M. D. Jackson has traveled and lived all over the Southwest/Northwest. She visits everything from tourist traps to National Monuments.
The Heart of The Navajo Nation
The Navajo reservation is a sacred land that spans 17 million acres encompassing parts of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. This is an important first statement because, as you cross and visit this land, you need to remember it is a church. Not a church in the traditional brick-and-mortar sense—a church in that the land holds a spiritual connection to the Navajo people.
A trip to Monument Valley is not a trip to a tourist trap or attraction; it is a trip into a 5,000-year-old culture full of tradition. The Navajo people, also called Diné, live in and around the monuments on the reservation. This is their home.
Brief History of Monument Valley
Monument Valley is one of the most photographed areas in the world. Known for its rugged beauty the area is primitively peaceful. Artistic rock outcroppings create a scenic feast throughout the reservation. The drive to Monument Valley is full of stunning red rock cliffs with towering mesas of every color. Photographers will find themselves pulling over to catch views they only expected to see inside the valley.
The formation of these sandstone buttes happened during the Permian period when the area was underwater. Looking across the landscape at the interesting and ever-changing rock formations, it is not difficult to image water across the area. Sediment from the ocean waters formed on the earth. Through natural wind and weather erosion, interesting rock formations appeared. The rock in the area has life sustaining properties. Rock outcroppings in the valley absorb and store water, providing the water to the people and their farms.
"All around me my land is beauty."
— Navajo Saying
The ancient Anasazi people are believed to be the first people to dwell in Monument Valley. Current day Navajos are said to be descendants of the Anasazi. For the Navajo, this area is full of history, tradition, and spiritual significance. The art of sheepherding has been passed down for hundreds of years, sustaining the Navajo way of life. Wool blanket weaving along with jewelry making has helped define the cultural arts of the Navajo people.
Popularity of Monument Valley
Monument Valley became popular in the 1930s when western movies started using this unspoiled area as a backdrop. Many of the area's establishments boast a “John Wayne slept here” type of fame. If you like old cowboy movies, you will recognize the area.
"This place makes it seem like it wasn't that long ago"
— John Wayne speaking about Monument Valley
Driving in Monument Valley
Only 25 cars are allowed in the Monument at a time. Cars are documented going in and out of the valley to prevent people from getting lost and to keep the dust down. We watched YouTube videos and researched prior to this trip.
Good Clearance Is Critical
Most people said “you can do Monument Valley in any vehicle unless it rains”. I wholeheartedly refute that information. The dirt road through monument valley is maintained by the tribe on a minimal level. This lack of paving is intentional to conserve the natural beauty of the area. As previously mentioned this is a spiritual place unspoiled by the modern world.
The road through Monument Valley is treacherous in places, making it difficult for cars. A two- or four-wheel drive SUV or truck would be fine as long as it has at least a foot of ground clearance.
We watched people literally destroy their cars trying to get through rocky areas in the roads. At times our 4x4 truck bounced heavily to get us into some of the more interesting turnouts. The road entering Monument Valley is a steep downhill grade. The hill would be difficult for cars to climb. Although we saw people attempting to drive cars through, it looked horrible.
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Bottom line: Rent an SUV or truck. It’s not worth destroying your car to save the SUV rental money.
Obey the Signs
Throughout the park there are roads marked no access. It is important to keep in mind that the Navajo people live on this land. They have homes here. If you trespass it will most likely be on someone’s property. Please follow and obey all the signs. In certain areas of the park the road turns to rock and in these areas routes are not clearly marked. It helps to keep track of where you are on the map.
4WD Is a Big Plus
The area around Monument Valley is also best explored with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Any place you are not allowed to drive will say no access. Some of the no-access areas can be viewed on various tours of the park. You can also pay to do a tour and avoid damaging your vehicle. Depending on the time of year, tours can run anywhere from $75-$160.
What to Bring on a Tour of Monument Valley
- Water for drinking, hand washing, or emergencies
- Food/drinks (snacks or lunch)
- Toilet paper
- Hand sanitizer
- Clorox wipes
- Folding Chairs (this will be hepful if you plan on stopping for a while)
- Hat (if you plan on hiking)
What to See
The visitor map will navigate you through the monument at your leisure. Go slow, take your time, and let your mind digest the views. The mittens are the two outcroppings that are visible from the entrance to the monument. As you descend into the valley (yes it’s a valley not just a catchy name) you will start to see the valley unfold before you. It takes two hours to complete the drive even though the map looks like it would be a short fifteen minute drive.
Stop at every view point and vista. One of the most remarkable things about Monument Valley is that the views are constantly changing. By the time you get to the eastern side of the monument you can no longer see the mittens at the beginning. It seems like an entirely new world every time you move half mile. The views just keep coming each just as impressive as the last. I could go into extensive detail on the beauty of this area. The truth is your perspective will be your own and you will probably see things we missed. Just know it is worth the trip.
