„So, this where God put the West” – said John Wayne, when saw Monument Valley and it is hard not to agree. I saw myself Monument Valley for the first time in a movie. It was a picture by Sergio Leone “Once Upon a Time in the West”, with incredible soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. I fell in love with Monument Valley instantly. Of course I didn’t know what this place was called back then, but I already knew that it’s on my bucket list.. I still think that it is easier to go into outer space as a passenger in a Tesla toady, than it was to travel from Poland to the US back then, because of a communist regime in my country.
Fortunately the political circumstances changed, allowing me to visit Monument Valley a number of times. Every visit there was moving, but not as much as the first time, when we stood on the red sands of Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii, as the Navajo call this place.
A few words about Monument Valley’s history
There is no information about Spanish explorers between the XVIIth and the XVIIIth century arriving here, but there is evidence that they did indeed venture into the surrounding lands and that they clashed several times with the Navajo residing in the Four Corners area. The Mexican soldiers that entered the Valley in 1822 were probably the first non-Indians to come here. Later the US Army arrived together with the first settlers. During this time there was a series of skirmishes between the Navajo and the army. The Navajo would steal the soldiers’ horses, and the army would burn Indian settlements and destroy their crops in return. The Ute tribe, who knew the terrain and the locations of Navajo fortifications, often supported the US army in such raids.
Finally in January of 1863 the US government made the decision to resettle the Navajo from their lands. The Navajo People were hunted and captured, again with the help of the Ute, their villages were burnt and livestock killed. Navajo were supposed to move to a reservation in New Mexico. Those land were called Bosque Redondo.
In spring of 1864 the so called Long Walk – a march to a reservation 300 miles (480 km) away, begun. The Navajo were rushed like cattle, with no one from the army really caring about their fate. The elderly and the weak would die on the way, women in advanced stages of pregnancy or those who started giving birth were killed by the soldiers. During the 18 day long march 200 out of 8 thousand people died.
Bosque Redondo proved to be a very inhospitable land, with not enough water and firewood and with frequent diseases destroying the crops. What is more, the Navajo were forced to live in the place, where a group of the Apache, longtime enemies of Navajo, were also relocated. This resulted in constant clashes and conflicts inside the reservation, what also affected the white settlers living nearby. 1.5 million dollars had to be spent every year in order to feed the starving Native Americans. Finally the US government realized that the placement of a reservation here made no sense, so a treaty from June of 1868 allowed the Navajo to return. The traumatic experiences of The Long Walk became a binder for the Navajo Nation.
The treaty granted the Navajo People 14 000 km2 of land in the Four Corners area. But this was still not the Monument Valley, which remained a public land, inhabited except for the Navajo also by the Ute and the Paiute tribes and white settlers. When the Americans realized that these land were of no use to them, as no gold or oil had been found here, they were handed over to the Navajo under the treaty of 1933. Monument Valley finally returned to the tribe.
Monument Valley made a successful career in the movie industry in the 40s, which kept bringing more and more visitors. In 1958 the Tribe Council decided to create the first-ever tribal park in history in Monument Valley. It was supposed to be administered by the Navajo using a national park model. The roads were upgraded and a visitor center was built.
Monument Valley becomes famous
In 1925, when these reservation lands were still public, a man named Harry Goulding moved here. He established a small trading outpost near the north-west border of the Monument Valley. He had good relations with the Navajo, he gave them loans and was always eager to help. The Navajo liked and trusted him.
When his business run into financial troubles, he started looking for some other income sources. He overheard on the radio, that Hollywood is looking for a filming location for a western movie. He quickly packed photos of Monument Valley into his suitcase and travelled to the United Artists studio. The year was 1938. When Harry arrived, nobody wanted to even speak with him. Finally when he threatened that he would occupy the office, a manager came to kick him out. But when he saw the photographs of Monument Valley, he instantly handed Goulding a check worth $5000 and ordered him to mount a crew of Navajo , who were to play the roles of the Apache.
