Monument Valley: A Must-Visit in the American Southwest

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The American Southwest has a lot to offer, from Utah's amazing national parks to quirky Route 66 attractions to ancient pueblos to the Grand Canyon.

But if you ask me for my top must-go place in this part of the U.S.?

I'll tell you that it has to be Monument Valley.

Totem Pole in Monument Valley

First, there's the fact that Monument Valley is one of the most stunning parts of the Southwest. And, secondly, it's got some fascinating history and culture connected to it, too.

In its description of Monument Valley online, Utah.com says this: “Monument Valley isn't a national park. It's not even a national monument. But it's as American as it gets.”

That last sentence makes me chuckle a bit. Monument Valley IS just about as American as it gets – when you define “American” as a rather complex relationship between Native Americans and the Europeans who eventually settled on their land – with a little bit of Hollywood thrown in.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley History

The reason why Monument Valley isn't a national park or monument is because it's a Tribal Park owned by the Navajo Nation. The 92,000-acre park straddling the Utah and Arizona border was the first of its kind ever formed in the United States, run by the Navajo similarly to how the National Park Service runs America's protected lands. Land for the tribal park was first set aside in 1958 after Monument Valley shot into the consciousness of just about every American thanks to Hollywood.

But, let's back up a bit. Hollywood, you ask?

Monument Valley

Monument Valley has always been an off-the-beaten-path destination. Native people have been living in the area for thousands of years – first the Anasazi, and then the Navajo, who still live on the land – but few others ventured into this vast expanse of red soil and sandstone until fairly recently. The Spanish don't seem to have ever found it, and even early intrepid American travelers skipped this part of the U.S., usually heading for the Rockies instead.

They clearly didn't know what they were missing out on.

Monument Valley from above
Monument Valley from a hot air balloon in 2011.

It wasn't until a Colorado transplant living near Monument Valley pitched the area as a filming location that outsiders began to take notice.

In 1938, Harry Goulding (who owned a small trading post on the north end of Monument Valley) took some panoramic shots of Monument Valley to studio execs in Los Angeles. He was almost turned away, but instead ended up showing his photos to director John Ford – and the rest is cinematic history.

John Ford Point at Monument Valley
This is now known as “John Ford Point” because he used to like to direct from here.

Ford ended up shooting seven different Westerns in Monument Valley, including Stagecoach in 1939, which propelled John Wayne to stardom and popularized the Western genre. Before long, Monument Valley became “the West” in many Americans' minds. By now, countless movies, TV shows, and even commercials have utilized the valley's iconic sandstone buttes as backdrops.

Visiting Monument Valley

Elliot and I added Monument Valley to our Southwest road trip itinerary, wedging it neatly between Moab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. Driving towards the valley on U.S. Highway 163, I made him stop a couple times for the iconic “Monument Valley road shot” – you may also recognize this as where Forrest Gump ends his cross-country run.

US Highway 163 in Utah
“I'm pretty tired. I think I'll go home now.”

Forrest Gump location in Utah

We entered the Monument Valley from Highway 163 on the Utah side of the park, stopping at a toll booth to pay the $20-per-car entrance fee. From there, we popped into the new visitor center briefly, had a lunch of some leftover pizza that we brought with us, and then met up with our guide from Navajo Spirit Tours.

Visitors to Monument Valley have two choices when it comes to exploring the park: they can either drive the 17-mile loop road on their own, or they can book a spot on a Navajo-operated tour to see a lot more.

The Mittens at Monument Valley
You can see the Loop Road down there in front of the Mittens.

Even though it set us back $75 per person, Elliot and I went for the guided tour option. Not only does this let you go beyond the loop drive, but it also means you learn a lot more about Monument Valley than you ever could on your own.

We met our guide/driver, Loyal, near the demonstration hogans near the visitor's center. These traditional Navajo dwellings are for display purposes only, but Loyal told us of the hogans that his family lived in when he was younger – because people DO still live in traditional homes like this, even within Monument Valley.

Soon, we headed out onto the loop drive, stopping for a few photo opportunities before heading down the dirt road that can only be accessed by a Navajo guide.

