Bordering the states of Arizona and Utah, Monument Valley Tribal Park was one of the highlights of our winter road trip around the Southwest a few years back.
We came from Farmington, New Mexico where we had stayed after checking out the nearby Aztec Ruins National Monument. After an early start we took Highway 64 and drove west towards Arizona. But first we did a quick detour to get a closer look at the impressive Shiprock formation located close to the Northwest corner of New Mexico.
Shiprock is a sacred location of the Navajo tribe. The Navajo name for the formation is Tsé Bitʼaʼí which is “rock with wings” or “winged rock.” It was said to have been a great bird who guided the Navajo people to their present location. As a geological formation, the rock was originally the remnants of a volcano that solidified over 27 million years ago.
Because of its religious significance to the Navajo the rock is off limits to visitors and we couldn’t get close to it. It was still impressive from a distance–huge and striking and so different from the land around it.
Once we were back into Arizona and heading north on Route 163 the land really began to resemble the scenes from the old Westerns I remembered as a kid. Dramatic buttes, hoodoos, monoliths and mesas began to appear as we approached the entrance to Monument Valley.
After we arrived and paid the entrance fee at the main gate, we went to the parking lot with out rental while we checked into the hotel. We chose The View hotel right inside the park for our one night stay. The hotel is managed by the Navajo and even includes s few traditional Navajo foods if you have breakfast there. Although the rooms could use some updating ours was clean and fine for our purposes. Most importantly, the location of The View couldn’t be beat as the hotel lived up to its name.
There are a few options for doing the valley. One is a short self-guided hiking trail, another is the popular self-guided dirt road and the last is taking a guided tour. For the last option there were a number of 4×4 and off road vehicles in the parking lot offering individual tours into the valley. These tours were with Navajo guides and can go to places the self-guided tours don’t go. However, they are expensive compared with the self drive option.
We were tempted as our rental had low clearance and we were worried about driving through the valley due to ruts and potholes. We had heard that compact cars are discouraged from taking the road, but conditions were dry so we ultimately decided to take our rental down into the valley. There were a few spots where we had to be careful but we had no serious issues. If the road had been muddy or snow-covered we might have gone for the guided tour.
We slowly made our way from the paved parking lot onto the dirt road adjacent to it. This begins the loop road that visitors can take. Although you have to watch out for uneven ground, it was a fairly easy road to follow. It takes some time to get to the bottom through a few tight switchbacks but we took it slow and drove carefully.
As you get down the size of the rock formations becomes apparent. From a distance they look big, but getting closer they were enormous.
As we drove around the park the sights were dramatic. Mesa, buttes, spires and other imposing formations were all around us. Visiting in winter wasn’t too bad at all for us. Although it was a bit chilly the sun kept things reasonably warm and having a dry trail for the journey made it easy to get around.
Monument Valley was a favourite filming location for John Ford’s Western films. An iconic spot in the park is John Ford Point, celebrating the director’s gifts in making the most of this beautiful filming location. Sometimes a horse and rider can be seen posing at the edge of the point.
Soon after we arrived at Thunderbird Mesa, a little doggy appeared out of nowhere looking for food. We had seen a number of strays in the parking lot travelling in packs and a few along the drive. This guy was on his own so Kim gave him some of her lunch. He was happy to eat it and was sad to see her go!
By now the shadows were starting to get longer across the valley and it was time to head back to the hotel. We finished the loop and returned to where we began.
Back at the hotel, we watched the last bit of light recede across the valley as dusk approached. Having a beer while watching darkness slowly blanket the landscape was a perfect end to the day.
At times Monument Valley felt like another world–quiet, rugged, barren–but it was very photogenic as well. It might not be a conventional landscape, but it’s a beautiful one and remains one of our favourite places to visit.
The next morning we were up to enjoy the sun making its way over the valley. It was such a magical place that we promised to return someday. We will never get tired of the view!