This is how director John Ford arrived to the valley, and the movie “Stagecoach”, with John Wayne playing the main role, made Monument Valley famous worldwide. The movie had won two Oscars, and the western received a promotion from B category cinema, to the rank of a distinguished work. John Ford made additional 6 movies in the valley, giving the tribe and the local entrepreneurs a huge financial boost. Henry Goulding himself was able to add a large motel and a restaurant to his trading outpost.
How should one behave in the Navajo reservation?
The Navajo are sincere, but not to outgoing people and they tend to be a bit withdrawn in contact with strangers. They are rather an opposite of the open and straightforward Americans. You should not pat their shoulders when greeting, and you should not be surprised when they avoid eye contact. This is by no means a way of expressing disrespect, this is just their way of being.
During a ride through Monument Valley you won’t come across a lot of folklore to photograph, but in case you do want to take a picture of someone, you should always ask for permission and give them a tip afterwards. If you want to photograph a beautifully dressed Native American woman selling jewelry, it is best to simply buy something from her. Their products are incredibly pretty, and when brought back home they can make a lot of sensation because of their originality. You can photograph without asking for permission only during public events.
It would generally be nice, if instead of buying a made in China Los Angeles magnet, you bought your family souvenirs here. You will bring original presents and support those hard working and economic people. Comparing to other reservations, the Navajo reservation is simply blooming, and the last 20 years had been a time of an incredible civilization jump. The Navajo develop residential estates and schools and they care about their cultural legacy.
If you are lucky enough to attend an Indian ceremony, please remember that it is a religious event. Do not talk, do not stare into your phone and generally act as if you were at a mass in a church. Indian ceremonies are usually dances, but under no circumstances may you clap at the end or give any applause. You can behave freely only during official festivals.
You should not touch any clothes or jewelry worn by the Native Americans. It is sometimes normal for us to grab something and say “oh my, what a beautiful necklace you are wearing”, but for the Navajo it can be disrespectful. Some of their jewelry pieces are sacred, and touching them by strangers is considered profanation.
The Navajo do not have a chief, but a president, elected every four years, so keep that in mind and do not mention anything about their chief, as it will make you look ignorant, and the Native Americans may think, that you consider them savages.
There is a strict prohibition within the reservation borders. It is illegal to bring and consume any alcohol. This ban is strictly enforced. One of my friends left empty beer bottles in a trash bin in his hotel room, and after the check out check out, an additional $200 had been collected from his credit card, as a penalty for alcohol consumption. So please, be an abstinent during your visit.
Every Native American tribe is different, the things that you learned in one reservation, can totally not work in another one. Just as Poles hate being mistaken for Russians, or Turks mistaken for Arabs, one Native American nation does not like to be mistaken for a different Native American nation.
No Navajo will call themselves “Navajo”, they instead use “Diné”, which basically means “people”, or how we may prefer “we, the people”.
Please keep in mind that not all Native Americans know English. Some people, especially the elderly, do not use it at all. The usage of their mother tongue is very popular, and they often use it among themselves.
It would be nice of you to get to know some words in the Navajo language, which is called Diné bizaad. It is worth to know the word “thank you” – “Ahéhee”, pronounced as “aheehee”. “Yá’át’ééh”, pronounced „ya a te”, with an accent on the „te” means “hello” For special tasks you can use the phrase “I love you” – “Ayóó Ánííníshní” [ayo aninishni]. I personally like the word “Adą́ą́dą́ą́’”, which means „yesterday”, but I never had a chance to use it. 😊
Where to spend the night?
Staying inside the reservation would probably be the best. Unfortunately the prices here are extremely high and you have to keep that in mind when planning your trip. A night spent here will allow you to witness an amazing sunset, and an even more spectacular sunrise.
