“I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.” If you’ve watched Tom Hanks’s Oscar-winning performance as Forrest Gump, you’ll remember the moment when he utters these lines and decides to stop running after criss-crossing the US. Part of the reason most moviegoers remember this scene is its stunning backdrop. It took me about 16 hours and 1,600 km of driving solo over two days to reach that very same spot. The panorama shot of Monument Valley, a part of the Colorado Plateau, is an American cultural icon: Rock fans will remember this from the Best of Eagles album cover. And yet Monument Valley gets just a fraction of the visitors that the Grand Canyon or some of its national parks attract.

It was Hollywood director John Ford who put Monument Valley on the map. In 1939, he shot Stagecoach here, launching the greatest Western hero of them all — John Wayne. The Valley remains the defining image of the American West for generations of moviegoers, continuing to this decade with the Johnny Depp-starrer The Lone Ranger . It’s why the most spectacular viewpoint within this Valley is now called John Ford’s Point.

The Navajo name for Monument Valley translates to valley of the rocks and it’s essentially a cluster of sandstone buttes (isolated hills with vertical sides and flat tops). Located along the Arizona-Utah border, the Valley is in the heart of Navajo Nation, the largest area (about 71,000 sq km) retained by a Native American tribe that cuts across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

There’s no easy way to get here; I’d recommend getting behind the wheel over opting for a package tour. I set out from Las Vegas to Sedona on day one. A four-and-a-half-hour drive brought me to this desert town surrounded by red-rock buttes and steep canyons with numerous panorama points and trailheads that offer great hikes. I timed myself for a 10 am stop at Antelope Canyon, with its two distinct sections — Upper and Lower. Late-morning is ideal for a one-hour tour (available only through tour operators fronted by Navajo guides) that goes through the underground canyon sections that create breathtaking light patterns when the sun reflects off the walls. Antelope Canyon’s unique colours and patterns have made it a favourite for Windows and Mac wallpapers.

After a tour through Lower Antelope, I made a pit stop at Horseshoe Bend — a 270-degree bend in the Colorado river, encircling a rock formation, that is popular with visitors to the Grand Canyon — before reaching Monument Valley by lunchtime. Visitors begin their Monument Valley trail at the Visitor Center.

Keep an eye on the fuel gauge and also stock up on food and water. Gas stations and small towns are few and far between along most of this route.

The 27-km trail includes 11 stops along a dusty road that you could cover in one afternoon. You could choose to do this at a more leisurely pace if you’re staying longer in the Valley (see box). A single-access fee ($20) allows you to drive through this trail but there are a couple of spots — Hunts Mesa, for instance — that require you to sign up for a tour with a Navajo guide. It was almost 5 pm by the time I rushed through the trail, with popular stops such as the imposing Elephant Butte, one of the larger rock formations, the Three Sisters and, of course, John Ford’s Point, where it’s not unusual to pose on a horse and play John Wayne for a photo-op. A 30-minute drive took me to the 13-mile marker along US 163 aka Forrest Gump Point, where almost everyone keeps rushing on and off the highway for that panorama shot.

As I drive back to Las Vegas from Forrest Gump Point, I kept revisiting that moment when I was mesmerised by Monument Valley. Maybe it was the Navajo legends or the sheer magnitude of the landscape, I still haven’t figured where the goosebumps came from.


Ashwin Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based lifestyle writer