Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
Anyone who is a cowboy movie fan has seen pictures of Monument Valley. It was originally shown to the world by Director John Ford who used the location for a number of his best-known films. Now it is a popular feature of Instagram. So, is it worthwhile to visit? My answer is definitely yes but international visitors will have to wait for the country to open up fully after the Covid19 shutdown.
It is located on the Arizona-Utah border in the USA and lies within the territory of the Navajo Nation Reservation. Because of this, it is not officially a National Park but the area that is most visited by tourists is known as Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The main features are clusters of vast sandstone buttes, the largest reaching 300 m above the valley floor.
Monument Valley isn’t close to anything. The nearest airport is in Flagstaff some 300 km away but most international visitors end up renting a car from Las Vegas (640 km away) or Phoenix (500 km away) and driving to the Valley. Access to the Tribal Park is from US163 and you need to pay an entrance fee.
This takes you to the Visitor Centre and the View Hotel and also allows you to drive Valley Drive. Organised tours, which you pay extra for, provide access to other parts of the park.
You can access this unpaved road in your own vehicle or take a tour with a Navajo guide. The drive is 27 kilometres long and typical times for the full trip are 2 to 4 hours. The road can become very busy during summer days, with queues at the major overlooks. I recommend early morning at this time of the year as the light is better for photography and there are far fewer people than later in the day. In summer, the park opens at 6 am and at 8 am for the rest of the year.
There is much to see along the Valley Drive. This part of Monument Valley is one of the most impressive large-scale landscapes anywhere in the Southwest of the USA. The best to photograph are the tall spires and thin buttes, and the contrasting smooth orange sand all around.
The initial descent from the Visitor Centre traverses a steep, rocky hillside via a series of switchbacks, then the road levels out and passes by three of the most famous Monument Valley formations; West Mitten Butte, Merrick Butte and East Mitten Butte. Further on, the Three Sisters are a group of thin pinnacles, eroded remnants of a narrow ridge extending southwards from one corner of Mitchell Mesa.
John Ford’s Point is a promontory at the edge of a plateau overlooking a large area of uneven, undulating desert land with several isolated peaks beyond. This is probably the best overlook in the park and has a large parking area because of its popularity.
A permanent Navajo jewelry store is located nearby, and you might be lucky to see an iconic image of a lone rider on a horse standing at the edge of the viewpoint as there are horses stationed here most of the day just for this purpose. This is the site where the famous Marlboro cigarette advertisement was shot.
The road continues from here as a one-way loop past Camel Butte, The Hub, Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei, Sand Spring, Artist’s Point, North Window, and The Thumb before returning to the crossroads near John Ford’s Point.
Lower Monument Valley tour
This is a popular excursion, recommended for people interested in a thorough visual, historical and cultural insight. As well as the regular scenic wonders, you visit a traditional home where you see a demonstration of traditional Navajo rug weaving.
You also get to experience a traditional music performance with either the traditional drum, customary chant or flute playing in one of the valley’s largest natural arch amphitheatres. Most participants return with a new enlightenment and unforgettable memories.
Mystery Valley tour
If you’re looking for something extra in Monument Valley, you might want to explore Mystery Valley, home to labyrinth canyons, sandstone arches, and ancient ruins. This is only accessible with a Navajo guide who will share an insider perspective of this iconic area and teach you about Navajo culture and tradition.
You visit the ancient Anasazi dwellings and ruins with petroglyphs that look like they could have been scratched into the sandstone yesterday. Another feature is walking under many breathtaking arches.
Eating and staying
Inside the park, The View Hotel has rooms with scenic panoramas and they also have cabins. There are also RV sites or wilderness campsites.
The hotel’s View Restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner with a menu of Navajo inspired dishes and classic American cuisine. The adjacent View Express offers deli sandwiches, hot and cold food to take away, and cold drinks and ice cream.
Guided tours to Monument Valley are available from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and some other closer centres.
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