of that with Kenneth back in Cameron, AZ.

“We found our first stop at John Ford Point and got out a start making our shots.”

Monument Valley

GPS Coordinates: 36.9862° N, 110.1667° W

Monument Valley (Navajo: Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, meaning valley of the rocks) is a region of the Colorado Plateau characterized by a cluster of vast sandstone buttes, the largest reaching 1,000 ft (300 m) above the valley floor. It is located on the Arizona–Utah border (around 36°59′N 110°6′WCoordinates: 36°59′N 110°6′W), near the Four Corners area. The valley lies within the range of the Navajo Nation Reservation and is accessible from U.S. Highway 163. Monument Valley has been featured in many forms of media since the 1930s. Director John Ford used the location for a number of his best-known films, and thus, in the words of critic Keith Phipps, “its five square miles (13 square kilometers) have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West.”

The area is part of the Colorado Plateau. The elevation of the valley floor ranges from 5,000 to 6,000 ft (1,500 to 1,800 m) above sea level. The floor is largely siltstone of the Cutler Group, or sand derived from it, deposited by the meandering rivers that carved the valley. The valley’s vivid red color comes from iron oxide exposed in the weathered siltstone. The darker, blue-gray rocks in the valley get their color from manganese oxide.

The buttes are clearly stratified, with three principal layers. The lowest layer is the Organ Rock Shale, the middle is de Chelly Sandstone, and the top layer is the Moenkopi Formation capped by Shinarump Conglomerate. The valley includes large stone structures including the famed “Eye of the Sun”. Between 1945 and 1967, the southern extent of the Monument Upward was mined for uranium, which occurs in scattered areas of the Shinarump Conglomerate; vanadium and copper are associated with uranium in some deposits. (Source: Wikipedia)

“Mitchell Mesa is a massive rock wall that borders the west side of the valley trail (a.k.a. Indian Route 42).”

“Camel Butte stands in foreground to the right with the North Window in the background which is Elephant Butte on the left and Cly Butte on the right.”

“The scenery is just immense, there is just no way that a photo can translate it without a 10 page spread.”

“We found where I left my other mitten.”

“This West Mitten Butte is a very impressive sandstone tower. Sentinel Mesa lurks massively in the background.”

“The King on his Throne to the left and to the right are 3 formations named Stagecoach, Bear and Rabbit, and Castle Rock which together are called Castle Butte.”

“Three Sisters stand away from the southern end of the Mitchell Mesa.”

“We took the Starship to another location along Indian Route 42, where West Mitten Butte, Sentinel Mesa, Big Indian Butte, and Merrick Butte stand in the background.”

“Julia is working those shots like the fine tuned artist that she is!”

“Oh Excellent!, It had been a few days since we last saw a Rock Pile.”

“Brings a new meaning to ‘An Elephant in the Bush’, that is Elephant Butte with Camel Butte in the background to the right.”

“She’s smiling again!, I love seeing her have such a blast on these adventures!”

“The Starship was also enjoying all the play time in the iron oxide rich dirt of Monument Valley.”

“Elephant Butte serves it’s name justice!, just take a look at the tiny white cars on the road below.”

“The shadows of Sentinel Mesa begin to make for a very interesting subject as the sun begins to set.”

“Merrick Butte, This large sandstone formation rises 1,006 ft (307 m) above the surrounding valley floor.”

“Julia stands with West Mitten and East Mitten Butte in the Background.”

“Julia snaps a great shot of me and the surrounding valley.”

To the Visitor Center

We spent about three hours in the valley taking hundreds of photos and explored every section we could from the trailhead all the way out to John Ford Point. We talked about how great it would be to just stay there and wait for a new moon night so we stare at all the stars we would be able to see in that darkness. The sun was starting to set and the shadows were starting to kill some of the shots, but by then we had well over 500 images combined, so it was time to saddle up and head to the parking lot.

We were both starting to get a bit hungry, but we didn’t want to get stuffed on some vending machine or gas station food, so we walked into the visitor center to see if they had a cafe or a small restaurant. Through the museum and through the awesome gift shop, we found a restaurant and cafe. We just wanted something quick to hold us over for the drive back and hopefully a good place to get dinner.

