The Monumental Views at Monument Valley.
Whenever anyone thinks of the wild, wild west of the United States past, most likely their first thoughts are of the region where Monument Valley sits. It doesn't matter if you grew up in the United States, or somewhere else in the world, this is likely your first thoughts of what the 'old west' looked like. This is in part due to how much Monument Valley has influenced American western movies. It is a frequent point for filming these styles of movies, and for good reason. The landscapes in Monument Valley are astonishing, and are fitting filming location.
This was a spot I've wanted to go see now for a long time. I was eager to see the many various sandstone buttes that were formed long ago and over a long period of time. They once belonged to the Rocky Mountains, but over time rivers had eroded the area and left nothing but flat plains, sand rich in iron, and a plethora of these beautiful and dramatic sandstone buttes.
Monument Valley can be found along the border of Arizona and Utah. This beautiful landscape falls into the Navajo territory, or is commonly referred to as Navajo Nation. The Navajo tribe owns the largest amount of land in the United States that belongs to a Native American tribe with just over 27,000 square miles of land. It is known as Tse Bii' Ndzisgaii, which in the Navajo language means 'valley of the rocks'. If you know how to pronounce that phrase, props to you. I have no idea how to hell to say it. I feel like Navajo is about on the same playing level of complexity as Icelandic. I'm thoroughly convinced learning the languages in impossible.
Monument Valley is an area of vivid red cliffs, rocks, mountains, mesas, and buttes. On your way to Monument Valley you quickly begin to see surreal landscape unfold before you. It's a pretty barren drive if you are heading from Phoenix as I did. The closer you get, the more amazing the scenery becomes. Eventually, sandstone buttes seem to just be erupting on the horizon all over the place.
It really gives you a feel as if you were entering the old wild west when you approach this area. Aside from the paved roads, modern cars, and stores all over the place, of course.
What to do?
What isn't there to do? There is a ton of things to go see and do in this area. When you get tired of staring at the breathtaking scenery of Monument Valley, there are many great sights to see under an hour away, but we'll discuss those later!
Just in the Monument Valley area, there is enough things to do for at least a couple days in my opinion. If you are short on time, and are trying to find the best way to see Monument Valley, entering the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park would be the wisest choice. Its generally $20.00 to enter the park, and that grants you access to the closest up views of the park. It also grants you access to the 17 mile scenic drive loop and a hiking trail.
The scenic drive offers the best option as far as seeing the park in a short amount of time. I would say expect it to take around 1.5 to 2 hour of driving and stopping to take pictures. The loop gets you up close and personal with this amazing park, and provides some great additional views of the surrounding area. The road gets a bit dusty, so keep your windows shut if you don't want to spend a half hour cleaning dust out from your rental car! It is a pretty well maintained road, most small cars shouldn't have a huge issue with the road, but if you have the option, a 4x4 SUV is always better.
After that drive, if you have time and want to stretch your legs out, there is the Wildcat Hiking Trail, which brings you around the East and West Mitten Buttes . I unfortunately did not get to do this hike, but they say it takes about 1-2 hours to complete. There also is no shaded spots offered on this trail, so lather up on the sunblock!
Aside from the outdoors aspects to this park, there is a visitor center, hotel, campground, and restaurant once you enter the park. For an overnight stay, the best view of the park will be offered at The View Campground. I spent a night at the campground, and really enjoyed the whole experience. I will break down the places in the next section. These are the main things to do within the tribal park itself, and I recommend 1-2 full days to fully explore everything. Not to mention the other places to visit in the nearby area which I will bring up later on.
The Navajo tribe in the area offers tours of more private or restricted regions of the park, but to be honest, I think for what you get already for the park entrance, that is more than enough. If you have extra time and don't mind shelling out sort of an excessive amount of money for a tour, then go ahead!
One other great aspect about this park is watching the sunrises and sunsets here. It already is an area with incredible color, and when you throw in the manipulations caused by sunset and sunrise, the colors of the sandstone formations and sky begin to paint a vivid landscape.