Monument Valley

Our backcountry tour took us to rock formations and arches with names like Thunderbird, Sleeping Dragon, and Ear of the Wind.

Thunderbird
Can you see the Thunderbird in the rock?
Dragon Eggs at Monument Valley
“Dragon eggs” at the foot of the Sleeping Dragon – where's Daenerys when you need her?
Ear of the Wind in Monument Valley
Ear of the Wind

We stopped in a half-cave to listen to pan flute music and see ancient Anasazi petroglyphs.

Anasazi petroglyph in Monument Valley

We saw rock formations that have features in TV commercials and movies, including the bit of rock Tom Cruise climbed up in Mission Impossible II.

Monument Valley rock formations
Tom Cruise climbed “The Cube,” which is the small(er) square rock, front left.

And, the whole time, our guide talked to us about both the history of Monument Valley and the area's current place in the narrative of the Navajo Nation.

Modern Monument Valley

It's as we were taking a break from the truck near the Totem Pole rock formation that Loyal started going into modern Navajo politics, and telling us about the tension that exists between the tribal elders and the modern development that's threatening to change Monument Valley forever.

Totem Pole in Monument Valley

It started, you could say, with Harry Goulding, when he built his trading post on the edge of Monument Valley in the 1920s and then pitched the area to Hollywood. By the 1950s, Goulding's had become a full-fledged motel with a restaurant to serve both film crews and tourists, and today is the hub for most tourism into Monument Valley.

And, while Goulding got along well with his Navajo neighbors (and while it's true that many of them didn't mind being extras in all those Western movies), the fact of the matter was that it was an outsider that opened up Monument Valley to the world.

Monument Valley
The Marlborough Man famously stood in front of that tree.

In 2008, the first hotel opened within Monument Valley. Called simply The View, the project was controversial from the start. Even though the hotel (and then visitor center) were supported by native bodies, the project was really the brainchild of Art Ortega, whose family owns a “trading post” empire that includes gas stations, souvenir shops, and jewelry stores throughout the Southwest. Art Ortega is not Navajo, and the fact that the biggest business in Monument Valley is now technically out of Navajo hands does not sit well with many of the locals who have been trying to build businesses here for decades.

I realize that we were only hearing Loyal's side of the story and that I can't fully understand the subtle politics going on there since I'm a white girl from Ohio, but listening to him definitely made me stop and think. He said that there are many local Navajo who would like to completely restructure how the Monument Valley Tribal Park operates, in order to keep more control and regulation (and money) in Navajo hands.

Artist's Point in Monument Valley

I've written before about how poorly Native Americans have traditionally been treated in the U.S., so hearing such a strong vote for self-efficacy from Loyal actually made me really happy.

Sure, it would make it more difficult for tourists to visit Monument Valley if they set stricter limits on how and when people could see the park. But I personally think it would be worth it, so long as it meant that the traditions and stories of Monument Valley were protected and preserved.

Monument Valley

Because even though many people associate Monument Valley solely with its landscape, the park has so much more to it if you just take the time to look.

Amanda and Elliot at Monument Valley

How to visit

Want to visit Monument Valley yourself? Here are some tips:

WHERE: The only entrance to Monument Valley is off U.S. Highway 163 in Utah, between the small towns of Mexican Hat and Kayenta. It's about 2.5 hours from Moab, Utah, and about 2 hours from Page, Arizona.

HOW MUCH: Entry to the Tribal Park is $20 per car for vehicles holding up to 4 people (it's $10 per person beyond 4). It's free to then drive the 17-mile Loop Road. Backcountry tours are extra.

TOURS: Elliot and I opted to do a guided backcountry tour so we could see more of Monument Valley. We booked an afternoon tour of the valley with Navajo Spirit Tours, which cost $75 per person. The “classic” Monument Valley tour is the most popular, though most companies also offer tours to places like Mystery Valley, Hunts Mesa, and Teardrop Arch if you want to get off the beaten path.

We did not receive any discount or a free tour or anything like that – we paid full-price and I can highly recommend Navajo Spirit Tours. Our guide was both professional and super knowledgable. He also took the nice photo of Elliot and I that you see above!

