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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Should you take a tour at Monument Valley?
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.
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.
Our backcountry tour took us to rock formations and arches with names like Thunderbird, Sleeping Dragon, and Ear of the Wind.
We stopped in a half-cave to listen to pan flute music and see ancient Anasazi petroglyphs.
We saw rock formations that have featured in TV commercials and movies, including the bit of rock Tom Cruise climbed up in Mission Impossible II.
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.
As far as I'm concerned, taking a tour is a must at Monument Valley.
Modern Monument Valley
It was as we were taking a break from the truck near the Totem Pole rock formation that Loyal started going into modern Navajo politics, telling us about the tension that exists between the tribal elders and the modern development that's threatening to change Monument Valley forever.
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.
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.
Loyal 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.
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.
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 and listen.
How to visit Monument Valley
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 is 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?