On the Trail of Western Movie-Making in Utah and Colorado

Monument Valley: An Iconic Shot

I’m feeling a little sentimental these days. Lately this golden season has flooded me with memories of two significant trips I took in the West at this time of year. The first occurred eleven years ago when I discovered the penetrating red rock landscapes of Moab, Utah during a road trip with the goal of where to settle in the West. The second happened in Monument Valley when I accompanied my parents on a trip-of-a-lifetime through southern Utah and then down to the Grand Canyon. (Visiting the Canyon had always been a dream of father’s—little did he know he’d end up marveling at the awe-inspiring monuments of Monument Valley just as much.)

Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab

At each of these high desert destinations, I felt and continue to feel humbled by the panoramic vistas seemingly painted in every shade of red throughout this arid land. Here buttes, spires and pinnacles tower over you as though nature’s standing guard in what sometimes looks like one of America’s last great frontiers. It’s no wonder some of the most iconic images of our country may be found in Moab and Monument Valley, Utah. The greatest westerns ever made were filmed here, specifically at two lodges that continue to pay tribute to the rich history of movie-making that occurred around their properties:  Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab and Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley. The landscapes at and surrounding these ranches have, in fact, been so well preserved that movies, TV shows and commercials continue to be filmed here today. (Johnnie Depp was just at Goulding’s last spring filming the new version of “The Lone Ranger.”)

I recently revisited Red Cliffs Lodge, the first time in eight years, and was thrilled to see that every part of this fine resort has been refreshed and refurbished without sparing a splinter of its Old West feel. Situated alongside the Colorado River, the setting here is more lush and verdant than you’d ever see in a dusty old western flick. But indeed, John Ford discovered the rugged beauty of Moab’s Canyonlands in the late forties and filmmakers have been coming back here ever since. The Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage, housed downstairs from the main lodge at Red Cliffs, provides a fascinating recap of the tradition of western movie-making in the area along with one hundred years of cowboy history. The first major motion pictures including “Rio Grande,” “Wagon Master” and “Cheyenne Autumn” filmed in the area were set at Red Cliffs Ranch. More recent movies turned in the vicinity include “City Slickers” and “Thelma and Louise,” and you can find memorabilia from those productions within this lovely museum as well.

Come nightfall, I indulged in a char-broiled, juicy steak from Red Cliffs’ Cowboy Grill as I sat and gazed at the surrounding monoliths of red rock backlighted by the glow of the moon. The service at the restaurant—and all other areas of the lodge—was excellent and as I sipped my robust Cab, I couldn’t help thinking this is my idea of a real Western vacation. Authentic and luxurious in all its simplicity—why, I was ready to settle in here for a week or more. I only spent a night, however, and didn’t even have time for a trail ride on one of their fine-looking steeds, but boy did I feel some of the wonder of the Wild West. Hollywood couldn’t have created a better backdrop.

Travelers often combine a visit to Moab with Monument Valley, about a few hours-drive away. Goulding’s Lodge  is equally as Western and decidedly more Native American. Their Goulding’s Trading Post Museum offers you the opportunity to see what life was like back in the old days when Mike Goulding first began trading with the Navajos long before this area became such an important film-making and tourist destination. Native American crafts such as weavings and pottery are showcased here within the original trading post locale. You can even visit an on-site hogan to see how weavings are made and purchase fine quality jewelry and crafts from their gift store. Traditional Navajo specialties (with fry bread and beans) and other hearty dishes are served in Goulding’s Stage Coach Dining Room by local Navajos; here you also delight in expansive views of red rock landscapes that stretch as far as the eye can see.

Films are shown nightly featuring the colorful history of the ranch and its significance as the western movie-making destination of the U.S., a tradition largely attributed to Mr. Goulding who tracked down John Ford in Hollywood to show him pictures of the views outside his property. All this—from the making of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” to interior shots taken in Hollywood studios—is widely documented in photos and artifacts on display in the museum, a must-see for western movie aficionados and errant travelers alike. Be sure to leave lots of time, since it’s fascinating.

You’ll feel like you just stepped onto a movie set a short drive away amid the most renowned monuments of Monument Valley. I took a tour through this sacred land a number of years ago—arranged by Goulding’s—and was mystified by the depth and grandeur of what lies within the heart of the Valley. This, too, is highly recommended although be prepared to weather a sandstorm or two—that’s just part of life in the West!

Reliving the memories of these sun-baked travels across some of America’s most awe-inspiring landscapes is making me feel almost as though I’m there. I will never forget how I felt when I first discovered these lands—all a geologist’s dream—and fortunately each time I return, they stir the same vast range of emotions within me. That’s the power of the West. And as Hollywood discovered, some of the best all-time Western scenes may be experienced in southwestern Utah, most especially in Moab and Monument Valley.

Monument Valley Sunset

Fall is a great time to go to these prized tourist destinations since there are fewer tourists, the temperatures are cooler and the autumnal glow renders the red rocks even more impressive. If you’re an active traveler, consider doing the Fisher Tower hike and/or the Negro Bill Canyon hike in Moab. Hiking in and around Monument Valley is most often done in the company of a guide.

To complete your tour of western movie-making history, plan a stay at the Rochester Hotel in Durango, Colorado, a lovely establishment, known as the Hollywood of the Rockies. The Rochester provides accommodations in the spirt of the Old West as it pays homage to the history of western-movie making within the Four Corners area throughout its cozy interior. Read what I have to say about this Western gem at Durango, the San Juan Skyway and the Western Movie Culture of the Four Corners Region According to Fred Wildfang.

For another lodging recommendation in Moab, read Sweet Sorrel:  A Wonderful Destination Resort in Moab.

Happy trails to you!

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