Sometimes, as Forrest Gump drawled, life really is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But I have a fair idea I’ll wind up getting squished like a lizard if I’m not careful as I try to recreate the famous running scene from the Forrest Gump movie.
I’m on Utah’s Highway 163, with the majestic Monument Valley rising up like a red-rock metropolis behind me as I attempt to capture my own slice of movie magic – mindful of the cars, of course.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, to use its official name, is huge – 371-square-kilometres – and it’s seriously remote. To get here, I fly into Utah’s capital, Salt Lake City, hire a car and drive south. For hours. Because the journey is more than six hours, you might want to break it up with a side trip to a place like Moab (see box, right, to find out why this is worth your while). And although I approach the valley from Utah, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, is actually in Arizona – about a three-hour drive from the Grand Canyon.
It’s hard to escape that eerily familiar feeling as you arrive at the valley. That’s because you’ve seen it before in numerous US westerns, with director John Ford using the valley as the backdrop for movies such as Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Ford’s vision became our impression of the American West.
But saying you know Monument Valley from the movies is a bit like saying you know Italian food because you’ve eaten a tin of spaghetti. Nothing can prepare you for its sheer size. It’s a panorama of pinnacles; a marvellous monument to the eroding power of wind and rain over time. You can drive yourself around, but the best way to explore this iconic spot is with
a local, so I book in for a sunset Jeep tour of the valley with Gouldings Lodge on the Utah-Arizona border. It was original owner Harry Goulding who introduced Ford to the valley. I meet my Navajo guide at Gouldings, and, during our winding 27km trip through the valley, check out some of the area’s highlights including East and West Mittens, the Three Sisters, the Totem Pole, Artist’s Point, the North Window and, of course, John Ford’s Point.
If you like big buttes and you cannot lie, then this is the place for you. The valley is made up of gigantic sandstone buttes and around sunset these rock skyscrapers soak up the last rays of light and cast long shadows across the valley.
My guide is a storyteller. He tells us a history of the rocks and what caused the holes, according to local lore. He tells us about Kokopelli, a popular (especially with the ladies) flute-playing character from Native American folklore. And you can see him depicted in petroglyphs (ancient rock artworks) throughout the valley.
In between my guide’s stories, the silence of the valley is almost deafening. It’s like there is a sound-vacuum here. Honestly, there is nothing quite like these rock monoliths anywhere else in the world.
Ford saw something here all those years ago, and it’s likely you’ll need to collect your jaw from the valley floor as you leave.
Sometimes you need to stand back and take everything in, and there are moments when you simply need to experience this desert landscape in a Jeep.
Dan Mick’s Jeep Tours provide a guided tour of the aptly named Hell’s Revenge trail, part of the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Your heart will be in your mouth as the Jeep seemingly defies gravity.
Next is Arches National Park, one of Utah’s mighty five national parks, along with Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion. The hike up to the park’s most famous arch, Delicate Arch, is a moderate climb, and
well worth the trek. From a distance it’s impressive, and up close the arch is a breathtaking rock icon.
Southern Utah is canyon country; spoilt for wild, ragged rock formations and beautiful, almost otherworldly, scenery.
Natural Bridges National Monument is famous for, as the name suggests, the natural bridges Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu. We stop at the gorgeous Goosenecks State Park, where the San Juan River snakes through a canyon.
Capitol Reef National Park is a rainbow cake of sandstone cliffs, canyons, white rocks and layers of red earth. There are a lot of great hikes of varying difficulty you can do, and the quiet, cosy town of Torrey is the perfect base from which to explore the park.
United Airlines flies to Salt Lake City, Utah (via Los Angeles). For more information on Monument Valley and Utah holiday ideas,