Friday, May 28, 2010

Valley of the Gods

Many people have seen Monument Valley, the vast, iconic desert on the Arizona-Utah border that’s gorgeously interrupted by colossal sandstone monoliths, like bulky ships sailing an ocean of sand. Most often they’ve seen it in the context of a Hollywood shoot-’em-up with cowboys like John Wayne twirling six-shooters and dodging arrows. But few people know that 40 miles up the road there is another monumental valley—a geological Mini-Me known as the Valley of the Gods. A quarter the size of its famed neighbor, it has dozens of equally spectacular sandstone sculptures and spires, but on a smaller scale. What they lack in size, they make up for in brilliant color and variety. And best of all, you’re unlikely to see a single tourist bus here.

Dusted with fine red dirt and punctuated with silver-green brush, the valley lies at the base of a 1,200-foot bluff called Cedar Mesa that was formed when a sea invaded from the northwest 250 million years ago. The area’s jagged towers, gravelly washes, and tortured sandstone formations line Valley of the Gods Road, a 17-mile dirt route that links Highways 163 and 261, forming a scenic loop. Each bend in the road reveals a surprise, a slightly different shade of red or a new rock contortion, many of which are described in Navajo legend as ancient warriors frozen in time. There are places to pull over and hike, have a picnic, or, if you’re so inclined, do some bouldering. But don’t expect restrooms or a snack bar.

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