WHEN TO GO: Monument Valley is open to visitors every day of the year except Christmas and New Year's Day. It's busiest during the summer and school holidays. The morning is great for backcountry tours as you get nice light on many of the arches and rock formations, though the afternoon isn't bad, either (95% of the photos in this post were taken between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.).

WHERE TO STAY: There's only one hotel inside the boundary of the tribal park, and that's The View (which exactly what you'll be paying for). Goulding's Lodge is just outside the entrance and is almost like a small village itself. Unfortunately nothing else is very close. You can stay in Kayenta or Mexican Hat, or check out the Desert Rose Inn & Cabins in Bluff, Utah (roughly 40 miles from Monument Valley).

Have you ever been to Monument Valley? If not, is it somewhere you'd visit on a road trip through the Southwest?

 

Visiting Monument Valley

 

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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39 Comments on “Monument Valley: A Must-Visit in the American Southwest

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  1. I have always wanted to explore Monument Valley, and I know that when I finally head to the South West it will be one of my first stops!

      Good to hear! It’s definitely worth it. That part of the U.S. is just out of this world!

    Beautiful! Absolutely love this area.

      Same here! I don’t think I could ever get tired of visiting.

    Oh, I want to see this so badly! I’ve only ever been to New York and Boston, so a tour of US national parks and valleys is high on my list.

      And the U.S. has some incredible national parks, too! The Utah/Arizona/New Mexico area is probably my favorite – and I think Utah has some of the best parks in the country!

        Do you know of any companies that do tours of US national parks? I know G Adventures do a couple, but I don’t think they go to that area. I tend to travel alone and am a very nervous driver!

          Hey Sarah! Yes, there are a couple companies that do – Intrepid Travel has a Utah tour that looks good (http://www.anrdoezrs.net/links/4317504/type/dlg/http://www.intrepidtravel.com/united-states/utah-parks-circuit-93760), and I would also check out Trek America, which have tons of trips in the U.S. It would depend which parks you were most interested in, of course, but both those companies have tours that visit a lot of national parks out West.

            Thanks!

    Awh… all these beautiful pictures! We didn’t have time for Monument Valley on our Southwest Roadtrip, but we are so sorry we decided to skip this particular place… Not sure what we should have skipped instead though. 😀 But it will definitely has its place on the next one!

      I know, there’s so much to see in the Southwest that it’s really difficult to pick and choose! Part of the reason why I’ve done a road trip there twice. 😉

    This is beautiful! I have travelled along the east coast of the USA, but have been wanting to explore more of the west and southwest. This is definitely a stop to add to the road trip list!

      Most definitely! The Southwest is my favorite part of the U.S. – it’s like another world compared to the East Coast!

    These photos ?
    I’ve been dying to go to the Southwest and this is definitely going to be my first stop! Thanks for sharing.

      This part of the U.S. is popular for a reason! So much good stuff to see!

    Ah, it’s like walking on a movie set – even though I don’t recognize any of the places from the movies it sounds like a lot has been filmed there. I would love to check out the area, but I agree with you that it would be even better if it’s given back to the natives so they can regulate entry to the area.

      Well, they kind of do regulate entry already since they are the ones collecting the fees and operating most of the tours. But a restructuring (where maybe they decide not to let any outsiders build/sell anything else inside the park) wouldn’t be terrible!

      And yes, totally like walking on a movie set!

    I was living in Phoenix this past fall and made the drive up to Page, but didn’t have time to check out monument valley. I’m definitely making time for it during my next southwest road trip!

      Yes, be sure to! Page is very cool scenery-wise, too, but I find that Page is usually also really crowded. You can enjoy the scenery a bit more in Monument Valley!

    Hey I haven’t kept up with your blog for awhile cause a short trip got me out of the habit, but what a great article to pop back in on! I love reading your posts about the southwest, cause for some reason there aren’t actually that many travel bloggers who have written about it. I’ve never been to Monument Valley but in my mind I definitely think of it as the beautiful underrated place that nobody goes to in favor of Zion and Page and the Grand Canyon. I’d love to plan a southwest road trip but there are so many things!

