I took my first guided tour of Monument Valley Tribal Park almost 8 years ago, and like nearly everyone else who visits, I completely fell in love with the landscape of the area. That first tour opened my eyes to everything that lies beyond the famous view of the mittens and Merrick Butte; the arches, cliff dwellings, and the petroglyphs scattered throughout the ‘back country’, as well as the Navajo history and culture of Monument Valley.
In the past couple years working in the San Juan County Visitor Services office, we’ve noticed a marked increase in visitors and tour operators asking us about off-the-beaten-path places, unique experiences and lodging, and cultural experiences. We try to keep ourselves as informed as we can about all the services that are offered in the county, and many of them we are able to speak about from first-hand experience, but one thing that I haven’t been able to speak about from my own experience, is the overnight hogan stays in Monument Valley.
The opportunity to remedy this presented itself in the form of a friend’s upcoming 40th birthday… I have a close group of friends who celebrate our significant birthdays with an overnight stay somewhere together. When the idea of staying overnight in a hogan came up, the three of us who were planning the surprise birthday outing for our friend all agreed that it would be a really unique, once in a lifetime experience fitting of a 40th birthday celebration, so we booked with Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours– one of our local Monument Valley guides who we’ve been referring visitors to for years, but had yet to experience for ourselves.
Our friend had no idea where we were taking her for her birthday, but we had told her that we were camping (partial truth) so that she’d know how to pack. However, as we drove from Monticello toward Monument Valley we hit some really heavy rainstorms which began to make our friend think that maybe us telling her to bring her camping gear had been a ploy to throw her off the track of what we were really doing, because she said that with the heavy rain coming down, our moods were better than she’d expect if we were really going to be camping.
When we arrived in Monument Valley, it had stopped raining, but we were told at the entrance station that the road down into the valley was closed due to the heavy rain earlier. We figured we’d still be able to go since we were on a guided trip, but I think our friend was kind of wondering what was going on at that point, and why once again, we were unfazed by the weather.
We met our guide, John, at the designated location and loaded our gear into the tour van. There were a few other people on the tour with us- a couple from Switzerland who were on their honeymoon, and a woman from Brooklyn, New York who was only doing the tour and not staying in the valley overnight.
As we made our way down into the valley, John began pointing out the rock formations and telling us about the film history of the area. Working in tourism, I feel like I’m pretty well versed in the movies that have been filmed in Monument Valley, (You can read more about the movies/shows that have been filmed in the area HERE) but he named a couple that I didn’t know about like Pontiac Moon starring Ted Danson- I’ll have to look it up!
Our first stop was at John Ford’s Point, which is definitely a really well known location within the park. If you’ve ever seen a photo of a horse and rider on a point in Monument Valley, chances are, it was taken at John Ford’s Point!
We continued deeper into the valley, and after a few short stops John told us it was time to ‘introduce’ us to a hogan, which is a traditional Navajo dwelling. We pulled up in front of a hogan, and John led us inside and told us about how there are two types of hogans- male and female, and he showed us some items traditionally used by the Navajo people including wool, yucca root, and other plants.
He also told us about some of the different designs of Navajo rugs, and about the spirit line- a line in the corner of each rug that is intentionally left to allow the weaver’s spirit and creativity to escape the design so that they’re able to begin another weaving. Without the spirit line, it’s believed that the weaver’s creativity would be trapped inside the design and they would have difficulty beginning another rug. As he was talking, a woman came in and begin demonstrating carding and spinning wool to make yarn, which would then be used to weave a rug. It was pretty amazing the way she made it look so effortless- I’m pretty sure it’s not nearly as easy as she made it look!
After we’d had a chance to take photos of Big Hogan, John sang and drummed for us. It was AMAZING. Looking back, it was definitely my favorite part of the entire experience (and there’s still some really cool stuff coming up!) He is an amazing singer- I got goosebumps listening to him sing, and I’m getting goosebumps again right now just thinking back on it! Our friend whose birthday it was, said later that John was such a good singer, it almost made her cry. Now if that isn’t a testimonial to how good his singing is, I don’t know what is!
Not only was John an amazing singer, he was also really good at showing us how to get the best shots at each location. He also had some photography tricks up his sleeve, which he shared with us and he took some of our favorite photos of the trip!
