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An Insider's Guide to Monument Valley

Arizona, Utah

An Insider’s Guide to Monument Valley

Por: Eli Ellison

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  • States:
    Arizona
    Utah

An iconic symbol of the Southwestern USA., Monument Valley is a desert landscape punctuated by red sandstone formations, slender pinnacles and massive buttes straddles the Arizona-Utah state line about 508 kilometers north of Phoenix, Arizona.

Over millions of years, the forces of wind and water have sculpted this starkly fantastic land. It is part of the Navajo Nation, the near 7-million hectare home of the Navajo tribe. Early Hollywood filmmakers brought Monument Valley to the world’s attention with movies like Stagecoach starring John Wayne (1939). The region has been a star attraction for generations of travelers ever since.

What to See

From the park’s visitor center, your first view of Monument Valley is the panorama seen in countless photos and movies. In the distance, rising abruptly from the desert floor, are the valley’s three most prominent monoliths: the East and West Mitten Buttes (so named because they look like hands with separated thumbs) and Merrick Butte. 

The park’s 27-kilometer Valley Drive dirt road runs from the visitor center through the heart of the valley. Though rough and bumpy, the road shouldn’t present a problem for most passenger cars if driven carefully in dry conditions.  

Along the drive, nearly a dozen turnouts afford superb views of sandstone monuments with fitting names like Elephant Butte and the Totem Pole. While snapping photos and stretching your legs, be aware that hiking into the desert is prohibited.

At the most popular stop, John Ford’s Point, browse wooden stalls where the Navajo sell jewelry, pottery and other crafts. The sweeping, dramatic view is named after film director John Ford, who made the valley a setting for several Western movies, including Stagecoach. 

Allow two hours to drive the entire route at a leisurely pace.

The Mittens and Merrick Butte, seen from the edge of Monument Valley

The Mittens and Merrick Butte, seen from the edge of Monument Valley
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Ben Adkison

What to Do

Though Valley Drive is flush with scenic highlights, many visitors long to see more of this magnificent landscape. The only way to do so is on Navajo-guided tours that visit areas off-limits to independent travelers.

On the popular 3.5-hour tours you climb aboard a four-wheel-drive, flatbed truck with seating for 20 passengers. In addition to Valley Drive, you explore the backcountry and see sandstone arches like the Sun’s Eye and the especially dramatic, circular Ear of The Wind. Some guides will even sing a traditional Navajo song to make the experience complete.

Prefer a private albeit pricier tour? Companies offer four-wheel-drive trips in Monument Valley and nearby Mystery Valley that can be customized to focus on special interests like photography and Native American rock art. Guided horseback rides and hikes are also available.

The only hiking trail in the park that can be walked without a Navajo guide is the mostly level 5.1-kilometer Wildcat Trail, which loops around West Mitten Butte. The sandy path typically sees little foot traffic, and you will be able to see the immense butte from all angles. The trailhead is at the edge of the visitor center parking lot. Allow 2.5 hours, carry plenty of water and avoid midday heat in summer when temperatures often top 32 degrees Celsius.

Western movie fans won’t want to miss Goulding’s Trading Post Museum at Goulding’s Lodge. The building, which served as “John Wayne’s cabin” in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), has displays on the area’s film history.

Cinema fans should make sure they view the Monument Valley landscape from John Ford's Point

Cinema fans should make sure they view the Monument Valley landscape from John Ford's Point
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Where to Stay

Basic yet comfortable Goulding’s Lodge was the valley’s only hotel for many decades until 2008, when the Navajo tribe opened the upscale The View Hotel, perched on the valley rim. Both properties have restaurants, small grocery stores and adjacent campgrounds.

If the hotels are full, which is common during summer, find budget motels in the nearby towns of Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah.

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