Whether you know it by name or not, Monument Valley might just be one of the most recognizable scenes of the American West. With sandstone buttes rising abruptly from the surrounding desert floor, this is one of the most dramatic landscapes in the country. Its remote location makes a Monument Valley road trip pretty much the only way to visit this iconic gem.
Monument Valley is seemingly in the middle of nowhere as there are no major cities or airports in the immediate vicinity. That said, the surrounding landscape is a treasure box of surprises. Nearby, you’ll find several other sites providing a variety of scenic landscapes that you can add to your road trip itinerary.
As it turns out, it’s actually really easy to spend two or three days enjoying the many natural and cultural attractions in and around Monument Valley.
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Getting to Monument Valley
Located in southeastern Utah, right on the Arizona border, Monument Valley is on the Navajo Nation Reservation. Officially, it is the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The Navajo Nation is made up of essentially private land and all non-Navajo visitors must comply with the laws and regulations established by the Navajo Nation.
Monument Valley is located near the Four Corners area, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet. Indeed, we include the Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park on this itinerary. The nearest major airport is Phoenix, which is about 320 miles (5 hours) away. While there are a few small, local airports nearby, driving through the American West is an experience like no other and one we highly recommend!
If you’re planning a greater Southwest US road trip, you can easily add on a visit to Monument Valley from many different directions. Here are a few distances and drive times from several nearby national parks:
- Moab, UT (Arches NP & Canyonlands NP) – 2.5 hours / 150 miles
- Grand Canyon NP – 3 hours / 180 miles
- Petrified Forest NP – 3 hours / 190 miles
- Mesa Verde NP – 2.5 hours / 135 miles
The Monument Valley Landscape
A variety of geological forces have shaped the landscape of Monument Valley for hundreds of millions of years. What started as a lowland basin eventually became a rocky plateau of sandstone and limestone. Wind and rain then eroded the many layers of hard and soft rock to create the natural formations that stand today.
These formations rise 400 to 1200 feet above the surrounding plateau. Many resemble animals or other familiar items and were named accordingly. There is definitely no mistaking which formations are the Mittens! Other formations are named for historical figures.
Most people know the landscape of Monument Valley from the many movies and TV shows that have featured the site. Quite a few have even been filmed on location. In fact, director John Ford filmed so many movies here that “John Ford’s Point” is one of the most recognizable locations in the park.
A few movies that feature Monument Valley include Stagecoach, The Searchers, Back to the Future III, Thelma and Louise and Forrest Gump. The iconic “Forrest Gump Hill,” where Forrest finally ends his cross-country run is along US 163 just north of the entrance to the park. Thankfully, the Department of Transportation has marked the site and provided plenty of turnouts for parking.
If you are stopping at Forrest Gump Hill, PLEASE use the turnouts and be extremely careful. This is a major highway and not everyone slows down. Keep a careful eye on approaching vehicles from both directions.
What to do at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Visiting Monument Valley is a little different than visiting a park operated by the National Park Service. For starters, expect much less development. Additionally, only a small portion of the park is open for self-guided exploration.
If you want to explore on your own, you are limited to the 17-mile unpaved loop road. This dirt and gravel road is generally in decent condition but does contain some rough or sandy areas. For this reason, motorcycles are not allowed on the loop drive. And, the road can become impassable, even for four-wheel drive vehicles, after rain.
Access to the scenic drive is on a “first-come, first-served basis.” At peak visitation times, you may have to wait to enter. But, having the flexibility to spend as much (or little) time at any given location can’t be beaten.
Along the scenic drive, you’ll see the iconic sandstone buttes that form this iconic landscape. There are a number of places that you can stop along the way, with the most popular being the Mittens and John Ford’s Point.
It is important to note that the only place where you can hike on your own at Monument Valley is the Wildcat Trail. This 3.2-mile loop circles the Mittens Butte and Merrick Butte. We have not hiked this trail, so cannot provide a personal review or recommendation. If you plan on hiking, be sure to carry plenty of water and other safety gear since you’ll be hiking in the desert.
