Monument Valley and the Milky Way

MonumentValley-11MonumentValley-65MonumentValley-32Hector 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.

MonumentValley-1MonumentValley-31MonumentValley-40We 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.

MonumentValley-10MonumentValley-2And just what is the difference between a butte and a mesa? Buttes are towers that are taller than they are wide and mesas are wider than they are tall. Spires of course are tall and thin.

MonumentValley-41MonumentValley-8MonumentValley-35Many 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.

MonumentValley-33MonumentValley-3Interestingly, 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.MonumentValley-37

MonumentValley-5They 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.MonumentValley-7

On our first evening we drove out to a viewpoint off the Visitor Center for a sunset view. It turned out to be quite a fabulous sunset and a great ending to our first day.MonumentValley-4MonumentValley-6

MonumentValley-12In 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”.

MonumentValley-15MonumentValley-13I 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.

MonumentValley-16MonumentValley-19It’s not advisable to stand around for over an hour just after having sprained your ankle but that is exactly what he did. But it was a gorgeous sunrise and he got some awesome shots.MonumentValley-20MonumentValley-21MonumentValley-18MonumentValley-23

MonumentValley-24By the time we got back home, Hector’s ankle and foot were hugely swollen. I continued icing his ankle, rubbed some Arnica on it and he rested for most of the afternoon.

MonumentValley-25The 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.MonumentValley-27MonumentValley-28MonumentValley-29

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.MonumentValley-67

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.

MonumentValley-74I 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.MonumentValley-68

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.MonumentValley-70MonumentValley-69

As time passes the bright arc of stars rises higher into the night sky.MonumentValley-71


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.

MonumentValley-58MonumentValley-57And 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. MonumentValley-53MonumentValley-48

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.MonumentValley-47

MonumentValley-49MonumentValley-43MonumentValley-46MonumentValley-60MonumentValley-45Angel as always was popular with everyone. She is an international sensation 🙂

The scenic drive has a few areas where you can get out and walk around, and one 3-mile trail. We did not venture out very far, but there are lots of great viewpoints that are easily accessible.MonumentValley-42MonumentValley-55MonumentValley-59MonumentValley-51MonumentValley-56MonumentValley-30

MonumentValley-61MonumentValley-62As 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.MonumentValley-63

MonumentValley-64That night, of the actual new moon, it was in fact cloudy. And Hector at that point badly needed to rest his ankle anyway.

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!

~ BrendaMonumentValley-75




36 thoughts on “Monument Valley and the Milky Way

  1. I’ve been lurking along for a bit now, but must comment – Hector your photos are constantly good but these are amazing. Like Picasso maybe a bit of suffering is a good thing 🙂 Have not been this way in a few years, thanks for the memories in such great details and lighting. WOW!

    BTW – we’re off to AK in June – your blog is one we used in planning this trip … Thanks!

    • Thanks for the kind words Jeff! You are gonna LOVE the Alaska trip. Suggest you not rush across Canada too quickly. The Yukon part in particular is sooo good. But then so is Alaska so time budgeting is always key. Any questions or if we can help, don’t hesitate to reach out. H

    • Hi there! Glad you like the pics … ankle aside, i don’t usually stay up all night to get a shot. I’m pretty happy that it actually worked – the wide ones are 3-5 images 17mm / around 26 seconds/ F4 / ISO 6400 then pano stitched in lightroom. Almost like I knew what I was doing! As far as the ankle, I really klonked it. 15 days later i’m still not 100% but at least i’m past the hopping around ouch ouch stage. Went for a very SLOW 2 mile hike yesterday. Even taking it easy by the end of the day the whole ankle aches. But little by little it is getting better. We simply do not bounce like we used to! Miss you! Hi to Paul. H

  2. Photos only get better and better — as we hope Hector’s ankle does! Stunning!!!!! Godspeed, Friends. xo, Joe and Jean

  3. Sooooooo beautiful! Hector is such a dedicated photographer! And it really shows in the amazing pictures he is able to capture. Love, love, love them. Hope the ankle heals up good as new in no time.

  4. Wonderful night sky shots! I am always amazed at Hector’s photos. I do hope you will keep posting when you find your settle down spot.

  5. What fantastic photos! Your choice of surroundings is always so perfect for getting the best shot:) Love the night sky!!! We’ve only seen the sky at its darkest once at a sky watch program in Death Valley NP. Total darkness is quite scary, but that Milky Way was something very special. Great job capturing it:)

    Hope the ankle is on the mend. Glad you didn’t let it stop you:)

    See you later this weekend!!!

    • Thanks, Pam! Ankle is getting better but still swells up every day – ankle issues take a while. Looking forward to our meetup!

  6. Your photos are amazing! Those Milky Way shots are beautiful. I also love the black and white photos at Monument Valley. Hope by now your ankle is fully mended. What you won’t do for the perfect photo. 🙂

    • Thank you, LuAnn. His ankle gets a bit better every day but it still swells up every day – it’s one of those injuries. But he remains determined to get those photographs! Some cool ones are coming up.

  7. Fotos preciosas Hector! Se quedaron en el Gouldings campground? que tal fue la experiencia? Nosotros estaremos alli en Mayo, espero que este igual de bueno que vuestra experiencia!
    Un saludo desde Calgary!

    • Hola, Fernando. Gracias! Nos quedamos en Goulding’s,nos gusto bastante. Parece que el calor esta llegando temprano, así es que prepárense – aunque me imagino que lo disfruten después del invierno. Pienso que les gustaría el “scenic drive” de 17 millas, muy bonito. Que disfruten! Saludos a todos.

  8. Wow oh wowee!!! Spectacular! Persistence indeed!

    (I hope you’re healed up good as new now, Hector.)


  9. Great Milky Way shots, we have been reading up a lot on astrophotography this winter, but aren’t sure when we will actually try it. Hector did really well, kudos for the processor too! Love the b&w photo of the tree.

    • There was quite a bit of post processing involved. Multiple images stitched etc. But the real challenge is finding dark sky, something for foreground, and a moonless night with clear sky. Hard to line all those dominos in a row! Thanks for the kind words. H

  10. Hi Brenda and Hector –

    I always enjoy your photos but am really drawn to those that show the brightness in the night sky … like your aurora borealis, the flashing light of the Umpqua lighthouse and now this milky way in Monument Valley. Estas fotos son tan bells que las palabras faltan para describirlas. Gracias por compartirlos!

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