This is big country and, like the Grand Canyon, 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 can see scenes straight out of Ford’s movies with John Wayne. To the southwest, for instance, are Mitchell and Gray Whiskers buttes, so prominent in The Searchers. To the northeast stands West Mitten Butte, which figures in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Farther along the 17-mile loop drive that leads to and around Rain God Mesa, take the spur road about a mile beyond Lookout Point to catch a view of East Mitten Butte and Merrick Butte; you’ll be on the same spot that the storied vehicle bearing John Wayne and company traveled in Stagecoach.
There are two exceptions to the no-traveling-off-road rule. The 3.3-mile Wildcat Trail is a loop hiking trail off Highway 163 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.” Be sure to carry plenty of water. Be aware that the loose sand can make for a difficult slog, so wear good hiking boots, not casual shoes. The other trail open without a guide is the Mesa Rim Trail, a .5-mile trail along the mesa above the View Hotel.
Please be aware that rock climbing is not allowed on Navajo tribal land.
Taking a Tour
If you’re trying to decide whether to take a tour, here’s some little-publicized information that might help. Most tours don’t just drive the 17-mile loop; they go off into a part of the valley that’s closed to anyone who is not on a tour. There 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 (www.gouldings.com; tel. 435/727-3231), which has its office right at the lodge, just a few miles from the park entrance. Goulding’s offers tours ranging from a few hours to a full day, costing from $60 to $135 (call for more information). Monument Valley Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours (www.trailhandlertours.com; tel. 877/686-2848 or 435/727-3362), another reliable company, charges $69 to $200 for a 2 1/2-hour tour ($35 for children 6–12); a 1 1/2-hour tour is also available, but the extra hour, at only $12 more for adults, takes in a lot more territory. Sacred Monument Tours (www.monumentvalley.net; tel. 435/727-3218 or 928/380-4527) charges $75 for a 2 1/2-hour jeep tour; a variety of other tours are also available. Sacred Monument Tours also offers horseback tours, with a 1-hour tour beginning at $80, a 2-hour tour beginning at $110, and a 3-hour tour beginning at $150 per adult rider.
Because 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. Kéyah Hózhóní Tours (www.monumentvalley.com; tel. 928/309-7440) offers hiking tours ($100 per person), all-day photo tours ($250 per person), and overnight camping trips ($550 for one or two people). Keep in mind that conditions are likely to be very hot in summer. The guides, Carlos and Carl Phillips, are flexible in their hours and glad to plan tours around individual needs.
Attractions 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 it’s 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 Native American soldiers, including many young Navajos, who used their own languages to transmit coded messages, primarily in the South Pacific.
Monument Valley is photogenic at any time of day, but especially at sunset, when the lengthening shadows make for a nice play of light with the spires and buttes. Drive along U.S. 163 about 5 miles north of Kayenta, where the 7,096-foot rise called Agathla Peak, the root of an ancient volcano, looms to the east. It has a nice haunted quality that's especially well served by a full moon, and it’s one of the most memorable vistas in the already spectacular region.
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.