Please be respectful of the Navajo people, culture, and of their land. It is very generous of them to allow tourists to come visit and see the beautiful landmarks held within their tribe. Don't be disrespectful of them, you are a visitor in their territory. Familiarize yourself with the customs and traditions prior to arrival, know what the rules are for visiting these sacred lands.
Where to stay?
For the best overall experience and most scenic view of the valley, I would highly recommend staying at The View campground. If you get there early enough, you can set up right along the predetermined tent spots which border the beginning of the valley.
This was a wonderful experience camping here, it offers a great experience of Monument Valley. They have excellent bathroom and shower facilities a short walk away too. Be prepared to reserve spots here, along with anywhere in Monument Valley in advance. Just a heads up, there are no fires allowed in this campground, and its rather sandy!
The View also has a very nice hotel and cabins to offer up along with the campground. You will be treated to excellent overlooks of Monument Valley every day and night if you stay within the actual park at The View.
More information can be found about The View Campground and Hotel by clicking here.
If The View is booked up, I would recommend staying at Goulding's Lodge. It is outside of the park, but it is a excellent back up option that books up quickly too. You can still wake up to scenic views as well here, but just not quite as close.
I stayed at Goulding's Lodge during my second night at Monument Valley. It was the best quality room/cabin I had during this trip. I wish I was able to stay there another night or two. Not only did it have a kitchen, but it also had a porch, dining room, living room, and master bedroom. It was definitely far bigger than what I needed for my stay. It was a pleasant surprise.
Also part of the Goulding's lodge facility there is a gas station, food market, and mini museum. The cabins at Goulding's lodge offer full kitchens which is where the food market becomes a cost saving benefit.
More information can be found about Goulding's Lodge by going to their website by clicking this link.
Weather and When to go?
The weather in this area can vary quite a bit, depending on the time of year. Since its a desert, and the fact that it is a mile high in elevation, it often times gets cold at night regardless what time of year it is.
These are the hottest times of year, with temperatures ranging from upper 80's to 90's. If you don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen this time of year! During these months, the park is also the most visited.
Spring and Fall (March/April/May and September/October/November) These months of the year are often the most mild, and a good in between for the cold and hot temperatures. I went in April and the weather was perfect. It was about mid 70's on both of my days. I couldn't have asked for better weather! These months also have less tourists traveling to see this awesome park. So at least to me, this is a win/win time of year to visit.
The coldest months of the year obviously, but still the park is accessible! This is also the time of year when the park has the least amount of visitors. It also could provide some epic photographs with snow covering the massive sandstone buttes.
Obviously, pick what works best for you, and your personal preference for travel weather. Factor in whether or not you are fine with big crowds, or prefer a more 'uninterrupted' adventure. Either way, you are still going to be mesmerized by the awesome power of nature displayed in Monument Valley.
What to bring?
This all depends on what you plan on doing while your here, and how you plan on staying. If you are camping, bringing camping equipment! Fires are not allowed in any of the campgrounds I noticed, so make sure to bring either a grill or a camping stove if you intend to make your own meals at the campground.
Due to the lack of any form of shade here, it would be wise to bring plenty of sunblock. If you're like me, I suffer from sun burns quite quickly. It was one of the most important items in my bag. Sunglasses would also be a wise decision to bring here too!
Stay hydrated! Its dry, hot, and sometimes windy here. Hydration is key, leading researchers and travel experts suggest that suffering from heat stroke and dehydration is a great way to ruin a vacation.
A car/motorcycle/ or bike would do best to bring to this area. There are tour buses and ways to get to and from, but your on personal transportation opens up the area to do what you want, and explore the less traveled routes. A 4x4 vehicle would be the preference due to the rough dirt roads that can be found in this area, such as the Monument Valley 17 mile loop.
If you rent a car, be aware that you may be violating terms of the rental agreement if you take any off these rougher dirt road trails. I did it and was fine, but you never know what might happen. Do so at your own risk. (My rental agency was super lousy anyways so I didn't feel guilty about it. Since I brought up my rental agency I'll just throw it out there to NEVER use Payless Car Rental company. I made that mistake once and will not again.)
Aside from these major items, the typical travel gear would also be necessary. Just prepare for a dry, hot, windy, and sandy environment!
