Last updated on November 8th, 2022
Synonymous with the alluring era of the Wild West, a visit to Monument Valley is a quintessential stop on any desert road trip in the American Southwest. From the moment you arrive, a sense of familiarity is suddenly evoked, thanks to its countless depictions and references in popular culture. In this Monument Valley travel guide and sample itinerary, we’ll discover how to make the most of your time in John Wayne country.
I had the privilege of returning to Monument Valley for a second visit as part of an extensive five-week road trip in the American Southwest. This visit was less time-pressured, allowing me to explore additional sections of the tribal park and slow things down. This travel guide and Monument Valley itinerary is based on my experience and extensive research.
With beautifully shaped sandstone buttes rising from a high desert plateau, Monument Valley’s stunning natural landscape is painted in changing shades of red by the sun’s movement.
From the iconic running scene in Forrest Gump to John Wayne’s Wild West films and television commercials, the magic of Monument Valley is already coded into your brain.
Don’t let Monument Valley’s remote location deter you from visiting. It’s the perfect way to spice up your desert road trip, with many gems within reasonable driving distance.
Several sections make up this travel guide:
Check out additional Arizona and Southwest USA travel guides to combine your visit to Monument Valley with additional desert highlights.
All places mentioned in this Monument Valley travel guide and itinerary are marked on this companion map. Simply click on the image to open it in Google Maps.
Monument Valley is not a U.S. National Park but rather a Navajo Nation Tribal Park. As you may have guessed, the park lies on land that belongs to the Navajo tribe of Native Americans. In fact, Monument Valley isn’t technically a valley either. Instead, the “valley” is part of an ancient desert basin, uplifted millions of years ago by nature’s forces into a high plateau. Cracks in the newly uplifted plateau were then sculpted by eroding forces into the sandstone buttes we see today, painted red by minerals deposited in the region.
Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau, so its elevation is high (up to 6,000 feet above sea level), and its temperatures plummet even outside winter months. The area was populated by Ancestral Puebloans who resided in cliff dwellings. When they mysteriously left the region, it likely took centuries for the Navajo to move in.
You would think that the silver found around Monument Valley would catalyze its rise to fame. However, Academy-Award-winning director John Ford is credited with turning Monument Valley into a mirror image of the Wild West. In the late 1930s, the owner of Goulding’s Lodge pressed Ford to shoot his Westerns in Monument Valley. After seeing a few images of Monument Valley, Ford was convinced, and the rest is history.
This section deep dives into the essential ingredients for a successful visit to Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is located in northeast Arizona along the Utah state line. The nearest towns to Monument Valley are Kayenta (22 miles south) and Mexican Hat (23 miles north). Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation, the second largest Native American tribe after the Cherokee.
A visit to Monument Valley is usually just a small part of a road trip, so it’s vital to understand what’s around Monument Valley and plan your driving journey accordingly.
If you’re driving to Monument Valley from Utah after visiting Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, the most scenic way is via Highway 163. Before seeing the rocky sombrero at Mexican Hat, take a detour that begins after Blanding. Head west on Utah State Route 95 and check out the House on Fire and Natural Bridges National Monument. Then, head south on Highway 261 and complete the Moki Dugway Scenic Backway. Rejoin Highway 163 slightly before Mexican Hat, or momentarily detour east to explore the Valley of the Gods.
If you’re driving to Monument Valley from the Grand Canyon, the quickest way is via Kayenta (three hours). However, if you want to extend the drive, hike and enjoy the views at Navajo National Monument or overnight in Page to see Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. You can also reach Monument Valley from Canyon de Chelly (90 minutes south).
Generally speaking, the best time to visit Monument Valley is during late spring and early autumn. During these months, daytime temperatures are pleasant, and it doesn’t get too cold at night. During the summer months, it’s very hot and dry in Monument Valley, and during winter, the days are short and cold.
One day is enough to experience Monument Valley properly. I arrived just in time for sunset on both of my visits, spent the night, and used the better part of the following day to tour the valley. Spending the night in Monument Valley is not a must, but it does fit nicely with a broader road trip in the region.
See the next section of this travel guide for a detailed Monument Valley itinerary.
The best place to stay overnight when visiting Monument Valley is at the View Hotel. Perfectly blending with the natural surroundings, all rooms at the View Hotel feature balconies facing the iconic formations of Monument Valley, perfect for watching the sunset, the beautiful night sky, and spectacular sunrises. All rooms are tastefully decorated, spacious and well-fitted
The View Hotel is the only hotel inside the Navajo Tribal Park. It’s located within the fee area of Monument Valley, but this does not spare guests from paying the entrance fee. In recent years, the View Hotel added premium private cabins in a more secluded park area. In my opinion, the cabins enjoy a slightly better view than rooms in the main hotel.
You’ll also find an RV park and a campground within this area. Lastly, the hotel’s restaurant offers meals with a view, and its trading post offers a wide selection of Navajo artwork at reasonable prices, with generous discounts applied to purchases by hotel guests.
If the View Hotel is out of your budget or fully booked, the second-best accommodation option in Monument Valley is nearby at Goulding’s Lodge. The present-day lodge started as a trading posting in the early 1920s and has since developed into a large complex offering a wide array of services, including a gas station, restaurant (serving American and Navajo classics), motel, campground, and museum. The motel is built similarly to the View Hotel, but the views are less impressive since it’s further away from Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation, which observes Daylight Savings Time, unlike the State of Arizona. Therefore, there might be a time difference, so keep this in mind when planning your trip and making tour reservations.
