One of the questions I am most often asked is, “What is your favorite place in Arizona?” I wouldn’t go so far as saying it’s like asking you to name your favorite child, but I always struggle with an answer because there are so many areas of Arizona that I love and for different reasons.
There is a place that will forever hold a special piece of my heart because not only is it breathtaking and magical, but because the memory of seeing it for the first time will forever be etched in my mind.
All I knew about the iconic landmark called Monument Valley was that it was the stuff movies were made of and that its famous vistas graced magazine covers and postcards. I felt a little like Chevy Chase in the movie National Lampoon’s Vacation as my producer and I jumped into the car and headed up Interstate 17 to Navajo Country.
Both of us could have a map, compass and GPS/navigation on our phones and still manage to get lost. On that February day, it was typical Arizona weather here in the Valley, but we quickly had to change from short-sleeves to sweaters when we stopped in Flagstaff for lunch and found the town covered in snow.
After some homemade soup in a little downtown café, we stopped in a few shops inquiring about the best way to get to Kayenta, the town that’s home to Monument Valley. In all honesty, the drive out of Flagstaff is less than picturesque and I kept wondering, “Who lives all the way out here?”
Three hours later, the flat, barren landscape started to rise and when the brown landscape turns into a deep, rich red, you realize why the Native Americans call this place sacred. The Navajos affectionately refer to it as “Keyah Hozhoni,” which means “land of beauty all around us.” I don’t know what was more overwhelming, the vision of purple and red that greets you when you arrive, the towering buttes that touch the sky or simply the size of the valleys that seem to go on forever.
As a journalist, I hate being cliché, but this quiet spot in the farthest eastern corner of northern Arizona is magnificent, awe-inspiring and yes, takes your breath away. It’s remarkable that something so perfectly imperfect could only be a natural coincidence. These famous freestanding rock formations seem to defy gravity. They range from 400 – 1,000 feet high, are made of sandstone and are 160 million years old.
It’s easy to see why Monument Valley is one of the most photographed places in the world and why it didn’t take long for Hollywood to fall in love with this place.
Back in 1938 hot shot director John Ford wanted to make a western film. A trader and his wife living on the reservation drove from Monument Valley to Hollywood to convince the director that they had the perfect backdrop for him.
One month later, makeshift tents went up near the trading post, the Navajos and their horses were hired as Hollywood extras and needless to say, a star was born.
Over the years, Monument Valley has been the site of more westerns than any other place in the United States.
In fact, actor John Wayne once referred to Monument Valley as “The place where God put the West.” These stunning vistas and larger than life landscapes have also been the backdrop for films including Back to the Future, Thelma and Louise and Forrest Gump.
We are lucky that Arizona has an abundance of glorious and spectacular places, and I’m sure you may have a few that stand out more than others, but they are all in their own way the stuff movie magic is made of.
— Robin Sewell is the host and executive producer of the Emmy Award
winning Arizona Highways Television.