View From My Saddle

On Morgans In Monument Valley

The Stuning Beauty of One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World

(Un-edited version)


Dan Simmons

As a native Arizonan, it had long been a dream of mine to explore this mythical land of movie lore by horseback.  In September of 2010, my wife Letha and I lived that dream on the backs of two of our Morgans for a week.  Much like another one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World that are in Arizona, the Grand Canyon, pictures struggle to convey the beauty and largeness of what your eyes behold in person.

  Monument Valley is located in north central Arizona just south of the Utah border on the Navajo Reservation, the largest Native American nation in the United States, spread out over parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.  Although there is tourist access and a loop drive by permit or jeep type tours near the entrance to the valley, the vast majority of the valley is only accessible by Navajo guided rides into the many remote canyons where no roads go.  There are a few Navajo families living in parts of the valley here and there, but the relatively limited access has preserved most of the valley in the natural state it has been in for eons.

   We arrived at the entrance to the valley on a Sunday afternoon and rendezvoused with the rest of our group and cleared our paper work inspection process by the Navajo Ranger who then led our caravan into the valley to our box canyon camp site.  The road was a bit challenging but only heightened our sense of adventure of going someplace where few get to go.  The stunning scenery began almost immediately, and our camp site itself was awesome and made us feel small compared to the majesty of our surroundings.  We camped inside a box canyon with a narrow opening and walls so high that they dwarfed the large living quarters trailers in our group.  The view out the front door of our canyon was a taste of days to come with rich colors and large formations beckoning us.

The entrance to our campsite at Pancake Flats Box Canyon. The rider is Joe Dodash, the assistant to our group leader, leading us back to camp from one of our daily rides.

Our LQ with horses in porta-corrals in the box canyon.  The canyon walls tower much higher than the sunlight  here.

Double rainbow in view outside our canyon’s entrance.

Sunday afternoon and evening was a settling in day, and that night we had a nice introduction to our Navajo guides Effie Yazzi and her assistant Nez around a big campfire.  They told us some of the history of the valley and stories of their people and families that had lived there for generations.  We found them to be very friendly and they loved to tell us jokes and stories even while we rode throughout the week.

Monday started a busy ride schedule and we rode every day for the next five; the shortest ride was three and a half hours and the longest seven and a half.  Every day it just got better; just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, you’d round a corner and it did.  I was expecting mostly barren sands between monolithic rock formations, but it was far more than that.  There was much more vegetation than I expected, and the color was never ending and breath-taking.  But the size of everything put new meaning to the words “big country”; there were near continuous panoramic views every way we looked.  I felt both small in comparison to the size, beauty, and history around me, and yet privileged to be there riding within it.

Our group of 27 dwarfed by the big country.  We came through the gap in the mesas center screen in the distance.

Effie Yazzie leading us (center), with me behind her taking a picture, and Don & Laurie Smith on either side of us.

There were people from all over the country on this ride from as far away as Missouri, Washington, California, Arizona and all points in between, and we made many new forever friends.  Also many different breeds of horses including mustangs, appaloosas, foxtrotters, walkers, quarter horses, paints, our Morgans, and a few mules too.  We have shared this ride’s pictures and stories with many of our Morgan friends via various list serves and many of them are coming in 2011 or as soon as they can get there.  There is talk of a Morgan ride specifically in 2012.  Folks we met there who have ridden all over the country place Monument Valley at the very top of their list for most beautiful ride they’ve ever been on anywhere.

Me on my eight year old liver chestnut Morgan mare, Dream Catcher Spirit Song.  We had just ridden through the canyon Spirit is looking back at and up the hill we’re standing on.

Though the Morgans were few on this ride, they acquitted themselves well with their energy and stamina.  We did not have to stay nose to tail on this ride, only in sight of our Navajo guides, and were free to range ahead and roam to the sides.  Spirit, being a Morgan and full of go, her and I often did that and got many pictures of the rest of the group.  America, despite being a relatively old girl, didn’t lag a bit either; and both were barefoot all week and a testament to well conditioned Morgan feet.

(Above) Letha at the North Window of the valley; and
 (Right) on her 19 year old bay Morgan mare, Castle Miss America; a Muscleman granddaughter.


One of the highlights of our longest ride was the Anasazi ruins in a remote deep canyon.  Effie Yazzi told us they have taken only about 1,000 people to these ruins over the years which are only accessible by horseback.  They are amazingly well preserved and the artifacts that have been found have been left on a large rock just in front of the ruins for future visitors to see.  We had our lunch there that day and explored and took pictures for over an hour.  History looms as large in the valley, as the valley’s magnificent topography.

The canyon home of the Anasazi ruins (ruins are in the center right frame of this picture).

Letha peering in the door of the Anazazi dwelling; they were not big people.

Letha squeezing back through the door of the Anasazi dwelling.

Rick Brown, Wendy, and Letha looking at the artifact collection on the large rock just outside the ruins.

A close-up of the artifacts .  Note the intricate patterns in the pottery and painted designs on them.  There were also small dried corn cobs and what appeared to be various types of utensils among the artifacts.

As I said, the scenery never stops; it just gets better with every mile and every day.  A collage of sights:

Ear of the Wind Arch.
High trail to the ruins.
Leader Blondie Bacal & group looking up a canyon.

Spirit and I with the Totem Pole formation in the background.

America on a lunch break. 
Rick Brown and Nez take in the view.
The famous Gunsight Pass of western movie lore.

One aspect of the week that was a surprise was we came across many tourists from Europe, particularly from France surprisingly, on the few occasions we were in areas near the drive loop.  Whenever we did, these folks poured out of their vehicles to take pictures of the “cowboys” and wanted to touch, oh and ah over our horses.  It was quite fun actually and we often posed with them for their pictures to take back home.

The weather was very pleasant on the whole with only a drizzly Wednesday morning on the way to the Anasazi ruins which cleared by noon into a beautiful afternoon.  That night we had a sudden violent thunderstorm blow through and create some brief excitement, but no serious damage.  The days were not too hot and the nights not too cool; all in all, perfect riding weather.

Effie Yazzie was a wonderful trail guide and frequently stopped and pointed out particular land marks and the stories behind them.  She was also a cheerful soul and told as many jokes as stories.

Assistant guide Nez with lasso twirling on a break.

Our guide Effie Yazzi and Rick Brown on a story time stop.

Letha and I on America and Spirit at the North Window.

Our Leader Blondie Bacal & Rick Brown at the North Window.

Our week in Monument Valley last year was a dream come true; incredible scenery, fantastic riding, and a wonderful time with many special people who all loved their equine partners.  We had a merry time and our leader Blondie Bacal said she’d never laughed so much and so hard as she did on this ride.  The Navajo people we found to be very warm and friendly, and they came every night to our campfire and dinners to share their and our stories.  We also went to the Yazzie family home one night for Navajo tacos and got to watch the matriarch of the family, 90 year old Sussie Yazzie, demonstrate for us combing and spinning raw wool fresh from their sheep into yarn, and then they weave into beautiful Navajo rugs. 

It was an experience I’ll never forget. We committed to going again this year [2011] before we ever left last year and convinced many of our friends to come as well since, including fellow Morgan people.  It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World here in our own backyard in the Great American West.  Happy trails!