Also one other big thing of note, if you intend on doing any drinking or partying while in Monument Valley, bring your own alcohol. The Navajo Nation is a dry reservation, and there is no alcohol sold within it's boundaries, so plan ahead. I did some further reading on this topic and have found out that it is technically prohibited to bring any alcohol in general to the Navajo Nation territory. It will likely be okay if you consume it discreetly and in private. So obviously, no big keggers in the middle of the desert.
Other areas to see
While you're down in this scenic portion of the United States, which pretty much entails 4 states, why not check out some of the other great sights too! There is a lot to see within a two hour drive from Monument Valley, take advantage of this great opportunity and go check some of the spots out.
My favorite destination outside of Monument Valley that I stopped at was Muley Point. Head north east from Monument Valley for about a hour to reach this destination. You will be driving along the highway until you notice a massive cliff that the road your on seemingly stops at. Once you reach the cliff you will discover a multitude of switchbacks leading up the very steep cliff side. This is an thrilling drive both up and down, and I recommend not sitting on the side of the car near the cliff edge if you are afraid of heights and falling. There isn't a whole ton of room for error on this loose rock road.
The view from Muley Point is inspiring. I had a blast just driving up the switchbacks. The view point overlooks the San Juan River valley and the canyon that the San Juan River is slowly carving away. You can see for quite a distance here. It's a great spot for a quick lunch! The dirt road out to the view point may become impassable if there is rain, so beware!
On your way to Muley Point you will also drive through the town known as Mexican Hat, which while you are driving, you will obviously spot out the reason why this town is called Mexican Hat.
Goosenecks State Park
Goosenecks State Park is somewhere else you should stop to see. Its like Horseshoe Bend without the 200+ visitors. It's not quite as colorful, but its still a pretty cool sight to see, plus you can climb around over the cliff edge. What's more fun that crawling around on steep cliff sides?! This is also part of the San Juan River canyon which you will see at Muley Point.
Valley of the Gods
Another scenic loop that is actually found right at the base of the Muley Point cliff. An easy two birds with one stone adventure! The Valley of the God's is a very beautiful scenic 17 mile drive on a gravel road. Do not attempt this trail if there has been significant rain. The road takes some time to drive through, but it brings you through a massive valley of sandstone buttes and other formations.
To top it off, its free! There are no service points, and the area is pretty much not developed or touched by humans aside from the road. Try to avoid being stranded in the middle of this loop! Its a long walk back in the high desert heat.
If you are really feeling adventurous, and have the spare time, I recommend taking off towards Shiprock, New Mexico. While Shiprock is a town, it is named after the massive rock or monadnock that juts out of the ground at around 1,600 feet. A monadnock is a isolated formation that rises abruptly from a rather level region.
Shiprock is a dramatic and impressive sight to see. Try your best to go during sunset or sunrise for the best views and colors of the sunlight bouncing off the rock.
The dirt roads leading up to Shiprock are a little sketchy...at least in the northern part. I wasn't sure if they were public roads or private. I felt like I didn't belong, but I kept pushing on for a little bit. They are in rough condition and I would only recommend 4x4 vehicles with higher clearance to take these roads, if its even allowed?
It can take awhile to get up close to Shiprock, so plan ahead for slow rough road driving once you get into the region. Just keep an eye out for the massive rock raising out of the ground in the middle of nowhere in dramatic fashion.
There are other areas to see and go to in this region, but these were the ones I had time for. If you are into famous landmarks, I imagine a trip to Four Corners is already in your itinerary.
This area is great to get some awesome night shots. I recommend taking advantage of the opportunity if you are in the area. Of course, bring the necessary gear to do so if you do!
This area is a true spectacle of the old American wild west! This was in my top three favorite destinations on my lengthy road trip through the American Southwest which included a lot of destinations and land to cover.
Come see in person all of the infamous movie scenes and backdrops you have seen at home or in theaters. It's dramatic landscape is alone worth the drive. I don't know how I have gone so long with out making a stop out here! This should be on everyone's bucket list of travel destinations.
More photos from the Monument Valley Area