The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Windows on Rocks


MONUMENT VALLEY IS SO ICONIC that to arrive there is to enter a photograph as much as it is to arrive at a place, like being there and not being there at the same time. This duality is reflected in the two gift shop/restaurant/hotel/tourist complexes there, each representing a different point of view of the place. One, of it as imagery, brought about by non-Native Americans over the last century, while the other confronts its physicality head-on, representing the management of the site by Native Americans.

3730Goulding’s Lodge is the earlier of the two establishments built to overlook Monument Valley, and is set back a few miles from the rocks, on privately owned land, surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. CLUI photoView 1: Gouldings’s Lodge
A few miles to the west of the monuments is Goulding’s Lodge, where movie crews and tour buses have been coming for years. There is an airstrip bringing A-list tourists by charter planes from Las Vegas, a restaurant that can handle hundreds of people at once, and a hotel with 70+ rooms.

The history of Goulding’s is that of an old modern American version of the west, the cinematic, and the romantic. Monument Valley was off the beaten path historically, there were no trains anywhere near it, nor settlements of any size, no mineral resources, no crossroads. It had been left out of the national discussion, kind of overlooked. When white man finally settled here, the barbarous wars with the natives were over, and this land was still mostly untouched.

Harry Goulding, a sheep-herder and trader from Durango, Colorado, first visited the valley in 1921, loved the drama of the landscape, and figured it would be good place to set up a trading post. The land, however, belonged to the Paiutes, who did not encourage white settlement. In 1923 the state of Utah offered the Paiutes some arable land in the northeast part of the state, at what is now the Uintah Reservation, and Monument Valley became state and federal property again.

Goulding and his wife “Mike” moved to the valley in 1925 and bought a square mile of land from the state for fifty cents an acre—$320. When the Navajo Nation expanded into this area, known as the Paiute Strip, in 1933, the Gouldings were able to hold on to their land, and it remains a private island surrounded by the largest Indian reservation in the country. An island of white.

During the last years of the Great Depression, desperate for ways to bring revenue to the region, the Gouldings struck upon the idea of marketing the dramatic landscapes of the valley to Hollywood. Legend has it that they went to Los Angeles with their last $60 and armed with panoramic photos of the valley taken by Josef Muench, a German photographer who had befriended them on his roaming forays into the desert. The Gouldings went to the studios of United Artists and told the uninterested receptionist that they would camp in the lobby until someone talked to them. An executive who was summoned to throw them out was allegedly struck by the images, and they were soon showing them to the director John Ford. The Gouldings went home with $5,000 to make arrangements for the arrival of a film crew at their trading post, including accommodations, provisions, and organizing local Navajos to play marauding Apaches. The film, when it came out in 1939, was called Stagecoach, and it introduced John Wayne as a leading man to the world, as well as Monument Valley as a leading place.

Ford shot six more films in the valley, including 1956’s The Searchers, one of the most influential Hollywood movies of all time. By then their small trading post had expanded into a lodge, with dozens of guest cabins and a dining room. The Gouldings invited the Seventh Day Adventists to build a heath clinic and a mission there to serve the local community, and houses were built up Rock Door Canyon, past the lodge. Tourism continued to rise in the post-war years, and Monument Valley, so well-known internationally through films, became one of the great American destinations–and Goulding’s was the only commercial establishment around.

With Harry’s health declining, the couple moved away in 1962, living in Page, and then more suburban Sun City, Arizona. The Gouldings gave the land, the lodge, and the trading post to Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, whose president they knew, with the hope of establishing scholarships for local Navajos to attend school there (which happened only once).

The college did not manage the place well, and they angered the locals, causing the Goulding’s reputation and legacy to suffer. In 1981, a sale was arranged to the LaFont family, who operated a respected tourist business at Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Harry died that year, not living to see the successful restoration, marketing, and expansions undertaken by the LaFonts in the following years. Harry’s widow, Mike, was even persuaded to move back into a house they built for her at Goulding’s.