      Thanks, Ijana! And you’re right – there are SO many thing to see in the Southwest that planning a trip can definitely be a bit tricky. There’s a reason I’ve been to this part of the U.S. multiple times! There’s far too much to see in just one trip.

    It’s such an unique place, you can’t find it anywhere else in the world! Truly, one of the most picturesque places I’ve seen. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And your photos are really stunning! The colours and the lightning are perfect. I also really like the composition – you balanced the beautiful landscape with contrasting details. Great job!

      Thanks very much! It’s certainly a great place for photography!

    It’s unbelievable how amazing Monyment Valley is.
    I was expecting this just to be a decent place,but many people disagreed about my opinion,and now I know they were right because it was truly breath-taking.
    From all the trip,I mostly liked ”The View” ,because it was such a nice hotel .
    The only drawback about this place though is that you have to drive a long way, but it was worthy of driving many hours.
    I hope I will be able to visit it again,because it was one of the best trips I’ve ever made.

      I definitely agree that it’s absolutely worth the long drive to get there! Sometimes the best places are the ones that are hard to get to. 🙂

    I have been all over Arizona and Utah yet still haven’t visited Monument Valley or Page…going to fix that next year for sure!

      Both are definitely worth the visit! I love Monument Valley, but there are also some very cool things to see in/around Page, too!

    I am so glad you support and advocate for the benefit of Native Americans. Every summer, I stay with an Indian tribe (this specific tribe does prefer the term Indian) in Montana. I am not going to go into detail about what tribe or location specifically because they are not a tourist destination and I want to honor their traditions. When I go, I stay in a teepee – that’s crazy, right? Their stories will break your heart, and it is pretty surprising what they’ve gone through recently even though you would not think some major issues still existed between the tribe and the government. The sad case is, though, that this is true. So, thank you, for making everyone aware of what is going on in Monument Valley. I really appreciate you’re being candid about what is going on there and how they feel. Like you said, it is only one person’s point of view, but I have a feeling he is not the only one who feels that way.
    Monument Valley is gorgeous and well worth the money. I did not realize there was a guided tour. I somehow missed that information when I went a few years ago. Now, I’ll have to go back!

      My guide definitely isn’t the only one who feels that way, you’re right. Not many bloggers I know visit sites like this in the US (I wrote a similar post about Taos Pueblo), but I think it’s really important! We can talk about injustices going on elsewhere in the world, but there are plenty that happen right here, too!

      And yes, if you go again definitely go on a guided tour of the Valley! You’ll get a completely different perspective on it.

        I always tell my students (my day job = high school US History Teacher) that “Where there are people, there are social injustices. People are not perfect and neither are their societies.” People tend to overlook their own nation’s injustices.
        I am going to have to look at your other post! Thanks for letting me know about it.

    Wow your photos came out much better than mine! My friend and I ended up skipping the guided tour…we were a bit over-budget and the tours were a bit too expensive. Nevertheless, we had a great time! I do wish I had gotten to hear more about the history of the park. Thank you for sharing it with us. Did you buy any chance do the hike? It was strenuous on the way back but very well worth it.

      No we didn’t have time for the hike since we did a tour – but I’d love to do that next time!

    Amanda,
    So glad I found your story about Monument Valley. My husband and I plan to visit in October. Your post has sealed the deal for us to take a tour with Navajo Spirit Tours. I look forward to reading more about your adventures.

      That’s great to hear, Barbara! I don’t think you’ll regret going with a guide – you get to see and learn so much more!

    Hey Amanda, Great article. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I am visiting the monument valley next month. I guess Navajo Spirit tours also have special ‘Photography Tours’ which is close to $300 for sunrise and sunset (per person) as opposed to ~$180 for regular sunrise and sunset tours. I love photography but not sure if it is worth spending $120 extra. Any inputs would help!
    Thanks a lot! Keep blogging!

      I’m afraid I didn’t do a photography tour (or a sunrise/sunset tour, for that matter!), so I can’t speak to which of those might be better. Our Navajo Spirit guide did know about cameras/photography, but if you already know what you’re doing I’m not sure that a dedicated photography tour would be necessary at this particular site.

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