Monument Valley: The Ultimate First Timer’s Travel Itinerary
Most of you know Monument Valley because Forest Gump ran across America. Pictures of the famous Highway 163 with towering red monuments in the background are sprawled across Instagram, from the park’s 350,000 visitors a year.
What To Expect: Driving through Monument Valley was somewhat shocking for us – and we’d almost compare it to a bit of culture shock. Being from Kentucky, neither of us had spent a ton of time out West and we weren’t prepared for the spectacular landscapes. From the swirling red desert to the towering monuments… it somewhat felt surreal. On our trip through the Southwest, we had already been to the Grand Canyon and we were still overwhelmed by the beauty of it all!
Monument Valley Navajo Park stretches across the 26,000 square mile Navajo Reservation in Utah and Arizona. The entrance to the park is in Utah – but you’ll technically be driving through the Arizona side to see all of the most famous rock formations.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
How Much Does Monument Valley Cost? $20 Per Car**
Park Hours: Hours change with the seasons. Check here.
Is Monument Valley In Arizona or Utah? Both.
Best Time To Go To Monument Valley? Spring and Fall.
Best Hotels: Goulding’s Lodge, The View Hotel
Closest Airport: Page Airport
Can I Use My US National Park Pass: No
**There is an additional $6 a person fee if your car has more than 4 people, and ages 9 and under are free. This cost does not include guided tour tickets. At the time of writing this article – normal private car tours have not resumed. Make sure to book your tickets in advance! (See guided tours below!)
While most people know Monument Valley by its common name – the park also has a Navajo name: Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii. No tour of these fascinating monoliths would be complete without sharing the history of the people whose land you’re driving on!
The first peoples to inhabit the area were the Anasazi Indians in 1200 B.C.E. There is still evidence of their dwellings and pictograph cave drawings in protected areas around Monument Valley. (To access these historic relics – see the Mystery Valley tour below!)
Spanish settlers from the 17-18th century frequently roamed the parts of the desert but there is little evidence that they ever entered or found Monument Valley. With frequent clashes between the Spanish and the Navajo who called themselves Dine, (in English ‘The People’), no outsiders have ever truly settled in what the Navajo considered a sacred place.
- The Spiritual Background of Monument Valley: To the Navajo people, different parts of this region represent different things spiritually. Some spaces between the monoliths were considered ‘doors’ while others were considered the hands of dieties.
The Navajo people did not officially own this tract of land until the late 1920s/early 1930s. That’s less than 100 years!! Now home to the Navajo Nation, over 100 people from the Navajo tribe still live and work in the valley to manage and preserve this natural wonder. Other Navajo Tribal Parks include Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, Tseyi Dine’ Heritage Area, Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park, and Little Colorado River Gorge.
- FUN FACT: Wild horses can still be seen roaming in Monument Valley! The Navajo people help manage the herds that run in Utah Valley, and there are regular ponies belonging to the tribe rounded up in pens near the scenic loop.
With all that the Navajo people have endured over the years due to settlers, please be deeply respectful. Don’t carve anything into their land and practice strict Leave No Trace principles!
Monument Valley Driving Tours
If you’re doing a self-paced tour through Monument Valley – you’ll likely be able to cover the 17 miles of the park in one day. This is what we did and absolutely loved it for our first time there.
NEW REGULATIONS AS OF 2021
At the time of writing this article – the Navajo Nation had just reopened the park. To do the full 17-mile Monument Valley scenic loop drive – you will have to book a tour. Private vehicles are not allowed at this time to limit capacity and protect the health and safety of the Navajo people. Before planning your trip – make sure to book in advance with one of the tour options we’ve shared below. If you’re willing to risk getting a tour or not, you can also potentially get a spot in one of the daily tours at the parks Visitors Center. Spots are not guaranteed.
After entering the park from Highway 163, visit the visitors center to pay your $20 visitors fee. Take a moment to walk around and look at the exhibits featuring local geology and Navajo culture!
You may then start your driving tour of Monument Valley past The View Campground.
P.S. Something we loved about visiting Monument Valley that you’ll notice right away: it’s not corporate. Even with the sheer volume of people who visit every year – it’s still a local feeling operation and feels like one of the more authentic American experiences!
- Driving Speed: We went no more than 20 miles and hour throughout our entire tour. If you’re short on time – don’t plan to rush through. Just see what you can see!
Scenic Driving Points
There is so much to see on the Scenic Loop – you could go back three or four times and notice something new every time. With that being said – there are a few major formations and gorgeous viewpoints that your guide will point out right away! (Even if you’re not with a guide – most of these fascinating waypoints are pretty easily identified.)
