Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Explore one of the natural wonders of the world, by car, jeep or horse.
Along with Zion, Bryce, Arches and Grand Canyon National Parks, Monument Valley, which straddles the Utah and Arizona border, is a destination that’s on just about everyone’s southwest tour itinerary. And it’s easy to see why. A single glimpse over the 150 square miles valley is a memory that will remain with you forever: 3 huge buttes towering 1000 feet over the valley. We’ve all seen them countless times on TV, in movie theatres and in magazines and it’s what many people around the world imagine what the American West looks like. And, apart from the twisting dirt road that snakes around the buttes, there’s nothing to mar the natural beauty of the view. However, there’s a lot more to the valley than the section you can see from the huge visitor center parking lot. If there is a problem with Monument Valley it’s that it’s too popular. By midday the lot is very busy and the Scenic Drive speckled with vehicles, so best to arrive early or late to avoid the tour buses. The sunsets here can be magical, with a deep red glow on the buttes in contrast to the valley floor in shadow. Pray for a cloudless evening.
Even as you approach the park you get the feeling that something special is up ahead. Driving northeast on Highway 163 through Arizona, near the state line, you’ll pass by the gigantic volcanic plug of Agathla Peak, with the great sandstone mesas around Monument Valley in the distance. From the north, south of Mexican Hat the road takes you a spot that is one of the most photographed in the USA: the long straight highway seemingly disappearing into the rock escarpments on the northern side of the valley. It’s worth pausing here just to take it all in.
Do take a look at the Navajo craft stalls at the start of the Valley access road. Whilst there’s a lot of cheap tourist merchandise, some of the items are of very high quality and it’s often cheaper here than in a gift shop in a local town. You’ll be directly helping the artists too.
Once you’re parked up at the visitor center at the edge of the rim you have a choice of things to do. Naturally you’ll first want to stretch your legs and check out the view of the buttes. Then maybe you want to take a Navajo-guided dirt road tour of the valley, including parts that are inaccessible to the public including arches, windows and rock art,. Or, if you’d like to see the park ‘Navajo-style’ then perhaps arrange to do a morning or sunset guided horseback ride into the Valley. The horses know which way to go and you don’t need any riding experience. All of these can be quite expensive but your guide will point out features to you and, if you get a good one, will be happy to discuss the history of the Valley. Booking in advance is advisable.
What many visitors do, though, is drive the 17 mile Scenic Drive which is free of charge (after you've paid the park entrance fee). The road is graded dirt, a little bumpy in places but generally good for any passenger car. Not only will you get a new perspective on the landscape (those buttes are really huge!) but you can visit places that can’t be seen from the rim. The drive takes 2-3 hours with stops and is highly recommended. You’ll pass the Mittens, the Three Sisters, the Totem Pole and sand dunes.
There’s enough to keep you here for a half day or more. The facilities are good, some may say too good now. A hotel and restaurant was built on the rim in 2008, the parking lot was paved and lighting installed. It’s a lot busier now with a very different atmosphere, though nothing can spoil those views.