“The interior of the Visitor Center was pretty nice compared to back in 2007.”

“The difference that time has made on the Navajo Territory.”

“There was a really great viewing room just outside the gift shop.”

Julia and I were getting very hungry and she was starting to feel a bit faint. She was experiencing a little hypoglycemia and needed something sweet soon. We checked out what the cafe had to offer that wasn’t an actual meal and saw the perfect unhealthy snack…lol

“Pecan Pie on top and Apple Pie down below.”

“Julia finally gets her Apple Pie and I do too.”

“Time to head out and explore just a little bit more before we head home.”

U.S. 163 Scenic Highway (a.k.a. Forrest Gump Point)

GPS Coordinates: 37.0995° N, 110.0067° W

After shoveling our faces with Apple Pie, we started our way out of the park and decided to take Highway 163 just a bit further North. The sun was setting rather fast so we had to make tracks to see what lay beyond the mammoth sandstone buttes that blocked the view of the world beyond. As we passed through the rocky walls of Brighams Tomb, we began to descend down a long stretch of the 163 that didn’t look too interesting until we looked back and that’s wha I said “Holy Shit!”, The view was out of this world!

We decided that this was as far as we were going to go along the 163. This stretch of highway was used in the film “Forrest Gump” during the scene where he ended hid run across America. The distance to this point from the Utah/Arizona border via Highway 163 is roughly 13 miles (21 km).

“From the left, Castle Butte made of Stagecoach, Bear and Rabbit, and Castle Rock, then King on his Throne, then Brighams Tomb on the right .”

“We pulled over to enjoy the last moments of the golden hour right here.”

“We even stayed until the sun left and waited for the colors of the After Burst to paint the skies.”

By this time, we were getting tired, but most of all we were very hungry and the drive to Kayenta was not to much further. The problem with sugary snacks is that they don’t last and make you hungry for more. I started down the now dark highway back to Arizona while Julia Yelped a few places Kayenta. She mentioned a place I had seen on the way through town much earlier in the day and I was all for it!

Amigo Cafe

GPS Coordinates: 36.9862° N, 110.1667° W
This place seemed to be the local hot spot. It was a cozy interior with only two other people inside and we were going in no matter what, we were starving! I had learned about something called a Navajo Taco and a Navajo Burger. Naturally being an explorer at heart, I wanted to try both, but the waitress said that they are massive and recommended that I try just one and that the Navajo Taco was the more popular of the two. I took her word for it and decided to try the Navajo Taco this time around. Julia had eaten Navajo Tacos before in her hometown so it wasn’t anything new for her. She just ordered some Steak Fajitas instead.

“Julia got her Fajitas plate first, I told her to just dig in, she was being sweet and waiting for me to get my order.”

“I went to wash my hands real quick and was impressed by the unique looking icons on the restroom doors.”

“When I came back, I got my awesome Navajo Taco!”

The Navajo Taco was not really a taco so much as it was more of a pizza crust type chalupa hybrid or as I later learned, “Indian Fry Bread”. The inside of it was filled with their signature house chili made with chunky ground beef, topped with lettuce, tomato, onions, cheese, and served with a side of some very delicious red rice accompanied by an extremely savory spicy sauce that was served inside a tiny steel kettle. We finished all of it and the waitress told me that she had never seen anyone finish a Navajo Taco all the way before and in the time that I did….lol!

Julia and I were very pleased with our tasty dinner, but we were too stuffed to continue our drive back to Page immediately. There is no way for me to bear the pain and discomfort of driving on such a full stomach, so we decided to walk a mile and even though it was extremely cold, it definitely did the trick. Now I could get in the Starship and set course for Page, AZ.

Along the way back we were jamming out to everything from the Eagles to Slipknot and at one point along Highway 160 west, I pulled over and shut off the lights. We rolled the windows down and looked up. We saw thousands upon a thousands of stars and a massive galactic arm littered across the sky! What a fantastic end to an excellent day I thought. Now we could get home and rest up for tomorrow’s venture to Horseshoe Bend!

Until the next travel blog, remember to get out there and “Shoot the Planet!”



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