These are the 11 major sites to be on the lookout for while driving:
NO. 1 THE MITTENS AND MERRICK BUTTE: The most recognizable and most photographed section of Monument Valley, comprised of West mitten, East Mitten and Merrick Buttes. It’s where we stopped for the first photo in this post! There is a large area where you can park on your driving tour and take photos! Highly recommend having a tripod and a wide-angle lens!!
NO.2 ELEPHANT BUTTE: Doesn’t look like an elephant but it is MASSIVE! Like the kind of thing you just do not expect to be popping up out of the ground.
NO.3 THREE SISTERS: One of our favorite shots from the trip was at Three Sisters. The sun shone perfectly through three sisters perched high on the hill with a plane trailing close by!
NO.4 JOHN FORD’S POINT
John Ford’s Point is famous for many reasons. It’s a popular horseback riding tour spot, with people getting epic shots into the Valley down below – and also a famous movie scene!! Named after the director John Ford, this scene was in Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and many more!
To get here – make sure you follow the map and take a right instead of following the trail to the left along the main Valley Trail. There are shops and such there so you’ll know you’re in the right place!
- Oljato Navajo Trading Post: Close to John Ford Point is an area with little shops and the histoic national monument ‘Oljato Navajo Trading Post’. While no longer in use – you can still grab a frybread snack from Linda’s Frybread stand closeby!!
NO.5 CAMEL BUTTE: This formation is closer to the road and allows visitors to see striations in the rock. Take a moment to think about how these monuments formed over millions of years!
NO.6 THE HUB: A phallic-shaped formation that you can’t miss. (Insert hand covering face emoji here lol..) This formation is another that’s close to the road and allows you to see layers of sediment and rock that have formed over time.
NO.7 TOTEM POLE AND YEI BE CHEI
Where Are Totem Pole and Yei Be Chei: If you look closely in the background of the photo above – you’ll see the spindly columns of red rocks that form Totem Pole and Yei Be Chei. Totem Pole is farthest to the right and the jagged line of the other column formations is Yei Be Chei.
NO.8 You can also see Sand Spring from this point! Sand Spring is where you can truly experience the red sands of the desert near the parking area for the Totem Pole lookout.
NO.9 ARTISTS POINT OVERLOOK: Driving back away from Totem Pole, head towards the loop and take a right. You’ll pass another giant formation called Spearhead Mesa, and before continuing on the loop you’ll see an offshoot to the north of Spearhead Mesa. This road will take you to the viewing area for Artist’s Point. Named Artist’s Point for a reason – this spot offers picturesque views of the Northern side of Monument Valley.
NO.10 NORTH WINDOW OVERLOOK: After leaving Artist’s Point, continue back towards the scenic driving loop and take a right. The first road you come to on your right will take you to North Window Overlook. Standing between Elephant Butte (left) and Clay Butte (right), you’ll have incredible views of East Mitten Butte and small portions of Merrick Butte to the west.
NO.11 THE THUMB: When you’re done admiring the view at North Window Overlook – head back towards the scenic loop. Before you continue driving, you should run smack dab into The Thumb. As the last official stop on the scenic loop, take your time enjoying this unique formation. As one of the only rounded formations in the park, this is where The Thumb takes its name from!
Booking Guided Tours in Monument Valley
There is so much to see and do – it can be somewhat overwhelming in reality? The sky is bigger than anything you’ve ever seen and if you’re from the East Coast or anywhere in the mountains, it’s an odd feeling being so out in the open.
If you’re not sure about driving through the park yourself – we highly recommend taking a guided tour of the park.
Guided tours of the park can be purchased through the Get Your Guide links below to support Navajo Nation! These tours are only available with Navajo Guides. (These tours are also great if you’re short on time and you want to see the best of Monument Valley in a few hours!!)
- Stargazing Tours – With nothing around Monument Valley for miles – stargazing here is one of the last places on Earth you can really go with no light pollution! See the Milky Way for miles above the purple and red hues of the valley below!
- Scenic Loop Tour (Stopping at John Ford’s Point) – 2.5 Hour Tour – Explore backcountry with a Navajo guide and see landmarks that you can only access with a guided tour.
- Extended Monument Valley Tour & Backcountry Access – 3.5 Hour Tour – Explore deeping into the wilderness of Monument Valley with your Navajo tour guide!! Perfect for photographers – you’ll be allowed extra time at each stop.
All guided tours with Navajo guides will be in open-top guide trucks. 5-6 people can sit comfortably per tour!
Hiking Trails in Monument Valley
Because Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park isn’t a National Park – what you can see is extremely limited. To really get the most of your Monument Valley excursions, most people want to hike and get up close to the monuments. There is only one trail to be able to do that without a Navajo Guide: Wildcat Trail.