Imagine for a moment that you are in front of a skyscraper. Can you take a picture of that skyscraper standing in front of it? No. This principle is true for Monument Valley as well. The closer you are to the rock, the tougher it is to see. The best view of Monument Valley is from the second tier of the visitor center. I’m not kidding. I shot everything in the valley and to get an overall view, you can’t beat the visitor’s center.
We heard all manner of photography tips and tricks about the lighting in the valley. All the information boils down to this; in the morning you will want to shoot from the east looking west, around noon you can shoot anywhere, and in the afternoon you will want to shoot facing east. Honestly, even the shadow pictures of Monument Valley are cool.
Forrest Gump Viewpoint
The Forrest Gump viewpoint is north of Monument Valley on Highway 163. You will know you are getting close when the speed changes to 35 miles per hour. Watch out for people in the road.
The best view of Monument Valley from this spot is in the morning. It’s a fun place to get a group photo. There isn’t a charge to stop at this viewpoint. There are usually Navajo people selling jewelry on the mesa.
The cost to get into Monument Valley is $20.00. It is the best $20 you will ever spend. The park's open hours vary by season. The Navajo stop letting cars into the valley two hours before close.
Obviously, this is because it takes two hours to drive the valley. Expect to wait in line to get into the park even on a slow day. Get there early or you run the risk of not making it into the park.
Once inside the valley, there are no facilities!!!
You need to bring in anything you will need for the two to three hour journey. By this I mean there is nowhere to buy drinks or food. The only restroom option is a set of porta potties at the three sisters stop. These restrooms were not maintained. There wasn’t any toilet paper. The stalls were pretty gross, and there wasn’t a place to wash your hands. We had toilet paper, sanitizer, water, and Clorox wipes with us. Believe me it saved this trip for me.
Our two dogs were with us on this trip and they went with us into Monument Valley. It wasn’t a problem at all.
You might encounter Reservation dogs on your trip. Most Reservation dogs are Australian Shepherds trained to herd and protect sheep. You may see these dogs traveling together or with the sheep; either way, they should be left alone. None of the dogs we saw were starving; they weren’t wild although they will chase your vehicle.
People talk about “rescuing” these dogs. The Reservation herding dogs are not happy in homes. They need to work and be out herding. Do not remove the dogs. Even if you don’t see the sheep, they are around.
The truth is you can see Monument Valley decently from your vehicle. If I still had children at home, I would take them on this trip. There are plenty of pull-outs to picnic. It’s a great opportunity to teach children respect for the land and the Navajo people. The drive is just bouncy enough to be fun for kids. There is information on the plants and rocks that can be taught as well.
The Navajo nation takes up the northeast side of Arizona. This area is sovereign nation territory. What that means is that the Navajo nation has its own laws. Alcohol is not allowed on the Navajo nation. There are no bars on the reservation. Restaurants and stores do not sell alcohol.
For travelers who want to enjoy a drink on vacation, you will have to head to Mexican Hat, Winslow, Holbrook, or Flagstaff. People often stay in these towns to avoid this law. Also, I have no idea what the penalty is if you get caught with alcohol on tribal land.
These buttes are sandstone and therefore crumble and erode easily. Climbing on the edge of cliffs in the area is dangerous. These Buttes have been known to crumble under people.
As a year-round Arizona resident, I will tell you that I travel with a gallon of water at all times. Should you choose to go to Monument Valley in the summer, be aware that the heat is dangerous! You cannot leave children or pets in a car even for a minute.
Be prepared to survive until a tow truck can make it to your location if you break down. That means carrying lots of water and a cooler with drinks at all times. Air conditioning is necessary. People dehydrate in these areas all the time. It is much better to see the area in the spring or late fall and not have to worry about the heat.
What to Eat
The food you want to find and try is fry bread tacos. We had them at Gouldings resort and it was amazing. If you have never had real fry bread, it’s like a giant beignet. They have fry bread deserts as well.
The single portions at Goulding’s are enough for two people. In the town of Kayenta is a Burger King, McDonalds, Starbucks, grocery store, and a pizza place.
Where to Stay
Every person has their traveling deal breakers. After a few rough Windham resort stays I am no longer camping out in two-star motels. We spent our week at Goulding’s in Monument Valley.
We are not rich, I offset the cost of the room/cabin by bringing the food for breakfast and lunch. The cabins have kitchenettes so this plan worked wonderfully. The cabins are great for families, they offer privacy and room to stretch out.
The only downside of staying at the cabins is that it is about a block from the actual resort. This means you have to drive or hike to do anything like swim or go to eat. From our front porch, we could see Monument Valley. Overall the stay was amazing. Goulding’s also has RV sites.
The View is the hotel that is above Monument Valley. We didn’t stay there but, the people we met seemed thrilled with that hotel. There are motel/hotels in Kayenta 20 minutes south of Monument Valley. Mexican Hat appeared to have some motels although they looked very run down.
© 2022 MD Jackson MSIOP