By 1989, the old trading post building, which included the Goulding’s original home, was under-utilized and in disrepair. A cousin of the LaFonts, with art and construction experience, was tasked with turning the old building into a museum, in three months. With the guidance of Mike Goulding and donations of photographs, furniture, and memorabilia, the building was gutted and rebuilt to resemble how it was in the old days, when John Ford was a dinner guest, and the trading counter, known as the Bull Pen, was the place of business for a broad and remote region, and a point of contact between the natives and the world brought in by the white man’s movies.

3731The View Hotel and Restaurant was built by the tribe a few years ago, greatly expanding the footprint of the visitor center that overlooks the rock formations of the Valley. CLUI photoView 2: The View
Head east off the highway that leads into the valley, instead of west towards Goulding’s, and you soon enter the Monument Valley Tribal Park, and a very different kind of visitor experience.

To most Americans hitting the road with their families in the post war boom of the 1950s, the valley and its distinctive buttes was the setting for the affirmation of the Cowboy and Indian myth as told by Karl May, John Ford, and others. To the Navajo, of course, the landforms were the walls of their home and the spires of their church, which was increasingly overrun by tourists. Limiting access to the valley became critical to the Navajo, and so the Monument Valley Tribal Park was created in 1958.

Initially, it covered 30,000 acres around the primary landmarks, but was later expanded to 92,000 acres. Public access to the park was restricted to people who had contracted with licensed and registered guides. Though the park was unfenced, and people could find their way in, side roads were increasingly posted, and blocked. Signs along the highways directed visitors to an overlook and parking lot at the end of a four-mile dead-end road off Highway 163. This was, and continues to be, the only public access point into Monument Valley.

At the parking lot were trailers and shade structures housing vendors of native artifacts, fry bread, and guides who could be hired to take visitors into the park by horse, foot, or jeep. 17-Mile Drive left from here, and became the main road through the valley, and flatbed trucks with benches and other forms of customized high-clearance trucks amassed to carry tourists into the park. A campground was developed next to the lot, and a visitor center and gift shop was built, with overlooks framing the view. It was a pretty chaotic and unregulated operation, with vendors and tour guides often aggressively competing for business, a refreshing change from the stoic rigor of the National Park Service.

Though the vendors were eventually moved to the service road outside the gates of the park, that is pretty much how it was for nearly 50 years, until 2008, when a new hotel opened next to the visitor center. The controversial project, supported by the Navajo Nation Resources Committee and Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, was conceived and built by ARTSCO, a non-native company owned by Art Ortega, whose family, over a few generations, had developed a regional trading post empire, with real estate, gas stations, and jewelry stores along the highways in Arizona and New Mexico.

The hotel is managed by his daughter, Armanda Ortega-Gordon, who is a Dine/Navajo on her mother’s side (a member, fittingly, of the Towering House Clan), and who her father credits as having come up with the idea of the hotel here when she was a teenager, several years ago.

The $14 million project, called The View, has 96 rooms, each with a balcony facing the classic view of Monument Valley. The rooms are often sold out by Japanese and European tour companies. There is a restaurant, with stepped levels to maximize the views from the tables.  It is attached to a new $10 million visitor center and gift shop/trading post, which opened a year later, the first major remodeling of the Monument Valley Visitor Center since it was originally built in 1960.

The park remains remote: hard to get to from other places, and, once there, hard to get into. 350,000 people visit every year, less than the big National Parks get in a month. Though 17 Mile Drive is open to private vehicles, after passing through the fee station to get into the park, it is still unpaved and very bumpy. The 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail leaves from next to the hotel, and makes a loop around West Mitten Butte. It is still the only trail in the park accessible without a guide. All other access to the park, as well as the rest of the back-country on the 26,000 square-mile Navajo Reservation requires a special permit. These restrictions help to limit visitation and alteration inside the park’s interior.

The new hotel and overlook focus attention and traffic where it should be, on the view, something that can only be had from the margin. The new development affirms that this is a park that is about a view, and not really a place to be visited. A destination to see, rather than experience. Not so much a place at all, even, but a perspective. Come here if you must, or just watch it in the movie myths, which is where it actually resides, for most of us. ♦

3732The view from The View. CLUI photo