Monument Valley Guided Tour
If you prefer a guided tour, there are a number of authorized tour operators that provide a variety of options. The benefit of a tour is getting insight into the park, the formations and the surrounding area. Additionally, some tours take you to areas that are not otherwise accessible. Of course, the downside is that you are on someone else’s schedule.
We chose to do the Deluxe Tour with Goulding’s Resort & Tours since we were camping at their RV park. This 3.5-hour tour takes you along the scenic drive plus to a few back-country stops.
In addition to the must-see stops of the Mittens and John Ford’s Point, we enjoyed seeing the Sun’s Eye and Ear of the Wind, which are off the main loop drive. It was also a special treat to stop at a traditional Navajo Hogan, an earthen mound home. Here, we learned a little more about the Navajo culture and saw a rug weaving demonstration.
In general, we prefer to tour places on our own. That said, we both really enjoyed having a guided tour for our first visit to Monument Valley. Having commentary provided during the tour and the ability to ask questions really made it a learning experience. Additionally, getting to see the sights off the main road was a real treat.
The tour size was fairly small, only about 15-20 people, and moved at just the right pace. We felt that we had plenty of time to enjoy every stop but weren’t waiting around for too long. Overall, it was a great tour that we definitely recommend.
Perhaps the only thing we would change is doing an afternoon/evening tour. We did an 8 am tour in late June and many of the buttes were backlit by the sun, making pictures difficult.
As mentioned previously, we camped at Goulding’s RV Park, which is just a small part of the larger Goulding’s Lodge and Resort. What we liked most about Goulding’s is its location and the amenities and services it offers. Goulding’s is located directly across the highway from the entrance to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
In addition to the RV park, there is a lodge, restaurant, gas station, convince store, grocery store, trading post, museum and a theatre. Yes, you’ll find just about anything you might need right here. And, this is really all that you’ll find without driving to the town of Kayenta, AZ, which is about 30 minutes south.
While you should certainly take your time and spend as much time as you like at Monument Valley, you really only need about half a day there. Either before or after your tour of Monument Valley, spend some time checking out the attractions and amenities at Goulding’s.
In particular, we recommend watching a movie at the Earth Spirit Theater and touring the Museum. The theater shows three films nightly: Earth Spirit and Among the Monuments are shown every night. These short films provide information on the Navajo culture and sandstone formations, respectively. You can also catch one of three John Wayne movies that were filmed at Monument Valley. These are shown on a rotating basis throughout each week.
The small Goulding’s Museum is housed in the old trading post. As you wander through, you can view the trading showroom, enjoy western photography and artwork and view memorabilia from the many movies and TV shows filmed here. Upstairs, you can take a walk through Mr. and Mrs. Goulding’s personal apartment.
If you’re looking for souvenirs, the Gift Shop has a variety of t-shirts, magnets, artwork and other locally made products.
Other Places to Visit on a Monument Valley Road Trip
With another day or two, there are plenty of nearby sites that you should add to your road trip. You could do these either as day trips or on your way to or from somewhere else.
The following sites of Mexican Hat, Goosenecks State Park, Moki Dugway, Muley Point, Natural Bridges National Monument and Valley of the Gods can be done as a day trip from Goulding’s. I know it sounds like a lot, but many of the stops are very quick. Of course, if you prefer to take longer, you certainly can!
About 30 minutes north of Monument Valley is the tiny town of Mexican Hat. Its name comes from a unique rock formation that resembles… you guessed it, a Mexican sombrero!
The namesake rock formation is located north of town, just off US 163. Follow the road signs east just a short distance off the highway for up-close views of this geological wonder. The side road was unpaved but in good condition when we visited. As always, assess road conditions for yourself as they can change quickly in the desert.
You’ll only need a few minutes to take a quick detour off the highway to see Mexican Hat rock.
Goosenecks State Park
From Mexican Hat, continue north on US 163, then turn west on Hwy 261 and follow the signs to Goosenecks State Park. This tiny state park provides an overlook to a deep canyon carved by the San Juan River. As the name implies, the river flows through several u-shaped bends known as goosenecks.