The View is the only hotel in the park. The hotel building is well integrated into the red rocks of Monument Valley. Every room has a balcony overlooking The Mittens – the most epic buttes in the valley. The hotel has a good standard, every room has a bathroom, a fridge and a microwave, but it is the view that you are paying for here. The hotel has a nice restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can sit here with a view of the Monument Valley.
The hotel also has luxurious cabins in addition to standard rooms. They are equipped similarly to hotel rooms, but with additional small bedrooms for children, equipped with bunk beds. Some cabins have a living room with an unfolding sofa, on which you can sleep. Every cabin has a terrace with a view of the Monument Valley. The cabins are located on a cliff and stand in two rows. It is worth to book the first row, as the view is best from here.
You can book a room or a cabin here:
The View compground also offers campsites and RV spots with amazing view of the valley. There are bathrooms and showers there.
Here you can book a campground:
The View is incredibly popular, and the cheapest rooms sell out quickly, so you should book them in advance. The cabins and campsites are a bit easier to book, but you should not postpone the booking for the last minute.
A nice but also not cheap option is the Monument Valley Tipi Village. It is a fairly secluded place, located among Native Americans households, away from the touristy turmoil and only 4 miles from the park entrance. Here you can spend a night in a tipi, hogan, or your own tent on the campground. You will also have a view of the Monument Valley from here.
The hogan offered for rent is equipped incredibly well and is very neatly arranged. Here you will find two beds with beddings, a wood stove, tables, chairs, a sofa, a fridge and a microwave. All of that decorated with handmade carpets.
In every one of the five offered tipis you will find tourist beds with beddings, chairs, picnic tables and a lamp giving the tipi some light. Every tipi has a shed with a table, grill, electrical outlet and running water.
Every of the three campsites has such a shed assigned to it as well.
The guests can also enjoy new toilets and showers, as well as shared fridge and microwave. What is more, there is even WiFi here.
You can also request a breakfast.
You can book a spot in the Monument Valley Tipi Village here:
Monument Valley Tipi Village has a very good standard compared to other accommodation options offered for example by Airbnb. Some hogans that I checked out looked like basements after looter raid, with a hole in the ground serving as a toilet. So look into the offers carefully, as the Hogan standards vary and it is good to be aware what you are booking, so that you are not disappointed.
Please remember that Native Americans will be your hosts here, and they will not effusively greet you or ask about your family three generations back. People used to American hosts may find this disrespectful, but on the contrary, this is their way of showing respect.
The Goulding Lodge and Campground are also worth mentioning. This is a large compground built in the place of the historic Goulding’s Trading Post. This is a decent site with a shop and a restaurant. Here you can find rooms, small apartments with kitchens, cabins, RV spots and a campground. The guests can enjoy an indoor pool and even an airfield. There is also a museum documenting the live of people from this area.
As you can see this place is not too rural, but it is very close to Monument Valley and thus worth considering.
Here you can book a room:
Here you can book a cabin and a campground:
Entering Monument Valley
We reach Monument Valley via route 163. Approaching the park from the north you can stop at a couple amazing spots along the way.
The first one is the so called the Forrest Gump Point. Honestly I stopped there several times during my travels, but only recently I did realized that it had been given this name. This point is located next to the 13 mile pole, 7.9 miles away from the bridge over the San Juan River. There are pullouts to park on both sides of the road. From here you can enjoy an amazing panorama of the valley, with a view of the road leading to it. In this spot you are still quite a distance away from the valley, but do not give in to the temptation to drive closer to get better pictures. You won’t have a better view, here you will be on a hill and driving forward will mean losing the unique perspective.
The best time of the day to get pictures from the Forrest Gump Point is morning, preferably a dawn.
Why this spot earned this name? This is a place of the famous Forrest Gump movie scene, where Forrest Gump, who was on a nationwide run, came to a conclusion that he had run enough in his life and here he decided not to run anymore.
Driving further you will see the famous buttes and pinackles to your left: Brigham Tombe, The King on his Throne, Stagecoach, Bear and Rabbit and Castle Butte, Big Indian, sometimes called the Big Chief, and the Sentinel Mesa. From the road it is best to photograph them in the afternoon.