- Wildcat Trail – This 3.2 mile loop will take you around Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. This trail is moeratly difficult and will take you 2-3 hours to complete. (You’ll proabably stop for pictures alot!)
A LITTLE GEOLOGY LESSON!
One of the best parts about visiting Monument Valley is the deep red clay and sands that swirl through the desert. Whether you’re hiking or driving – do yourself a favor and really pay attention to the desert around you.
What Are The Rocks Made Of? The rocks are an interesting mix of red, purple, and blue hues throughout the day! These colors are made possible by deposits of different minerals throughout the soil. Iron oxides give off red hues and magnesium oxide gives off purple and blue hues!!
FLORA & FAUNA:
Vegetation of Monument Valley: Juniper trees, yucca, Russian thistle AKA tumbleweeds, and Navajo Tea.
Flowers of the region: Purple Smallflower Fishhook Cactus, Yellow Hairspine Pricklypear Cactus, and Desert Tobacco (White Flowers)
Animals in Monument Valley: Sparrows, Lizards, Rattlesnakes, Desert Cottontail Bunnies, Antelope Squirrel, and Coyote
Other Places To See Around Monument Valley
If you have time to spare, there are other tours around Monument Valley not specifically on the 17-mile scenic loop. For more hiking adventures – you’ll want to book one of the tours below to gain access to off-road hiking adventures.
The 17-mile scenic loop is the most epic part of the area though so if you have to choose between doing the main loop and other tours – you won’t regret doing the main loop!!
- Mystery Valley – Where you can see the petroglyphs from the anceint Anasazi settlements throusands of years ago!
- Teardrop Arch – This tour will be a 2 hour adventure through Horse Shoe Canyon to see Pearl Drop Ruins along with Teardrop Arch. One of the most highly reccomended tours after the Scenic Drive on Trip Advisor!
- Lower Monument Valley – Typically included with ‘backcountry’ tours and extended tours of Monument Valley that we’ve listed below. You’ll get to be up close with Totem Pole and other scenic spots that you can’t do while on the Scenic Loop.
- Hunts Mesa – The best overnight tour!! Camp out, grill steaks and enjoy the views from this 1200 foot tall mesa in Monument Valley!
Leave a comment below if you’ve done any other tours we should include in this first-timer’s guide to Monument Valley!
What To Pack For Monument Valley
Because Monument Valley is around very few other destinations – you’ll most likely be staying overnight. Beyond your normal toiletries, there are a few factors to consider.
- Are You Hiking or Driving The Park? Depending on how you plan on getting around the park, you’ll have different needs. If you’re driving the park, make sure you pack comfortable clothing to be in the car and your normal travel shoes. If you’re hiking the park, make sure to pack hiking boots.
- A Note For Hikers – If you’ve never been to the American Southwest, keep in mind that it’s an incredibly dry climate. Day 2 our lips were peeling because we’ve never been so dehydrated!!! Pack a reuseable water bottle/hydration bladder for hiking.
Regardless of whether you hike or drive the park – make sure you plan to put extra water in the car. We had reusable water bottles that we constantly filled with gallon jugs we kept in the trunk.
- Food: There is not much around the area for miles. We highly reccomend poacking all sorts of road trip snacks to get your through the day!! Get our guide here for the best healthy road trip snacks!!
Another thing to remember – Monument Valley lays in the Utah Desert. The temperature swings in large ranges between when the sun is highest at midday – and when the sun sets. Between these two extremes – you can go from hot to cold pretty quickly! Other items to include while packing for Monument Valley:
- Layers – Plan on at least bringing sweatshirts even in the dead of summer for the evenings!
- Camera or a Go Pro (We took our Go Pro and it was a great choice!!! The air is so clear you’ll get some really stunning shots!)
- Reuseable Water Bottle
Restaurants Near Monument valley
As we mentioned before – there really isn’t much around Monument Valley. Finding restaurants can be somewhat difficult in the more popular months. HENCE the reason we highly recommend packing snacks!! That way you’ll at least be able to tide yourself over until you can grab a meal.
TRADITIONAL NAVAJO FOODS
When you’re in the area, you’ll have the opportunity to try some traditional Navajo foods. Typically corn, beans, and grains are the main staples in Navajo dishes, with a familiar Mexican-style spice profile. What you may not have had before is frybread! Frybread is a slightly sweet cake, similar in texture to a funnel cake without sugar. Use it to sop up all the last bits of deliciousness!