As you may expect, the best way to explore Monument Valley is with a car. This allows you to do a self-guided scenic drive and visit interesting spots in the area. I am not aware of public transportation to Monument Valley, but you might be able to find day trips to Monument Valley from neighboring towns that are serviced by public transport, such as Mexican hat or Kayenta.
Most vehicles can complete Monument Valley’s 17-mile self-guided scenic drive (4WD or high clearance vehicles are recommended). However, consider joining a guided tour led by an experienced Navajo guide. Guided tours include the 17-mile scenic drive but also venture into off-limits sections for ordinary drivers. On my first visit to Monument Valley, I hired a guide for a private tour, and I enjoyed learning about the ins and outs of the park, its history and chatting with a knowledgeable member of the Navajo Tribe.
(1) It’s best to book your guided tour of Monument Valley in advance. However, many operators offer guided tours, so booking the night before or the morning should not be challenging. (2) Here’s a comprehensive list of guided tour operators. In addition, check the guided tours offered by the View Hotel and Goulding’s Lodge. (3) See a list of guided tours that you can book online.
Monument Valley is not a hiker’s paradise, but there are a couple of hiking opportunities. The most popular hike is the Wildcat Trail which begins at the start of the 17-mile scenic drive. The trail takes you away from crowds and around the West Mitten Butte. The second hiking option is the Mesa Rim Trail. It’s much shorter and begins at the View Hotel.
There’s good mobile coverage in Monument Valley, even in most sections of the scenic drive. However, I recommend downloading an offline map to your phone before venturing into the park’s remote sections.
Here are a few items worth considering when planning a trip to Monument Valley. This is not an exhaustive list.
In this section, we’ll explore in detail an itinerary for spending one day in Monument Valley.
Scenic Highway 163 is the only practical way to drive to Monument Valley. For sightseeing purposes, reaching Monument Valley from Kayenta in the south is optimal during the afternoon, and driving from Mexican Hat in the north is optimal in the morning. Heading south from Mexican Hat brings you to one of America’s most iconic spots. Keep reading for further details.
Your visit to Monument Valley is only complete with witnessing its beautiful colors as the sun begins to set, so aim for an overnight stay. If you’re staying at the View Hotel, watch the sunset from the comforts of your private balcony. If you’re not spending the night here, head to the hotel’s famous viewing area or follow the crowds.
(1) Outside the summer months, temperatures in Monument Valley plummet. Pack and dress accordingly. (2) You’ll need to pass the fee station to reach the sunset viewing area. However, your ticket is also valid tomorrow.
To go along with its distinct sandstone pillars, Monument Valley enjoys practically light-pollution-free skies. So before calling it a night, take a shower, grab dinner, and wait for the stars to shine in the night sky. A camera tripod comes in handy.
You get the point by now. So rise early and watch the memorable changing of the guard between night and day.
Ten minutes south of Mexican Hat or 20 minutes from the View Hotel, there’s no better place to officially start your sightseeing day in Monument Valley than at this iconic spot. Made famous by one of the running scenes in Forrest Gump, surely you’ll recognize this image from popular culture. The exact spot is half a mile south of Monument Valley Overlook.
If there’s one thing to do on a visit to Monument Valley, it’s definitely the 17-mile scenic drive known as Valley Drive (open from 8 am to 5 pm).
Back inside the tribal park, join the queue for the start of Valley Drive or join a tour with a Navajo guide that usually includes the scenic drive plus additional spots not open to the general public. The scenic drive takes about two hours to complete, and if conditions aren’t wet, it should be accessible to most vehicle types (except RVs).
The drive begins with views of the famous West and East Mitten Buttes, closely followed by Merrick Butte. It then continues to the “Three Sisters” and Camel Butte Point before reaching John Ford Point, one of the tribal park’s top highlights.
The dirt road then starts to swing back via beautiful desert scenery, including the delicate “Totem Pole.” It then reaches a climax at Artist’s Point, where you can stretch your legs and spend some time absorbing the sensational views.
Vehicle numbers may be restricted on Valley Drive. Aim to start the scenic drive by nine or ten in the morning to avoid waiting too much for your turn to enter.
Guided tours with a Navajo guide are a popular way to explore Monument Valley. Tours either focus on the 17-mile scenic drive (which you can do on your own) or also include the “lower valley.” This section can only be accessed with a Navajo guide. It includes stops in natural rock arches, visits to pretty mesas, and even Native American rock paintings. If your guide is having a good day, they might even give you a taste of traditional Navajo Culture.
Other guide tour options offer the chance to venture to lesser-known spots in Monument Valley. These include venturing to the likes of Mystery Valley, Hunt’s Mesa, and Teardrop Arch.
The Wildcat Trail is currently the only “official” hiking trail in Monument Valley. It begins at the starting point for the scenic drive and loops around the West Mitten Butte. I not only enjoyed hiking this trail because of the closeup views of the sandstone pillar, but it was also tranquil on the trail, with hardly any hikers daring to venture beyond the trail’s sandy steep section.
If you love bringing home something unique from every trip, Monument Valley ticks that box. Souvenir stalls selling Navajo crafts are in some popular viewing areas on Valley Drive. You’ll find a large selection of Navajo crafts at the View Hotel’s trading post and Goulding’s Lodge. The Navajo Welcome Center at Highway 163 and Monument Valley Road intersection is also a good option.
This Monument Valley travel guide and itinerary should put you in a good position to plan your visit. But it’s now time to leave the valley behind and continue your road trip. So check out additional Arizona, Utah, and Southwest USA travel guides, and plan the next legs of your desert adventure.
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