SW Aviator Magazine - August/September 1999 issue
Monument Valley
by Gerrit Paulsen
The towering red sandstone monoliths of Monument Valley are a well known sight, having been used as the backdrop for countless movies and television commercials. Thanks to such Hollywood classics as Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, the spectacular desert scenery of this remote location has become the definition of the American West. However, these dramatic images only hint at the full grandeur and isolation of Monument Valley. The scale of this country is best experienced in person, as evidenced by the travelers from around the world who seek out this distant corner of Arizona. Thankfully, there is now an easier way of exploring Monument Valley than by dusty stagecoach. This vast landscape is an ideal destination for the aerial adventurer.

Serving the needs of world travelers and Southwest aviators alike at Monument Valley is Goulding's Lodge and Trading Post, located just a few miles west of the scenic heart of the valley. In addition to the Trading Post, Goulding's offers four of the five things prized in a fly-in destination: spectacular scenery, a good airstrip, restrooms, and lunch. The fifth craving, avgas, is unavailable. (Auto fuel burners will be pleased to know there is a service station across the street from the airstrip.) This private airport welcomes fly-in traffic; just call Goulding's at 435-727-3231 and provide them with a description of your aircraft and an approximate arrival time. In turn, they can provide you with an update on runway conditions and will usually offer to meet you with a courtesy van. This is also the number to use to arrange a guided tour through Monument Valley, and overnight lodging or camping reservations.

Goulding's Trading Post has been a fixture at Monument Valley since 1923. The original trading post building is now the Goulding's Museum, housing a collection of movie-making memorabilia as well as Indian artifacts. It was Harry Goulding who first brought Monument Valley to Hollywood's attention, convincing director John Ford that this dramatic, rugged land would be the ideal backdrop for his westerns.

Over the years, Goulding's has expanded to serve the tourists brought by this cinematic notoriety. Goulding's Lodge is the only lodging within sight of Monument Valley, giving each of the 62 modern, comfortable motel rooms a stunning view from the balcony. Be aware that rooms are usually booked months in advance during tourist season (May through October). Visit their web site at www.Gouldings.com for more information.

Monument Valley and Goulding's are on the Denver sectional, in northeastern Arizona straddling the border with Utah. Thankfully the valley's distinctive spires and mesas are clearly visible from many miles away, since the only nav-aid in this country is map and finger navigation. (This is a great trip to justify buying that shiny new GPS!)

Monument Valley is oriented roughly north-south. The southern end contains delicate rock formations and slender spires that clearly don't believe in gravity. Heavily eroded sandstone bluffs are deeply carved with serpentine slot canyons, occasionally punctuated by a massive stone arch. Farther north, the red sandstone monuments become more imposing, growing wider and taller as the valley floor slowly drops away.

Interspersed among the huge stone formations and dwarfed by the majestic landscape are hogans, the traditional homes of the Navajo inhabitants of Monument Valley. (Incidentally, these six-sided dwellings make a great standby compass: a hogan’s door always faces east, to greet the rising sun.) The Utah border marks the northern end of Monument Valley; a westbound turn here, paralleling the border, will put you on course for Goulding's and lunch.

The Monument Valley airstrip (71V) is two miles west of US Highway 163, nestled at the base of an 700-foot mesa. Be prepared for some tricky downdrafts and turbulence, courtesy of this mesa, if the winds are strong from the west or south. The windsock is near the south end of the packed dirt and gravel runway. The runway tends to blend in with the surroundings until you are pretty close; look for the two long rows of motel units at Goulding's Lodge where the paved access road from highway 163 appears to dead-end at the base of the mesa. The proximity of this mesa also dictates the traffic pattern: land uphill (1.5 percent slope) on runway 16, takeoff on runway 34. Field elevation is 5,192 feet; pattern altitude is 6,200 feet, east traffic. Try Cedar City radio on 122.4 (Halls Crossing RCO) or Prescott radio 122.45 (Kayenta RCO) to close your flight plan, or use the phone at Goulding's.

All but the very northern end of the 4,000 by 50 foot runway is in good condition, so pick an aim point just past the approach end. Make your go/no-go decision early, since a late go-around can be dicey. The terrain rises rapidly just past the departure end of 16 to meet a 600 foot sheer cliff face about 100 yards past the departure end. This sandstone obstacle also makes landing down slope on runway 34 challenging, with a strong inclination towards stupid. The runway is crowned, so touching down on centerline is important to staying out of the marbles along the edge. The last few hundred feet of runway 16 (the southern end) are paved, as is one of the three parking areas at the south end of the field, minimizing wear on your prop while taxiing. The paved parking area is sloped, so be sure to bring chocks. If it's windy, or if you'll be staying overnight, park in the dirt and use your own tie downs and stakes, as there are no anchor points in the paved area.

Monitor 122.9 for other traffic, which can be heavy at times. This is a popular stop with aerial tour operators from Las Vegas, Page, and the Grand Canyon. The tour operators, often traveling in packs of several aircraft, usually arrive from the west during mid- to late-morning and depart eastbound in the mid-afternoon. During these times, the parking ramps get pretty crowded with aircraft and with bleary eyed tourists oblivious to your spinning propeller. Also unaware of any danger are the horses who wander freely across the runway.

With luck, your prearranged courtesy van will be waiting for you after landing. If not, there's a phone at the gas station, or you can just walk the quarter mile up the hill to the restaurant. The dining room overlooks the airstrip, with a panoramic view of Monument Valley beyond. Bring patience along with your appetite, as the service can be slow at times. Just relax and soak up the view, or critique the landing technique of arriving Scenic Airlines pilots.

For lunch, I recommend the green chili cheeseburger, served open face with green chili sauce ladled over the burger, bun, and (if you're real lucky) the fries. My wife prefers the Navajo taco: Indian fry bread smothered with taco meat, beans, lettuce, cheese, onions, tomatoes, and picante sauce. After lunch, let all this health food settle by spending some time admiring the handmade rugs in the gift shop.

The walk back down to the airstrip is pleasant, with great views of the isolation that surrounds Monument Valley. As mentioned earlier, the standard departure from the airstrip—winds permitting—is to takeoff on runway 34 down slope and away from the cliffs. Even though this end of the runway is paved, consider using your best soft field technique in order to be airborne before arriving at the dirt portion of the strip. Keep an eye and ear out for tour operators arriving from the west.

The closest airport with avgas is Cal Black (U96), 30 miles to the northwest on the shore of Lake Powell. This is also spectacular flying country, and another terrific day or overnight trip. Be sure to fly over the Goosenecks of the San Juan River from the town of Mexican Hat on the way to Cal Black.

Whether traveling by stagecoach or airplane, the world renowned scenery of Monument Valley is worth the trip. The easy access to good food and lodging at Goulding's makes this a great day or overnight fly-in destination, and a worthwhile detour when heading for points beyond. Don't forget the camera!

Gerrit Paulsen lives in Albuquerque, NM, and has been flying the Southwest for over twenty years. He has amassed more than 4,000 flight hours, first as an Air Force helicopter flight engineer, and now as pilot of the family Cessna 172M. Gerrit holds a Masters Degree in Aeronautical Science, specializing in Education. He works as a Senior Instructional Designer for Lockheed Martin, developing classroom and flight simulator training for Air Force helicopter pilots and crewmembers.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publications and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.