The best places to eat around Monument Valley from closest to farthest are:
- Haskenneini Restaurant (0 miles): Only open during the summer months, this restaurant is inside the Monument Valley Visitor’s Center. They specialize in Navajo and American cuisines.
- The View Restaurant (1 mile): Navajo tacos and plenty of veggies. This spot isn’t necessarily amazing food but it’s close and convenient when there isn’t much else around. (In The View hotel)
- Amigo Cafe (29.3 Miles/39 minutes): We hghly reccomend this spot in Kayenta for breakfast burritos!Expect Native American/Mexican cuisine with no fuss.
- Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant (29.5 miles/40 minutes): A good little crossover between Native American cuisine and American food. Think burgers and breakfast sandwiches on frybread!
How To Get To Monument Valley
Plan to drive into Monument Valley mid to late afternoon from your previous destination. The closest airport is Page or Flagstaff (depending on how many layovers you have – one may be faster than the other.)
- Most people fly into Las Vegas to do a American Southwest Roadtrip. That’s what we did and what we would recommend as far as traveling if you’re not from the region.
If you’re from anywhere close to Monument Valley, flying isn’t worth your time. It’s literally not close to anything. (That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time! It’s absolutely worth the 3-4 hour drive out of your way!)
DIRECTIONS TO MONUMENT VALLEY:
- From Las Vegas, Through Zion National Park, to Monument Valley: Starting in Las Vegas means you’ll take Interstate-15 from Las Vegas all the way to Zion National Park for about2 hours. You can either stop here in Zion National Park in Utah, (which we highly reccomend!) or continue on to Monument Valley for another 4.5 hours.
- Directions From The Grand Canyon in Arizona to Monument Valley (3.5 hours): AZ-64E for 1 hour to US-160 E towards Monument Valley. You’ll be on this highway for almost two hours! Then get off onto Main Monument Valley Road for the last 16 minutes of your journey.
You’ll be driving from your previous destination either from Utah or Arizona and all of a sudden giant rocks rise up in the distance. Signs will start pointing you towards Monument Valley and since there’s nothing else around – it’s hard to miss!
We also recommend booking your rental car in advance. With rental car shortages all across the country – booking a rental car at the airport last minute may be difficult! We booked a jeep months in advance because we knew that it would be difficult to get one so close to our trip.
Since you only need one day in Monument Valley to really experience everything it has to offer – make sure to include these nearby attractions on your itinerary! (Most of these are within 6 hours from Monument Valley so it’s easy to add to your American Southwest road trip!)
- Forrest Gump Point: to get those spectacular shots, drive North of the Utah side of Monument Valley to US-163 Scenic, Mexican Hat, UT 84531. (Click the link for Google Maps directions!)
Monument Valley is also one of our favorite destinations for getting out where there are very few people. There are a few destinations left in the United States that lack the massive crowds that frequent many more popular destinations. If you’re looking for a more private hiking experience – read our guide to the most underrated hiking destinations throughout the United States!
If we were planning two separate trips – we would suggest starting in either Las Vegas or Sedona.
Trip Itinerary Starting in Las Vegas:
- Las Vegas – Get our full 24-Hour Las Vegas Guide here.
- Don’t forget to stop at the Neon Musem in Las Vegas – it was the best part of our trip there!
- Valley of Fire (Off I-15 on your way to Zion)
- Zion National Park
Trip Itinerary Starting in Sedona:
- Sedona – Hike to the Hidden Soldiers Pass Cave!
- Grand Canyon
- Antelope Canyon
After you’ve seen Monument Valley from either direction add these stops to extend your trip!
- Mexican Hat & Goosenecks State Park
- Valley of The Gods – Very similar to Monument Valley but much less touristy. You’ll see the Mexican Hat formation on the way
- Bryce Canyon National Park
The Best Time To Go to Monument Valley
The American Southwest is special in that it’s truly beautiful all throughout the year. The red clay and desert-like landscape mean that no matter when you go – you’ll take stunning photos and have epic sunsets.
For the most comfortable temperatures, we recommend going spring and fall. Temperatures in the winter stay in the 40s and 50s, and temperatures in the summer are usually above 90 most days. Since this is also the most touristy time to visit (school is out), the fall and spring tend to be less crowded.
When we visited in November – the weather was epically beautiful. We are hoping to visit again someday soon in the spring to see all of the desert wildflowers and cactus bloom!
- No matter when you visit Monument Valley – you’ll be sure to have one of the most stunning sunsets you’ve ever seen in your life! Get our guide here for the Prettiest Sunsets Across The USA.
HOW LONG DO YOU NEED IN MONUMENT VALLEY? Most people only need about a day and a half – so it can be part of a much longer American Southwest Tour.
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Until next time friends,