This is big country and, like the Grand Canyon, is primarily a point-and-shoot experience for most visitors. Because this is reservation land and people still live in Monument Valley, most backcountry and off-road travel is prohibited unless you're with a licensed guide. So basically, with one exception, your options for seeing the park on your own are limited. You can take a few pictures from the overlook beside the visitor center and the View Hotel, drive the park's Valley Drive (a scenic but very rough 17-mile dirt road), take a jeep or van tour, or go on a guided hike or horseback ride. At the visitor center, you'll find a small museum and a large gift shop, and, at the View Hotel, you'll find a restaurant with a knockout view. A quarter-mile away from the visitor center there's a picnic area.
Although Valley Drive is best driven in a high-clearance vehicle, plenty of people drive the loop in rental cars and other standard passenger vehicles. Take it slow, and you should do fine. However, if the first stretch of rocky, rutted road convinces you to change your mind about the drive, just return to the visitor center and book a jeep or van tour and let someone else pay the repair bills. Along the loop drive, you'll pass 11 very scenic viewpoints that provide ample opportunities for photographing the valley's many natural monuments. At many of these viewpoints, you'll also encounter Navajos selling jewelry and other crafts. At John Ford's Point, so named because it was a favorite shooting location for film director John Ford, you may even get the chance to photograph a Navajo on horseback posed in front of all that spectacular scenery. He'll expect a tip.
If you're trying to decide whether to take a tour, here's some little-publicized information that might help you with your decision. Most tours don't just drive the 17-mile loop; they go off into a part of the valley that is closed to anyone who is not on a tour. This part of the valley is, in my opinion, the most beautiful. You'll get close-up looks at several natural arches and stop at some beautiful petroglyphs. Before booking a tour, make sure that the tour will go to this "closed" section of the valley. There are always plenty of jeep tour companies waiting for business in the park's main parking lot. If you're staying at Goulding's Lodge, then your best bet is to go out with Goulding's Tours (tel. 435/727-3231; www.gouldings.com), which has its office right at the lodge, just a few miles from the park entrance. Goulding's offers 2 1/2-hour tours ($40 for adults, $27 for children 7 and under), 3 1/2-hour tours ($50 for adults, $30 for children), 5 1/2-hour tours ($70 for adults, $55 for children), and all-day tours ($90 for adults, $70 for children). This company also offers full-moon tours (Sept and Oct are the best months for these). Monument Valley Simpson's Trailhandler Tours (tel. 877/686-2848 or 435/727-3362; www.trailhandlertours.com), another reliable company to try, charges $69 to $72 for a 2 1/2-hour tour ($35-$36 for children 6-12). Sacred Monument Tours (tel. 435/727-3218 or 928/380-4527; www.monumentvalley.net) charges $73 for a 2 1/2-hour jeep tour ($58 for children 11 and under). A variety of other tours are also available.
The traditional way to explore this quintessentially Wild West landscape, however, is from the back of a horse, a la John Wayne. I recommend going out with Sacred Monument Tours (tel. 435/727-3218 or 928/380-4527; www.monumentvalley.net), which charges from $68 for a 1-hour horseback ride up to $286 for an all-day ride.
Because the jeep and van tours are such a big business here, there's a steady stream of the vehicles on Valley Drive throughout the day. One way to get away from the rumble of engines is to go out on a guided hike. These are offered by Sacred Monument Tours (tel. 435/727-3218 or 928/380-4527; www.monumentvalley.net), which charges between $73 and $166 per person for hikes of different lengths. Kéyah Hózhóní Tours (tel. 928/309-7440; www.monumentvalley.com) also offers hiking tours ($100 per person) and overnight camping trips ($550 for one or two people). Keep in mind that summers can be very hot here.
There are two exceptions to the no-traveling-off-road rule. The 3.3-mile Wildcat Trail is a loop trail that circles West Mitten Butte and provides the only opportunity to get close to this picturesque butte. As you circle the butte, you'll get all kinds of different perspectives, even one that completely eliminates the "thumb." Because this is the park's only option for unguided hiking, it's a not-to-be-missed excursion and one of the most memorable hikes in the state. In summer, be sure to carry plenty of water. The other trail open without a guide is the Mesa Rim Trail, a .5-mile trail along the mesa above the View Hotel.
Monumental Sunsets -- Be sure to save some storage space on the memory card of your digital camera (or keep plenty of film in your camera) for sunset at Monument Valley. Sure, these rocks are impressive at noon, but as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen, they are positively enchanting -- definitely one of the most spectacular sites in America.
Activities Outside the Park
Before leaving the area, you might want to visit Goulding's Museum & Trading Post, at Goulding's Lodge. This old trading post was the home of the Gouldings for many years and is set up as they had it back in the 1920s and 1930s. There are also displays about the many movies that have been shot here. The trading post hours vary with the seasons; admission is by donation.
Inside Kayenta's Burger King, which is next door to the Hampton Inn, there's an interesting exhibit on the Navajo code talkers of World War II. The code talkers were Navajo soldiers who used their own language to transmit military messages, primarily in the South Pacific.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.