Now we turn left onto route 468, also called the Monument Valley Rd. and then we wait in a line to the entrance. The entrance fee is 10$ per person, kids under the age of 9 enter for free. There is a fee 20$ per one car, provided there are 4 people in the vehicle. Just a bit further you will see one of the most famous views on this planet.
Can I travel on Monument Valley’s roads with a sedan?
Generally speaking the answer is “yes”. But there are a few “buts”.
The road leading through Monument Valley is made of cured clay, which has a tendency of getting soggy. In winter the melting snow often damages the road. The cars struggling in the clay create deep grooves and holes that can fit half a car’s tire. In spring the road is usually leveled and repaired, but for some time it remains in perfect condition. Then in July the monsoon season begins, it sometimes rains in the afternoons and storms do happen. The road becomes damaged again and if it is not repaired it is in a terrible shape by the end of summer. But the chances of the road being in a good condition are quite high.
How to check the condition of the road? Very easily, just take a walk a couple dozen yards down the road and you will have a clear picture of what awaits you. The beginning is the worst part of the road, so if you think that you can beat it, you can be sure that the rest of the drive will not prove too difficult.
The road down to the valley is in a far better shape than the road back. If you do not want to struggle with the holes and groves, just drive on the left, no one will get angry at you, they will wait for you to pass, as they know that they themselves will have to go back up.
But what if you get stuck in a hole and can’t get out? Immediately someone will get out of their car to help you out. The traffic here is as intense as in downtown LA, so there definitely will be many hands to help.
Generally speaking it would be best to have a high clearance vehicle for this road. But before we came up with the idea of renting such cars, we managed to pass this road with a simple Pontiac sedan. The main principle: you should drive slowly while going both down- and uphill, you should keep your speed at around 10 mph. Later the road gets better and you can speed up.
Visiting Monument Valley
Visiting Monument Valley actually means taking a 17 mile drive through the Valley Drive. You can only travel along the road, driving or walking off road is forbidden.
The only hiking trail here is the Wildcat Trail. It is a 3.7 mile (6 km) walk around the West Mitten butte. The trail begins right next to the valley entrance, you can leave your car on the main parking. To be honest I would not recommend this trail. There is no shade there, you get stuck ankle deep in sand and the view is better from afar.
We begin our tripby driving down to the valley. You will have to beat the tough part described above for start.
A view of the West Mitten, Merric Butte and East Mitten is going to be our stop number 1. Those buttes, also called mittens, are considered by the Navajo to be the hands of a good god, taking care of the valley. You can take great pictures here in the afternoon and during sunrise and sunset.
The Elephant Butte is our stop number 2. It is a huge red rock, looking similarly to everything but an elephant. A very thin wall with a straight edge is its characteristic feature. The best time for pictures is the afternoon.
Now we reach a crossroad, you can take a right, left, or go forward. We take a right, and at the next crossroad left to the Three Sisters – three stone pinnacles, eroded from the Mitchell Mesa. This is our stop number 3. The best time for pictures is morning.
Going back we head left towards the John Ford Point. This is our stop number 4. Here on the edge of a rocky peninsula , everyone takes the most epic photos to show their friends and families. I you want to impress your relatives even more you can take a picture of yourself on a horse. It is highly unlikely that you got to Monument Valley by horse, but it is not a problem. You can rent a horse just for pictures here. It will cost you around 8-10$, but the prices are subject to change.
You can also rent a horse for a ride around the Monument Valley here, but as there is no competition in this area, the prices for rides are significantly higher than for those offered at The View hotel. This establishment is aimed at compulsive visitors, who were so enchanted by the moment that they decided to go for a ride.
It is certainly worth to come by Linda’s hut and buy a frybread – a part of the Indian cuisine, made of flour and water, fried in deep oil. You can eat it there or get it to go. Its nutritional value will allow you to skip dinner.
