Monument Valley is one of America’s most distinctive and famous landscapes. More than any other place, it symbolizes the time of the American cowboy due to all the movies filmed here during the heyday of westerns. John Ford directed some of the most famous ones featuring John Wayne and there is an overlook named for John Ford in Monument Valley.
As you approach the park on the paved highway 163, the monuments start to appear off of the horizon across the desert landscape. Coming from the south, you will drive past El Capitan first, which is not officially part of Monument Valley but for me marks the entrance. El Capitan is the volcanic core of an otherwise eroded volcano, much like the more famous Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Before long, you will see the Mittens off in the distance. These two mesas are mirror images of each other and resemble a pair of mittens, complete with a left and right thumb, for which they are named. Other mesas and buttes dot the landscape as you approach the valley proper.
The visitor center is strategically placed for a great view of the Mittens and the valley beyond. Stop there before you make your drive and take a few pictures. Explore the visitor center and the views available and make sure to use the restroom there. You won’t have another opportunity for a couple of hours.
The loop road through the valley starts near the visitor center and you can see the beginning of it from there. It is a very memorable drive and you’ll want to soak it in. The road is dirt and gravel as you mosey along. Your eyes will be sweeping the landscape and you’ll want to stop often for pictures. Please keep a wary eye out for other drivers who are also paying less attention to the road than usual or pulling over for a picture with little notice.
The road passes by the Mittens first. Make a couple of stops for pictures, but the best one was probably back at the visitor center. After a couple of miles, you will come to the loop road. This 13 mile portion is one-way so make sure go the right way (to the right). From off of this loop, there are several spurs to notable overlooks. Take each one in turn as all are worth your time.
You’ll pass the large Elephant Butte on your right after that. Some think it looks like a large pachyderm for which it is named. The Three Sisters is next – which looks like a Catholic nun facing two pupils. These narrow spires are very majestic and you’ll be able to see them for a while from different vantage points.
The next spur is longer and takes you to John Ford’s Point. There will be a large group of Navajo vendors here for you to peruse if desired. The overlook itself is famous and was featured in many westerns. The promontory that juts out into the landscape can be accessed for a picture freely. For a $2 fee, there will likely be a Navajo you can hire to ride a horse out on the promontory to recreate the iconic picture of a lone rider or maybe ride one out there yourself for the shot for a bit more.
John Ford’s Point along with Artist’s Point are the best viewpoints along the drive.
You’ll pass several more Mesas as you get back on the loop road. The next intersection is known as the Hub, but the road leads to other sites that can only be visited if you hire a guide. The next interesting formation is the Totem Pole which is off a distance. You will find a few slightly better views as you go forward, but journeying up close to it is prohibited to private vehicles – a guide can take you closer.
The next spur road leads to Artist point. This offers a broad view of the valley with backside views of the Mittens. It is a nice viewpoint that is less visited but very worthwhile. There is one more spur road to the North Window, which offers a view that frames one of the Mittens between two buttes.
After that, the road finishes the loop and you return to the visitor center.
If you came from the south, you’ll want to turn north on Hwy 163 and drive it for a few miles to see nice views of the mesas and buttes you already saw on the loop ride as well as some you didn’t get to see. There is also a great vantage of the road heading south toward the monuments. Make sure to stop here and get a picture or two of the highway or in the highway. Others will likely be doing the same thing and make sure to watch for traffic along the road when you go out for your picture. It is worth it – you’ll see a few examples of shots I made in my Monument Valley Gallery.
Monument Valley is on Navajo Tribal Land and is located in southern Utah and northern Arizona off of Hwy 163. It is about 25 miles north of Kayenta, Arizona and 24 miles south of Mexican Hat, Utah. Highway 163 is a very scenic drive, and you can see portions of monument valley from this road without ever entering the official park. But the most famous monuments are located within the Tribal Park.
Navajo Tribal Park
Monument Valley is managed by the Navajo tribe as a Tribal Park. There has been a lot of investment in the park in recent years and it boasts a nice visitor center, restaurant and the View Hotel. The land is sacred to the Navajo so take extra care to treat it with care. Self-hiking is mostly prohibited except in specific areas within the park. A guide may be hired to get greater access to the valley and you can also arrange a horse ride.
The cost to enter the park is $20 per vehicle, which includes up to 4 people. Each additional person is $6. National Park passes are not accepted. The visitor center is open 6:00am-8:00pm in peak season and those are the same hours for the scenic drive.
Details, including a map of the loop drive, are available on the Navajo official website.
The scenic loop drive is a 17 mile loop that is included with the entrance fee. The road is dirt and gravel and is easily navigated most of the time with any vehicle other than RVs or unusually low clearance ones. Rare heavy rains may make navigation impossible for anything other than 4WD. Please check at the visitor center for information as needed and take your time – there is no reason to hurry as the entire loop is very scenic.
Please note that there are no facilities at all along the loop drive, other than some Navajo vendors selling jewelry and other souvenirs. Please use the restrooms at the visitor center before proceeding and take any drink or food with you. Picnic places are limited, but you can always eat in your car. It will take between 2 to 4 hours to do this loop and stop at approved spots for pictures. 15 mph is the nominal speed limit, although there are stretches where the road is smooth enough that you can go faster.
Due to how long it takes and its relative remoteness, you may want to bring sandwiches along with you in addition to drinks and snacks. If you came from the south, Kayenta has a Subway that I usually use.
The loop is very popular during peak summer times and cars can queue up at popular overlooks. Going in the morning helps the crowds and generally makes for better photographs. Temperatures can reach 90° Fahrenheit in the summer.
You can also look at some hi-res pictures of my trip to Monument Valley here.
To see other worthy places to visit in Utah, go here.
Great places to visit in Arizona are here.