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The Other Side of Monument Valley

The west is still wild if you know where to look.

By: Maddy Minnis + Save to a List

Last fall I had the opportunity to shoot 5 different, Navajo-run campsites in Monument Valley for Hipcamp. I live in New Mexico and only had a weekend to do it so I maximized my time. There was so much to see in the area before we even got there: Moki Dugway, Valley of the Gods, Goosenecks State Park...And then we arrived to discover that Monument Valley is so much more than just that same visitor's center view that is nearly dull from being photographed so much. If you want a real adventure, as is almost always the case, you're going to need to leave the parking lot.

Right off the bat, our hosts, Mark and Jennafer Yellowhorse, took us off-roading to a hidden frozen pond, then up to Teardrop Arch and further around to some Anasazi ruins tucked into a cave up a cliff wall. You’ve got to crawl and squeeze through a small hole to get close to them and, on account of a lady who had popped out of her shirt in the process before, Mark was sure to be the last one in the group to go through.

We headed south to visit Mark's mother, who took a break from herding sheep to make us some frybread. Then we drove past incredible desert landscapes, well-used hogans, and a huge volcanic plug to watch the sunset over the valley from the Upper Monument Valley campsite. 

Jennafer told us about how she’s helped to provide a voice for her community (many of whom don’t have running water or electricity) in dealing with issues like uranium mining and contamination, and land and artifact rights. She even teaches people in her community how to set up solar power in their own homes. And she is showing them that there are other ways to live off of this land that do not involve selling it to be mined. Jennafer is passionate about protecting the rights of the Navajo and it’s pretty amazing that you can help support that too, simply through the act of camping.

The next morning we set out for a trail ride on the north side of the valley. For hours a pair of dogs and our beautiful, mildly trained horses battled freezing wind, crumbling cliff edges, and steep dunes while we teetered along behind our Navajo guide, Herbert. It was fierce and rugged and unpredictable (50% just holding on and hoping your horse had your best intentions in mind) and then it would open up into an endless vista and you could get the horses running. The whole experience was unforgettable, just the right amount of fear coupled with excitement.

We finished the day at a few more campsites in the south: El Capitan Valley and Blackrock Overlook. We explored the family's rock quarry, met wild horses, and gawked endlessly at the views and formations that we had never expected to find there. As the sky started to shift into purple, Steven and I hit the road home. We caught the very last light at Canyon de Chelly, which did it no justice but certainly solidified a need to return. 

After a stop for enchiladas at a hotel in Chinle, we thanked our lucky stars that somehow we were going to be home before midnight, so content having touched one of the few wild places left in this country. The same rugged isolation that makes the desert just barely livable is also what keeps it (and the people that endure it) so special. It’s not for everyone, and certainly not for the weak, but I’ve found a piece of home there.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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