Crumbling bluffs, sandstone walls and standalone mesa tops set the scene of one of the country’s most incredible natural panoramas. I’m describing the monolithic structures of Monument Valley, straddling the Arizona and Utah border, used as dramatic backdrops in many old Western movie sets and now one of the most popular places to visit in the Four Corners.
Last month’s trip was my first visit to the area and I was particularly impressed with the views at sunset, as rock spires and cliff sides slowly started to glow with earthen red tones with the waning sunlight. Looking closely at the rocks – with maybe just a bit of imagination – I could see faces of sorts and figurines standing side by side, formed by shifting shadows embellishing mother nature’s fierce erosion of the rocks over millions of years.
Some of Monument Valley’s most notable buttes include King on His Throne with its pillars creating such an image; East Mitten and West Mitten, looking like hands with protruding thumbs; and the so-called Three Sisters spires, looking like three Catholic Nuns and forming the letter “W.”
They all have been seen in the old westerns since the 1930s, when the first movie, Stagecoach was filmed by director John Ford and starred John Wayne. The 18-foot diameter summit of the slender pillar known as Totem Pole was used in the 1975 movie Eiger Sanction starring Clint Eastwood, and so-called Forrest Gump Hill was the setting in the movie scene where he gives up his running and concedes, “I’m too tired, I think I’ll go home now.”
The Four Corners area was once dominated by the Ancestral Puebloan culture from about 750-1300 A.D. Today, many of their extremely well-preserved cliffside multi-story ruins remain, now protected in national parks including Colorado’s sprawling Mesa Verde with some of the most impressive cliffside dwellings including the round and square towers of Cliff Palace.
“It took three generations about 80 years to build Cliff Palace the way we see it today,” says Ranger and Interpreter Stanley Merritt. “Children laughing, people singing, running and the noise of stone against stone as they worked their tools,” he continues, describing a typical day on the site about 800 years ago. Other Mesa Verde ruins include the four-story Square Tower House, Balcony House which can only be reached by climbing long ladders, and Spruce Tree House reached by hiking from the park’s Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.
The Puebloans were primarily farmers, growing their crops atop the mesas near their canyon homes. Ruins also sit within canyon walls of Colorado’s Hovenweep National Monument. Part of six villages dating back to 1200-1300 A.D, the remaining walls were once multistory square and circular towers, and D-shaped homes and rounded dug-out kivas, where ceremonies took place.
“At night, they would gather in their homes or in the kiva for community activities,” explains Sierra Coon, Hovenweep’s Chief of Interpretation. “One thing that certainly struck me is the silence. You can hear the wind in the sage and it’s just a more personal experience because it’s not as busy as other sites. So you almost feel like you have it to yourself.”
Other sites to visit include Arizona’s Navajo National Monument with three Pueblo ruins and Colorado’s Canyon of the Ancients with the massive kiva at Lowry Pueblo. Arizona’s impressive Canyon de Chelly has the breathtaking view of twin spires shooting up from the canyon floor, known as Spider Rock. The name comes from a Navajo legend of a Spider Woman living atop the rock who would crawl down and seize naughty children. And, it was fun trying to straddle four states (AZ, CO, NM and UT) at the Four Corners Monument.
For a touch of the Wild West, I visited the small scenic town of Mancos, CO with one traffic light and century-old buildings now home to art galleries, shops and restaurants. Inside the Mancos museum are 1890s wedding dresses, old mining gear and century-old bank notes.
The famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, with its old steam locomotives that spew smoke as they slowly chug on roundtrips from May through October, is based in Durango at an old train depot. “We have seven locomotives in their 90s that run just as hard as they did when they were brand new,” says Jeff Ellingson, curator of the railroad’s museum adjacent to the depot.
Durango still has its cowboy roots, but old hippies and progressive Millennials have set the tone for this town as well. It’s worth stopping in to see the Victorian-style 1887 Strater Hotel with its Prohibition cubby holes to hide liquor, and the 1892 Rochester Hotel with its original movie posters of old and contemporary westerns filmed in the Four Corners area, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and City Slickers, to name only a few.
“Hollywood made a lot of movies about what the Wild West was like,” says Ellingson, “but Durango’s the real thing. We don’t have to fake it here.”