Monument Valley (or Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii in Navajo, which means “valley of the rocks”) is a region of the Colorado Plateau. The Anasazi Indians were the first people to live in Monument Valley, residing in caves and building large villages around 1200 BCE. The Navajo (who are related to the Apache) came later and built hogans out of logs and mud. The Navajo still occupy Monument Valley today, living from farming (sheep, goats and herd cattle) and tourism.
Monument Valley is said to be one of the most photographed places on earth – although this is a little hyperbolic, as the tribal park gets about 350,000 visitors a year – less than 10% of Grand Canyon visitor numbers and 2.2% of the most-visited park in 2021 (Blue Ridge Parkway). The valley was popularized by director John Ford, who made Monument Valley one of the most familiar landscapes in the United States when he “discovered” it in the 1930s as a movie location. The valley has been the backdrop for many iconic American movies of all time, including Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Forrest Gump (1994).
You can stop along the highway north of Monument Valley at Forrest Gump Point (37°06’09.5″N 109°59’21.1″W), where after running for more than three years Forrest suddenly stops and decides to go back home.
Monument Valley Drive
The Monument Valley Loop Drive is an unsealed 17-mile loop road that goes past a number of interesting rock formations, and some lookouts that provide sweeping views over the park. (The road is suitable for 2WD drive cars, although there are a few rough sections. There is an entry fee to park which incudes access to the drive. You can also do a guided tour.)
Morning and evening are the best times for the drive, which is open 6am-8pm from May to September, and 8am-5pm from October to April.
The first few miles pass some of the most prominent buttes: East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters.
A short detour off the main loop drive is John Ford’s Point, named after the director John Ford who shot many movies in the area. There is one of the best panoramic views over the park from here.
The loop starts at John Ford’s Point; from here the drive is one-way.
In the distance is the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei.
Next to the road is The Hub, and a bit further on a lookout provides a better view over the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei to the east – two of the more famous sandstone formations in Monument Valley. (Yei-Bi-Che is the name for a spiritual dance performed by Navajo men, and the rock formation is said to resemble a number of dancers emerging from a Hogan.)
Next is Spearhead Mesa, a large and long rock formation.
Mushroom Rock is also next to the road: the large boulder sits on a very small base.
A short side-trip is needed to visit Artist’s Point, another vantage point which provides spectacular, sweeping views over Monument Valley.
The Thumb is a sandstone pinnacle, which – with a little (or a lot of) imagination – looks like a thumb. You can see the Three Sisters again fom here.
Near The Thumb is another iconic vantage point, with the North Window between Elephant Butte and Cly Butte providing a framed view of East Mitten Butte.
I stop at John Ford’s Point on the way out, where the loop finishes and the route goes back the same way I drove in.
Monument Valley Backcountry
A number of different tours take you into the restricted Monument Valley backcountry; we did the four-hour Dreamcatcher Tour.
Most of the tours initially go down the Monument Valley Drive – but they don’t do the entire loop.
The first few stops are the rock formations that you can also see on a self-driving tour – such as the Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters. A guide provides some interesting information on these.
A longer stop is made at John Ford’s Point.
After John Ford’s Point the tours leave the Valley Drive, taking one of the unsealed roads closed to the public. There’s more spectacular buttes and rock formations, and a few more stops to take photos.
Like the Grand Canyon a few days ago, it’s hard to capture the incredible scenery.
Along the route is “Big Hogan”, a cave with a natural arch eroded in the sandstone, named from its resemblance to the inside of a hogan (a Navajo dwelling). Our guide plays a haunting melody on a flute, as we lie back and look up at the hole or arch in the cave.
Sun’s Eye is a natural arch and the site of native American petroglyphs.
There’s more photo opportunities – the evening tours include a dinner under the stars, with Native American dancing, flute playing, drumming, chanting, and storytelling around a campfire .
There are many different tours you can do – some take you around the main valley (which you can self-drive) and others into the different restricted areas (which you can only do on a guided tour).
Valley of the Gods drive
About 38 miles (61km) from Monument Valley is the Valley of the Gods drive. It’s not part of Monument Valley, but offers similar scenery – and being BLM land (rather than an Indian reserve) it offers camping and less restrictions on where you can go. The A 17-mile dirt road winds through the valley, and while a 4WD is recommended you can get through in a 2WD vehicle if you have a bit of clearance (unless it’s been raining).
The road is pretty rough, but it’s well worth doing this drive – it’s much less crowded than Monument Valley, and offers some spectacular scenery. Valley of the Gods was used as a filming location for the 1984-1987 show Airwolf (where a mesa was used as the secret hiding place for the super-helicopter Airwolf) and two episodes of the Doctor Who were filmed here.
Allow a couple of hours for the drive – partly because there are a few washes and rough sections of road that you need to cross, and partly because of frequent stops to admire the views!
The scenery keeps getting more spectacular as you continue along the road.
If you’re driving clockwise, the most unusual rock formations are on the second half of the route, when you go round the narrow but imposing Castle Butte, and past Battleship Butte, Frankin Butte, Rooster Butte and Setting Hen Butte (the last two not really looking at all like chickens, in my humble opinion!).
There’s may be water in some of the larger washes after rain; the road becomes impassable to all card after heavy rain, and is 4WD only if wet.
Toward the end of the drive there’s a great view over Valley of the Gods, with many of the distinctive rock formations and buttes of Monument Valley visible in the distance.
Hiking in Monument Valley
There’s only one hiking trail in Monument Valley, which starts from near the Monument Valley Tribal Park Visitor Centre and View Hotel.
A self-guided trail in Monument Valley into one of the most scenic areas. There’s constant and ever-changing views of some of the most famous rock buttes in the park. Early morning or late afternoon is best – especially in Summer when the middle of the day should be avoided.
Distance: 4mi / 6.3km return. Allow 2-3 hours.
Getting to Monument Valley
Monument Valley lies within the territory of the Navajo Nation, a Native American reservation in the Southwestern United States on the Utah-Arizona state line. It’s a 175mi / 280km drive from Flagstaff (the closest airport) or 320mi / 515km from Phoenix (the closest international airport).
Accommodation in Monument Valley
Within the Monument Valley Tribal Park is the newer View Hotel, inside which is the Monument Valley Tribal Park Visitor Centre. It’s in easy walking distance to the hiking trail and near the start of the Valley Drive and many tours start from here.
A short drive away is Gouldings Lodge, which has a long history: it dates back to 1921 when Harry Goulding and his bride Leone purchased 640 acres of property here, and operated a trading post. Goulding attracted the attention of Western movie director John Ford and actor John Wayne, and over a few decades many movies were filmed in the area. Gouldings Loge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
When to visit Monument Valley
It’s best to visit Monument Valley anytime except the Summer months, when it gets very hot. Although early spring (late March / April) and late autumn (end of September/October) is often considered the best time to visit, winter is also a great time when there’s a chance of snow and cool daytime temperatures.
- Navajo Nation – Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
- Wikipedia – List of appearances of Monument Valley in the media