If you think about the American West and particularly the desert southwest, images usually come to mind of two different vistas - crystal clear sky with massive mesas and buttes rising up from the desert floor or the outlines of saguaro cactus in a sky painted red by the setting sun. It seems appropriate that one of these vistas, and probably the most famous place in the entire American West, is Monument Valley located on the Navajo Indian Reservation on the Utah/Arizona border.
Most visitors have a sense of familiarity when visiting Monument Valley and rightly so, it has been the backdrop for countless motion pictures including Wild Wild West (not filmed anywhere near Promontory Point), and National Lampoons Vacation. Ironically Monument Valley really isn't a valley at all. Located on the Monument Valley Uplift this vast desolate area is relatively flat surrounded by high red cliffs. The main attraction is the sandstone formations and remnants of ancient volcanoes, some rising up 1,500 feet from the desert floor.
The area was created by a variety of geological forces going back 270 million years ago. At that time a great ocean ended just on the edge of the valley. The granite cliffs were battered by an endless assault of wind and wave grinding them down creating sand dunes a thousand feet high. Under the sand layers or red mud were compressed into shale. These two red layers of sandstone and shale makes up the buttes we see today, but several other critical layers of stone were created and a single geological event made all of this possible.
Great fresh water floods swept this region deposited layers of silt over the softer sandstone. Giant logs were also carried and buried deep within the layers. Today you can visit Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona for an up close view of these brightly colored layers, and the petrified wood left behind. As the water flows continued gravel was deposited from the Rocky Mountains being worn down. Eventually this combination of silt, gravel, and agates made capstone that protected the softer sandstone below. The conglomerates with high concentrations of petrified wood bits were the hardest of all.
Around 25 million years ago volcanic forces lifted the entire area upward. The surface of the earth cracked like glass hit by a rock creating a number of volcanoes that covered the area in lava. Over time the lava cooled and wore away but where the capstone remained the softer sandstone and shale was protected underneath. Wind, rain, heat, and cold finished the job and Monument Valley was born.
The center of activity in Monument Valley is in Goulding, off of US Highway 163 on the Arizona, Utah border. Established in 1923 as a small trading post, this Native American town now provides a number of tourist services including tours, lodging, campgrounds, fuel, restaurants, and shopping.
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