Before our visit to Monument Valley, I had no idea it was going to be one of the highlights of the road trip for me.
The approach to this famous area is through desert land, but nothing quite prepares you for the sight of the iconic mittens rocks looming in the distance. The landscape here is the traditional backdrop for many cowboy movies. I love cowboys – that rugged, handsome, stubbleyness gets me every time. Cowboys are pretty intrinsic to Monument Valley, and yet I was certain that we wouldn’t see any, so I didn’t think it would be much to look at. Plus, by this point in our trip we had seen a fair old few red rocks. There is a limit.
Where is Monument Valley?
Monument Valley is on the Utah-Arizona border, within the territory of the Navajo Reservation. Encompassing approximately 30,000 acres, the land is noteworthy for its incredible sandstone buttes, which reach as high as 1,000 ft.
The expansive countryside embodied the untamed potential of the western frontier so vividly it has become the iconic image of the west. Ford’s discovery of Monument Valley was crucial in piecing together his image of the frontier — a vision which has become the defining portrait of the American West.
We had splashed out on the Gouldings Lodge, mainly for the view! Goulding was the guy who apparently inspired John Ford to use Monument Valley for his movie Stagecoach, which is the movie that kickstarted John Wayne’s career. After Stagecoach, many more of John Ford’s movies starring John Wayne were filmed in Monument Valley, and each time he stayed in Goulding’s Lodge, in a cabin that is now a museum.
You can visit John Wayne’s cabin and see photos and movie memorabilia. I think entrance is included if you’re a guest of the hotel and extra if you’re just passing through.
There are so many iconic views of Monument Valley. We drove past it in the evening to get the Forrest Gump shot. The kids, crotchety in the back of the car, were just ready for their tea, so we decided to leave the tour of the Valley itself until the morning.
Should I get a tour or drive myself through Monument Valley?
In our hotel we discovered there are a few options for touring Monument Valley. You can ride in the open sided trailer of a truck, in rows with other tourists, or you can go in a smaller tour with just your family in the same kind of vehicle. Each of the tours last from 2.5 to eight hours, with extras such as meeting Navajo people or lunch – the more extras you pack on, the more expensive it is (and the longer the tour). The tours started at about $70 per adult/ $50 per child.
You may not be surprised to read that we drove ourselves. It costs $20 per vehicle (up to four people) to enter the park. Once you pay this fee, you can come and go as often as you like. You are handed a map, and set off into the dusty, bumpy landscape to tour the Valley.
As you drive around, there are various butte and mesa (table) rocks to look out for. I found it interesting to read that the rocks were called things like “the three sisters” and while they absolutely did look like catholic nuns, wearing habits, I doubt that the Navajo had the frame of reference to call the rocks that name. Another named “the camel” had me wondering again.
How long does it take to drive Monument Valley?
We drove the 17 mile loop in about two hours. The tours I mentioned above take you off road and further into the valley. The boys loved jumping in and out of the car at the various points to get a photo with the rock behind them.
However, if you are short on time and money, I would suggest skipping driving the loop altogether. Here’s a photo we took at the Navajo visitor centre:
From the visitor centre you have a clear view of the “mittens” (do you see the two lumps of rock centre and left? They are the mittens, with the thumb section sticking up). You can get the Forrest Gump shot without going in – head towards Mexican Hat away from Monument Valley.
The visitor centre held the gift shop and a gallery showcasing Navajo art. We learned about traditional dwellings and other little facts about the Navajo. Interestingly enough, the Burger King we had stopped in the day before also had a small museum display about Navajo in movies, which was a good way to pass time while waiting for our meals!
Also in the visitor centre, kids can dress up in cowboy costumes, and there are several opportunities for adults to try on (and buy) ten gallon hats!
Monument Valley was a great stop for us on our road trip. You can read more about our time in the States, as well as see how much our road trip really cost.