Next up was dinner… we returned to the area we had been previously when we’d visited the hogan, which was where we were going to spend the night. There were actually two hogans there, and John told us that we would be staying in one, and the couple from Switzerland would be staying in the other. But first it was time to eat! When we pulled up dinner was already being set up for us. Although it wasn’t raining, it was still pretty cold and wet, so John told us we’d be eating inside the hogan. It sounds like when the weather is warmer the tour groups eat outside.
When we stepped inside the hogan, there was a fire going in the woodstove and it was nice and warm. We went through the line and got our Navajo tacos and steak and sat down and chatted with each other and the other members of our tour. After we were finished eating, it was time for Navajo singing and dancing.
To start things off, John called the birthday girl up and he sang a special birthday song for her and then presented her with a Juniper berry bracelet. It was such an unexpected surprise- I think our friend thought that we had arranged it, but we hadn’t. We had mentioned that we were celebrating her birthday when we had booked the tour with Simpson’s, and the birthday surprise was all them!
John sang several more songs stopping in between each one to explain to us the meanings of the dances. Following the dances, John told us what I would consider to be the Navajo equivalent of ghost stories. While they were more folklore than actual ‘ghost’ stories, they definitely had the same effect on me as ghost stories, which I realized later that night when I didn’t want to walk to the bathroom by myself! (I won’t go into details, but you can google ‘Skinwalkers’ if you want to learn more!)
After John had us sufficiently scared, it was time to set up for bed. The hogans are authentic, traditional hogans, so they have a dirt floor and Simpson’s provides a tarp for the floor as well as sleeping bags and mats. A couple of us had brought cots with us, and we all brought our own sleeping bags since we were thinking it might be a little cold, but it turned out we really didn’t need to bring them. Not only was there a woodstove to keep us warm, (and a whole box of firewood!) but the sleeping bags that Simpson’s provides are really nice, thick ones so bringing our own sleeping bags was completely unnecessary.
One of our friends had baked a cake and secretly brought it down into the valley, so once we had our sleeping bags/cots all set up, it was time to celebrate! Trips to the bathroom require a short walk, and since we all had Skinwalkers fresh on our minds and didn’t want to go alone, it actually worked out perfectly when the birthday girl and I went to the bathroom, our other two friends got the cake ready and surprised her when we got back!
After the birthday celebration a couple of us decided to go outside to see if it had cleared up enough to see the stars. It had, and it was beautiful outside! I wish I’d thought to give myself a refresher on the night setting on my camera before going, but instead I had to try to figure it out in the dark in the middle of Monument Valley! The silhouette of the hogan we were staying in with just a crack of light from the door was too good to miss, but I know I didn’t do it justice!
Before John had left us for the night, he had asked if we wanted to get up for sunrise or sleep in. Although I don’t think any of us wanted to get up early, there was no question that we definitely wanted to see the sunrise in Monument Valley! He told us he’d knock on our door to wake us up at 5:40am, and let me tell you, 5:40 arrived WAY too quickly! But it was so worth it! John packed up the sleeping bags, mats, and other items they’d provided for us while we packed up our stuff. I have to say, this was all done in record time. I thought there was no way we were going to make it to the place he was taking us for sunrise, but we did. And it was amazing!
He took us back to a place where we had stopped the day before- an overlook of Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei. From that area, the sun rises right behind the two rock formations, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Once again, John had lots of tips for us on how to take good photos, and he even took our cameras a couple times and took photos with us in them.
After sunrise we drove to a nearby area with some tables for breakfast. One thing I haven’t mentioned was that the yuccas were in full bloom and even on our drive down to Monument Valley we were all noticing how many yuccas there were blooming along the sides of the road. I already have a major yucca obsession, but in the morning light the yuccas were looking especially amazing with the various rock formations of Monument Valley in the background. I couldn’t help it, even though it was our breakfast stop, I spent most of my time taking pictures with yuccas in the foreground. It was just too beautiful! Yuccas… morning light… Monument Valley… it doesn’t get any better than that!
After our quick stop for breakfast, which included muffins, fresh fruit, and cereal, our tour had come to an end. John drove us up to the Visitor Center and we unloaded our bags and said our goodbyes. We were all completely exhausted due to staying up way too late and getting up way too early, but as tired as we were, I know I also felt a little bit giddy with excitement from having just experienced sunrise in Monument Valley, and getting to see such incredible natural beauty firsthand. The 15 hours we spent in Monument Valley with Simpson’s Trailhander Tours was definitely a unique, once in a lifetime experience that none of us will ever forget!
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