We go back onto the main road. The Camel Butte is our stop number 5. If you look hard enough you will be able to recognize a camel silhouette in this rock. All of the 3 locations listed above are best photographed in the afternoon.
Further down the main road you will reach The Hub Point, which is our stop number 6. There are two interesting pinnacles in an alley between two mesas here – The Bird and The Hand, in addition to a view of a red butte. You can already see the Totem Pole in a distance from here.
And the Totem Pole and the Yei Bi Chei are our stop number 7. In my opinion this is the most unusual and amazing rock formation in Monument Valley. Yei Bi Chei consists of a couple rock columns of various heights. The neighboring Totem Pole is the highest, measuring 250 feet (75 m). Unfortunately the viewing point is quite far, if you want to get closer, you will have to book a trip with an Navajo guide. You will take the best pictures here in the morning.
Right nearby the Sand Springs are located, our stop number 8. Here you will find orange sand dunes surrounding the Sand Spring – one of the few water sources in Monument Valley. This point will give you a better view of the Totem Pole than the last one, as it is located a bit closer. Here and on the previous point it is best to take pictures in the morning or late afternoon. Not far away from the Sand Springs there the Cube – a big boulder in the shape of the cube.
Now we are heading north towards stop number 9 – the Artist’s Point. Here you will witness an amazing overview of the Monument Valley, as well as a view of all the buttes, with a picturesque Spearhead Mesa in the background. This is my favorite spot in the valley, as it is located a bit on the side, with very few tourists stopping here.
It is time to head back. On the way we will visit the North Window, our stop number 10. North Window is a view of the East Mitten laying between the Elephant Butte and a butte called Clay Butte. You can leave your car on the parking and walk a quarter of a mile closer to fully enjoy this view. Here you are allowed to move freely.
Right before driving back onto the main road you will pass by The Thumb, our stop number 11 and the last one for the trip. The Thumb is a stone pinnacle right next to the Camel Butte, looking a bit like a thumb, hence the name.
Now we finish our sightseeing. This is everything that we can see without a Navajo guide. But there are amazing arches, Indian ruins, petroglyphs, pinnacles, buttes and amazing landscapes all around here. So why not go for a tour with a Navajo guide?
How to go on a guided tour and not go bankrupt?
When I browsed pictures of the most beautiful arches in the US, I noticed that many of them were labeled as “Monument Valley”. But I’ve been to Monument Valley several times before and I have never seen a single arch. So where are they?
After a thorough investigation it turned out that those arches indeed exist, but are not accessible for visitors. The only way to see them is to go on a tour with a guide. The tour prices stated online shocked me, and when you multiply them by 4 people, they become insane. The tours online have their names and specified sightseeing programs. You can choose the one which suits you most. But from my last visit I remembered that there were small cabins next to The View hotel with signs Tours and Horses on display. So maybe we should try there? Maybe they will have cheaper tours? But what if not, and all of the tours will be sold out by then?
We decided to take our chances. After checking in at the hotel we headed straight for those cabins. In front of them there were rows of cars with Native Americans sitting inside with very much worn trip “catalogues” . In order to provide a support to an emancipation of women, we approached a Navajo woman and told her that we want to go on a tour, but we have a trip plan of or own. We showed her photos of attractions we wanted to see. She said that it is not a problem and that some o those places are a part of a standard tour and that they will simply add those that are not. She offered us a price 30% lower than online and asked when do we want to go. We booked our tour for 4 pm.
We paid the entire amount right after this short talk and of course we did not receive any type of payment receipt , so we were a bit stressed on our way to the parking, hoping that hopefully someone will be waiting there for us. The woman was at her post and she showed us a way to a yellow jeep on the parking. Our guide was waiting there.
You can describe the trip with one word: “a fairytale”! We were shown the places that we wanted to see and those that we didn’t even dream of. The car was a brand new, comfortable and sturdy Jeep, not a pick-up with a shed. This made it possible for us to return from the trip clean and not covered with sand. Our guide was very kind and helpful.
