Icon of the Old West: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, AZ & UT

Sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires rise majestically from the desert floor. Monument Valley offers the quintessential Western backdrop made famous in movies directed by John Ford.

Photographers line up with tripods for late afternoon photos near the Navajo Tribal Park Visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An unpaved, and at times rough, road loops through the park. Several overlooks offer spectacular views of the wonders of Monument Valley.

One of the grand  est—and most photographed—landmarks in the United States, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is a sprawling, sandy preserve that straddles the border of northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah.

The tribal park preserves the Navajo way of life and some of the most striking and recognizable landscapes of sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires in the entire Southwest.

The area is also known for dramatic, mesmerizing lighting, with the sun illuminating the towers and casting long shadows on the valley floor.

Monument Valley’s towers, which range in height from 400 to 1,000 feet, are made of de Chelly sandstone, which is 215 million years old, with a base of organ rock shale. The towers are the remnants of mesas, or flat-topped mountains. Mesas erode first into buttes like the Elephant, which typically are as high as they are wide, then into slender spires like the Three Sisters.

The area is entirely within the Navajo Indian Reservation near the small Indian town of Goulding, established in 1932 as a trading post, and now with a comprehensive range of visitor services including a recreational vehicle park with full hookups.

The Goulding Trading Post established in 1932 is worth a visit. A full-service RV parks is located nearby. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers, with names like the West Mitten, Gray Whiskers, Elephant, and Three Sisters, drew the attention of director John Ford, who featured them in the John Wayne westerns Stagecoach (1939) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). They also have played a part in the more recent movies, Thelma and Louise (1991) and Forrest Gump (1993).

Today, Monument Valley is still a popular backdrop for films and postcards—as well as the ancestral home of the Navajo people, who still reside here today as part of the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American reservation in the United States.

Visitor Center

Start at the visitor center and take in the panoramic view of the world-famous Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. You’ll also find information on self-guided tours, a restaurant with native Navajo cuisine, and a gift shop.

Guided jeep tours led by Navajo tour operators are available at the center—giving you the best view available of some of the most notable landmarks in Monument Valley. Navajo-guided tours also provide access to hidden wonders and a glimpse at an ancient culture.

Driving it

Or for a nominal fee visitors can tackle the rugged 17-mile loop drive across the valley floor unescorted. The park road winds past the valley’s best red rock buttes and spires, with 11 stops for photos. Allow at least two to three hours at the posted 10 mph.

The dirt road can be driven in a sedan if the weather is good and you’re careful. But sport-utility vehicles are preferable due to their high clearances. The road is rough, so you’ll need to skirt the rocks that threaten your oil pan and to drive steadily through patches of sand to avoid getting stuck.

Expect to eat the valley’ orange dust, because other vehicles will kick up thick clouds of it during the dry weather that you’ll find in this high desert most of the year.
Watch out for the area’s hard but infrequent rainstorms, which can make the road virtually impassable.

Travel tips

Some of the most striking and recognizable landscapes of sandstone buttes, mesas, and spires in the entire Southwest are found in Monument Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The tribe bans rock climbing, open fires, alcoholic beverages, and the removal of rocks or artifacts. It also reminds visitors to respect the privacy of the Navajos and to ask permission and expect to pay a gratuity before photographing a Navajo. Off-trail hiking is permitted only with a hired tribal guide. Drinking water is unavailable beyond the visitor center.

Photo tip

The best stops for photographing the towers are the Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Camel Butte, The Hub, the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei, Sand Springs, Artist’s Point, North Window, and The Thumb.

The best times for photos are dawn and dusk when the shadows lengthen and the sun brings out the reds and oranges in the buttes.

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Details

Operating Hours: May-September, 6:00 a.m. -8:30 p.m.; October-April, 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

Time zone: Unlike Arizona the Navajo Nation observes daylight saving time

Admission: $5/person

Elevation: 5,564 feet

Size: 91,696 acres

Location: Along the Utah/Arizona state line just east of Highway 163, about 22 miles southwest of Mexican Hat, Utah and 24 miles north of Kayenta, Arizona

Camping: $10/night (dry camping, but what a view)

Address: PO Box 360289, Monument Valley, Utah 84536

Contact: (435)727-5874/5879/5870

Worth Pondering…

But can’t you hear the wild?

It’s calling you.

Let us probe the silent places,

Let us see what luck betide us;

Let us journey to a silent land I know.

There is a whisper on the night wind,

There’s a star agleam to guide us,

And the wind is calling,

calling.

Let us go.

—Robert Service

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