From every room, the view's a butte

By Nancy Trejos
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Somewhere on Route 89 in Arizona, we began to wonder whether we'd ever make it to Monument Valley.

It was mid-January, and snow showers had turned into a full-on snowstorm. My high school friend Roy and I were driving 400-plus miles from Las Vegas to the Navajo-owned tribal park best known as the backdrop of such classic John Wayne westerns as "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers." We plowed on through the snow, determined to get there -- and to our hotel, part of the reason we were making the journey to this remote spot on the Utah-Arizona border.

The View Hotel, which opened in December 2008, is the first hotel inside Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Built on a plateau, it's a simple three-story structure that blends into the environment. Each of its 96 rooms boasts floor-to-ceiling windows and a balcony with, yes, a stunning view of the East and West Mitten Buttes, breathtaking red-rock formations that rise from the desert floor. Managed by 25-year-old Navajo Armanda Ortega-Gordon and her non-Navajo father, Art Ortega, the $14 million hotel has brought change to a region known to be slow to embrace it.

Before the View opened, visitors to Monument Valley had few lodging options. They could stay at the decades-old Goulding's Lodge, just outside the park. (Colorado native Harry Goulding was the man responsible for persuading director John Ford to film so many movies there.) Or they could stay at any of the many nondescript motels in towns at least 20 miles away.

Ortega-Gordon, whose brainchild the hotel was, stayed true to her Navajo heritage, decorating the walls with rugs and art by local artists. A trading post features the work of local artisans. "I wanted everyone to come and see the heart of the Navajo Nation and feel a part of it and feel that culture," she told me later in a phone interview. (Having recently had a child, she was recuperating in New Mexico during my visit to the View.)

The two-story lobby is centered on a massive stone fireplace, and the comfortable leather sofas make you want to sip a glass of wine while gazing at the Mittens. But you can't; alcohol is forbidden on Navajo land. No matter, though: You still have the view.

Well, most of the time you do. We weren't quite so fortunate. We made it through the snow to the hotel and rushed to the balcony as soon as we got to our room, but all we could see was a blanket of white. There we were at the View Hotel -- with no view.

Still, the room was nice, with bedcovers in Navajo designs and native art on the walls.

The next morning we got up early, hoping to catch the sunrise over the Mittens. But the fog was too heavy.

Disappointed, I hit the treadmill. Halfway into my run, I could see the fog lifting and the tops of the Mittens peeking out of the mist. Such a tease.

Thanks to the John Wayne movies, Monument Valley is one of the most recognizable landscapes in the southwestern United States. Many American tourists, however, forgo it for Arizona's Grand Canyon and Utah's Zion National Park. You have to make a real effort to get to the nearly 30,000-acre valley, which is 300 miles from Phoenix, and for some reason, European and Japanese tourists are more likely to do so than Americans.

You can drive yourself through the park along the 17-mile road that winds around the formations. But we opted for a guided tour with Harold Simpson, a Navajo who grew up on the reservation and runs Trailhandler Tours. At least 30 Navajos still live on the valley floor in houses with no electricity or running water. (Simpson now lives outside the reservation.)

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