“Hi-ho, Silver! Away!”
When we think of the landscape of the wild west, Monument Valley Tribal Park often comes to mind whether we know that’s what it is or not. We see the iconic images from classic western films, the red rock buttes jutting up from a desert floor, and John Wayne on a horse looking out across this scenery. There is a reason this is what we see; John Ford and many others chose this amazing place to set their stories in even when the location is supposed to be somewhere that doesn’t look anything like it.
Monument Valley Tribal Park is in northern Arizona right at the Utah border (not in Utah like some people will tell you though you do have to drive through a sliver of the Beehive State to enter the park). What really matters though is that it is in the Navajo Nation and is an official tribal park (essentially a Navajo national or state park).
The local I chatted with at Canyon de Chelly said Monument Valley would be absolutely stunning. That coupled with the skilled portrayal of it in films over the ages led me to get very excited and have high expectations. When I first got there I felt let down because I expected too much, but within a few short hours I was under the valley’s spell, intoxicated with this special place.
The park entrance is up a hill on a ridge of the valley giving visitors a grand view of the most recognizable features—the mittens. Here you’ll find a visitor center, gift shop, restaurant and hotel. Also, you’ll find John Wayne’s favorite spot to gaze over this glorious creation.
The best way to experience the park is taking a spin on the dirt road loop known as the valley drive. You can drive your own vehicle or go with any number of local tour companies. These range from observation jeeps to trail rides on horses. Some of their tours will even take you to places off the main drive that only they have permission to access. Since these services were all pretty darn pricey, I just drove myself.
The drive takes you down to the valley floor on a dirt road complete with washboarding and potholes. There are places along the drive to pull over and get out for pics and a few overlooks for grand vistas. There aren’t any real trails just short walks to the overlooks. Be sure to take all of the spurs off to the scenic locations to make the drive complete.
Either at the beginning or the end take the turn to John Ford’s Point. This is a locale the film maker chose for some very iconic scenes including that image of John Wayne sitting on a horse in The Searchers. At this stop there are local vendors selling Native American art and jewelry. I didn’t get any, but I took advantage of one of the vendors—a young man who will take your picture on his horse in the very same place John Wayne and Johnny Depp and others have been filmed for only $5.
The hotel and campground are appropriately named The View Hotel and The View Campground and Cabins. I had a reservation for the campground, but wasn’t really feeling another night on the ground. So, I splurged getting myself a graduation gift and stayed in one of the cabins overnight. It was wonderful. The view is magnificent for both sunset and sunrise.
I sat on the porch and enjoyed the view as long shadows creeped across the valley floor and the rock formations glowed red. There was some rain that came at one point in the evening and a strong, gusty wind most of the night, so I feel my no-tent choice was well made. The best part, besides the super comfy bed and a warm shower, was watching the sunrise behind the mittens the next morning. It was truly inspiring.
After checking into my private little cabin, I ventured onto the Wildcat Trail, the only hiking trail into the valley that doesn’t require a Navajo guide. This trail is 3.2 miles looping around the closest mitten butte with beautiful views of the other and more. Spring was in full swing with many plants blooming including the only place outside of Texas I have ever seen blue bonnets.
The trail crosses dry washes and riverbeds and climbs up and down soft sand dunes. I loved every angle of the trail. Take the time to immerse yourself in the valley by hiking the Wildcat Trail.
After leaving Monument Valley the next day I was so happy I took the time to experience this iconic place. I can’t explain fully what it is about this desert garden, but once you get down into the valley you get lost in this fantastical place.
Details for your visit
Monument Valley Tribal Park is located off U.S. Highway 163 right at the Utah/Arizona border. As a tribal park, passes for the U.S. National Park Service are not accepted. Admission is $20 per vehicle with up to 4 people. May 1 – Sept. 30 the park is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. The rest of the year it is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.