Hector has been interested in photographing the Milky Way for a long time. But we haven’t really been in the right place at the right moment: a place with limited light pollution with a view in the correct direction, on a clear, dark night, at the right time of year – spring or summer. Not easy. Now that spring is here, the galactic center of the Milky Way begins to make its appearance in the sky. So we made a specific plan to go photograph Monument Valley and the Milky Way.
This is our third time visiting Monument Valley. The first was a brief drive through the area. On the second visit, we drove from Denver in our Airstream, Luna, and camped in the area. Unfortunately, there was a huge sandstorm for several days during our visit, but we finally had a chance to take a guided tour after the storm subsided.
We were hoping to skip the sandstorm this time and happily the forecast was for good weather, either clear or partly cloudy. There were two nights left before the new moon, so we had a good chance for a clear night on at least one of those.
As we approached Monument Valley, red sandstone monoliths or “monuments” suddenly rose out of the earth around us. The oh so red sandstone buttes, mesas and spires, some up to 1,000 feet high, give the landscape a mystical feel.
Many of the monuments in the park have descriptive names. On our way to Goulding’s Lodge and Campground, our campground, we drove by a couple of the most famous monuments, Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. Check out my review of the park here.
Interestingly, it was the original owner of Goulding’s RV Park who was responsible for the many Western movies that have been filmed in this area. Years after establishing a trading post, Mr. Goulding and his wife went to Hollywood to promote the area.
They met the director John Ford. When Mr. Ford saw photos of Monument Valley, he decided to make it the location for the film “Stagecoach” starring John Wayne. And the rest, as they say is history. The director shot nine more Westerns here and others followed.
In the predawn darkness the next morning, we prepared for a sunrise outing. As Hector walked out of the coach to load the car, I heard a big thud and a small moan. I ran out to find Hector on the ground next to the steps with our stuff scattered around him. That was scary. His immediate response was “I think I sprained my ankle”.
I ran in and got an ice pack to put on his ankle. He was still laid out on the ground and I asked him if we should skip the sunrise. He said no. So I put the ice pack on, gave him some Advil and we continued to our sunrise outing.
The new moon was a couple of days away but the forecast was for cloudy weather. So Hector made the decision to photograph the Milky Way that night. The Milky Way was forecast to rise around 1 a.m. and the very tiny sliver of a moon was to set really early.
So before sunset, we drove out to scout locations for the photos. It had to be just off the road, since Hector could not walk much, and on level ground, as flexing his ankle was very painful. We used some pretty interesting apps like “Photographers Ephemeris” and “Photopills” to predict where the Milky Way would rise and identified a couple of potentially good shooting spots.
We went home for dinner. Since we are night owls anyway, we stayed up until it was time to go. Then I drove out to our designated spots on a beautiful night full of stars. Do click on any image to enlarge and see a larger version.
I was surprised to see that the valley is not totally dark at night. There are several structures/residential areas that are lit up all night. The largest was “The View Hotel”, a fairly substantial structure. So there were a few “hotspots” around. But overall it was still very very dark out.
The band of stars that are the Milky Way rise in the east and rotate to the southeast as the night progresses. The “galactic center” is the brightest part and rises to the southeast. It is very faint to the human eye, but the camera sensors can pick up more of the detail.
But Hector was determined, and we spent two and a half hours in three different shooting spots while he photographed the sky. Hopping around on one foot leaning on his tripod. My husband is nothing if not persistent.
Needless to say we slept in the next morning and rested most of the day. Hector spent some time editing the photos taken the night before. In spite of not having the “fast” lens he would have preferred, the results are still pretty spectacular. What a night.
The ankle still was not very happy (I wonder why). Advil, compression and icings between outings helped a lot, but Hector was not exactly resting his ankle as he should.
And the following afternoon Hector, Angel and I drove out to the 17-mile scenic road. It is an unpaved road, and although all of the park staff makes it sound like a rough road, it is not that bad. Since we have a low-clearance vehicle we did have to maneuver around just a couple of spots. And there are a few steep and curvy sections on the narrow road but if you drive slowly it is quite a manageable road.
We stopped in a small area where Navajo vendors sell arts, crafts and food. Because of the visibility brought to this place by all of the Western films, it is extremely popular with international tourists. So in this particular area, a tribal member will ride out on his horse to a point for a “Western” photo. They also offer trail rides there.
As we looped back around and approached the vendor area, we spotted some of the trail horses. They are quite friendly, and one of them walked right up to Hector on the passenger side of the car. Adorable.
We extended our stay a couple of nights while I did laundry and other chores and Hector took it easy, trying to make up for overdoing it for a few days.
But we came to Monument Valley to photograph the Milky Way and the mission was accomplished!