I highly recommend such trips. It takes approximately 4 hours. This is an option for those who do not want to enter the valley with their own cars, as the beginning of the trip runs through the Valley Drive. Do not forget to give a customary tip to your guide at the end of the ride. If you decide to buy a trip online, you can find tour operators authorized by the Navajo tribe here:
How about a horse ride?
That’s a great idea, an amazing adventure to remember for the rest of your life! It will allow you to feel like in a western movie, with the only difference that the Native American guide will be your ally, caring about your safety and well being.
To book a horse ride you can do just like we did with the car tour. Come to the cars next to the cabins in front of the hotel and ask about the price. You can bargain a little but do not overdo it. Generally speaking the more people you bring with you the better, as the price per person will be lower, so large families will suffer less. Same goes for car tours.
There is huge demand and competition here, so this the place to hunt for price.
We managed to find a satisfactory price and a fantastic guide. We made an appointment for a specific hour, he took us with his car to a stable in the very heart of Monument Valley. Everyone received a horse matching its riding skills and we went! The horses allow you to reach places where no car can go, and you can really feel like in the Wild West.
What if you do not have experience and you’ve never sat on a horse? Lack of experience is not a problem at all. Your guide will teach you how to handle the horse. It is not harder than driving a car, and what is more you do not need to know the traffic rules. A novice will receive a so called lazy horse, a horse which will slowly and gracefully glide through the prairies of Arizona. After about an hour you should get a hold of horse riding, and you should be able to sightsee the valley while trotting.
After such a horse trip it is highly plausible that your guide will offer you a discount if you book an additional car tour from him. It is worth to take advantage of this.
Once Upon a Time in the West, how we managed to find the remains of a movie set.
As a huge fan of this movie I came across some information that there are still remains of scenography prepared by the filming crew. Even though the film had been shot mostly in Spain, some of the most crucial scenes were filmed here. One of the most famous scenes in all of western movies, when the outlaw Fonda hangs a a Mexican man, was shot here, and apparently this brick arch, or what is left of it, still stands somewhere in the valley.
The best friend of every traveler – Google Earth – was deployed to help me in the search of the arch. I searched a huge area inch by inch., Using pictures from the movie and location of the buttes I narrowed the search area, and bingo, I think that is it! On my computer screen I saw a shadow and two straight stripes, which resembled tracks, on which a cart with a camera could be moved. I saved the GPS coordinates, hoping that I found the right spot.
During our next visit to Monument Valley we went to check if I had been correct. Our supposed location was quite a distance away from the park, and you had to navigate through a net of unpaved roads to get there. We kept heading more or less in the direction of the GPS waypoint and suddenly we started seeing a silhouette of the arch. There it is! We found it!
We were both euphoric and moved. We stood in front of the already weathered structure, with rusty cans lying all around us, from which we supposed Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson ate their beef and beans for lunch 50 years ago. There were also some glass bottles here, probably left by some prohibition opponents. There were long concrete tracks, which served as camera tracks, built next to the arch.
We spent over an hour here taking pictures and waiting for the sun to come out. Unfortunately it did not happen, stormy clouds were racing towards Monument Valley, just like in the movie…
A few words to sum up
The drive through Valley Drive alone should take you around 2-3 hours. If you are not planning on doing anything else here, you can reserve half a day for Monument Valley. If you are not staying for the night in the valley or nearby I recommend that you at least stay here until sunset, as it is truly breathtaking here.
Monument Valley is highly photogenic, but some locations are better photographed in the afternoon, an some in the morning. We usually come to Monument Valley in early afternoon, do a drive around or visit other attractions, and spend the night in the park. Then a mandatory early wake-up to see the sunrise and a morning tour of the valley, in order to photograph the ‘morning’ locations. This is of course an ideal variant. Coming to Monument Valley in the afternoon and staying until the sunset is a viable compromise here. 😊