There really isn’t anything to do here other than taking in views from the overlook. But, it’s a stunning look at the river 1,000 feet below and the millions of years of geological activity visible in the canyon walls.
Horseshoe bends in a river are always impressive. The triple bend here at Goosenecks State Park really is one of the most breathtaking geological sights we’ve visited.
Continuing northwest on Hwy 261, you’ll soon reach a unique stretch of road known as the Moki Dugway. This 3-mile section of unpaved road has literally been carved from the cliffside at an 11% grade.
As you might guess, the drive up is a bit harrowing but it offers unparalleled views of the surrounding land. The Moki Dugway is suitable for all vehicles but you might feel better having four-wheel drive, just in case. Additionally, due to the steep grade, neither we nor the state of Utah recommends driving an RV or towing a trailer.
The road is wide enough for two vehicles to pass, though it’s a very remote area and it’s likely that you won’t see too many other cars. Additionally, there are no guardrails, so be sure to keep your eyes on the road!
There are a few turnouts where you can safely stop to enjoy the view. And that’s the whole point! If you like adventurous drives as much as Grant does, then the drive itself will be exhilarating. The views both along the drive and at the top, though… Words just don’t adequately describe the vast desert landscape that stretches before you. You’ll even have glimpses of Monument Valley off in the distance!
Note: the 3-mile stretch of the “dugway” that ascends from the bottom to the top of the cliff is not paved. The rest of Highway 261 is paved.
Once you reach the top of the Moki Dugway, turn left on Muley Point Road and follow that about 5 miles to the end. The Muley Point Overlook is officially part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Again, the overlook here provides panoramic views over the canyons and desert valley below. Seriously, the views really do just keep getting better and better with each stop along this road trip.
And, to be honest, our pictures really don’t capture the grandeur of this landscape.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Continue north on Hwy 261, then turn west on Hwy 95 to reach Natural Bridges National Monument (at the end of Hwy 275). Here, you can view three natural bridges, do some hiking and see an ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling.
From the visitor center, follow the 9-mile one-way scenic drive, which will provide access to several overlooks and trailheads. The three natural bridges, Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomo, can be seen from the overlooks with minimal effort. If you prefer a closer look, hiking trails of various lengths and difficulties take you up close.
Since we were visiting in the middle of the day in the summer, we opted to not do any long hikes. This is definitely a desert environment that can get quite hot in the summer. Additionally, rain was threatening the day we were there.
We did do a short hike to the Horse Collar Ruin Overlook. Here, you follow a trail over exposed slickrock to a viewing area of an ancient cliff dwelling on the opposite side of a canyon. The hike itself is not overly strenuous but it does cross uneven terrain and you’ll want good hiking shoes for walking on the rock. If you have binoculars and/or a camera with a good zoom, be sure to bring them.
It’s interesting to learn about how natural bridges are formed and see several different examples. While you’re there, you can also learn about the differences and similarities of a natural bridge and an arch.
Valley of the Gods
As you make your way back towards Monument Valley and Goulding’s, consider a stop at Valley of the Gods if you have a high-clearance vehicle. This backcountry area is just north of Mexican Hat. Valley of the Gods holds a landscape similar to Monument Valley but is on BLM land, meaning there are fewer restrictions for visitors.
A 17-mile dirt road leads through the valley. There are no designated trails but you are free to hike or camp pretty much anywhere. That said, it is an extremely isolated area with no services. Visitors must carry all supplies and be completely self-sufficient.
As much as we generally would love to explore an area like this, we ended up skipping it. Less than two weeks before we were here, we got a flat tire driving the primitive roads at Dinosaur National Park. We just didn’t want to take the risk while we were already driving on a mismatched tire.
That said, if we ever do another Monument Valley road trip, I’m almost confident that we’ll end up at Valley of the Gods! Who knows, we might even do some primitive camping.
Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park
The Four Corners Monument is located at the only place in the country where four states converge. This park is about 100 miles east of Monument Valley. While you could do it as a day trip from Monument Valley, it’s a fairly long drive for what likely will be a quick stop. For that reason, we’d probably recommend stopping at Four Corners on your way between Monument Valley and Mesa Verde National Park, which is what we did.
At Four Corners Monument, you’ll find a large marker noting the intersection of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Built up around it are stalls for Navajo vendors selling shirts, magnets, stickers, artwork and other souvenirs.
Outside the main vendor stall area, there are a few food trucks selling hot dogs, hamburgers and traditional Navajo fry bread. We highly encourage you to purchase something while you’re here to support to the local economy.
There’s really not much to do other than snap a few pictures and buy a snack or souvenir, though. We probably spent about 30-45 minutes here. And most of that was waiting in line or eating. That said, there is ample RV parking, so it is an easy stop while towing a camper!
Still, it’s worth a quick stop if you enjoy geographical landmarks.
With More Time Near Monument Valley
If you have another day or two, there are several national park sites in northern Arizona that would be well worth a visit. We did these as one long day trip from Goulding’s/Monument Valley. Honestly, though, it was a really long and busy day. It might be best to do these on your way to or from other sites.
Navajo National Monument could most easily be done as a day trip from Monument Valley, as it is only about an hour southwest. Here, you’ll find two cliff dwellings used by ancestral Puebloans. The visitor center also provides an opportunity to learn more about these people and their way of life.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument lies about 100 miles southeast of Monument Valley. It preserves a canyon that has been a home for Native peoples for nearly 5,000 years. This park is managed jointly by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. You can view the canyon along two scenic drives. Access into the canyon is by guided tours only.
About 40 miles south of Canyon de Chelly NM, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site is the oldest and longest continuously operated trading post in the Southwest US. During your visit, you can learn about the importance of the trading post, do some shopping yourself and tour the Hubbell home and ranch.
If doing a longer Southwest road trip, Canyon de Chelly NM and Hubbell Trading Post NHS can easily be done on a road trip linking Petrified Forest National Park and Monument Valley.
Where to Stay Near Monument Valley
Monument Valley really is a very isolated region with only a few dining options. If doing a lot of driving, you’ll want to carry food (or at least snacks) with you, if possible.
The only lodging inside the Monument Valley Tribal Park is at The View Hotel and Cabins. There is also a trading post and restaurant located at the hotel. We didn’t even get to check out the hotel during our visit but the location is great – not far from the entrance to the scenic drive. There is also a campground but it does not offer any hookups or shade.
We opted to stay at Goulding’s RV Park, which is just a few miles away, on the other side of the highway. The RV park did have full hookups and a few shade trees. Sites were very close together but, otherwise, the campground was comfortable and convenient. For us, the narrow sites were worth it to have hookups. We also liked the convenience of the other services at Goulding’s.
The town of Kayenta, AZ has a few chain hotels, including a Hampton Inn. While we can’t vouch for that particular hotel, we generally have good experiences staying at Hampton Inn and other Hilton properties.
Where to Eat Near Monument Valley
The Stagecoach Restaurant at Goulding’s Resort serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. We stopped in for breakfast one day and had a great meal. The breakfast menu consists of traditional items such as eggs, omelets, French toast and pancakes. We had hoped to get either lunch or dinner here, too, so we could check out some of their local specialties served on Navajo fry bread. Alas, the timing just didn’t work out for us.
That said, we did get a chance to try the local cuisine at the Old Bridge Bar and Grill, which is the restaurant at the San Juan Inn in Mexican Hat. I really enjoyed the Navajo Taco, which is basically chili-topped Navajo fry bread. Grant had the Navajo Cowboy Beef Sandwich, a roast beef sandwich served on fry bread. The restaurant wasn’t fancy, but we had great service and really enjoyed our meal!
In Kayenta, you’ll find a few fast-food chains, including Mcdonald’s, Sonic and Church’s Chicken. There are also a few local restaurants but we did not eat at any of them.
It’s also important to note that alcohol is not served or sold on the Navajo Nation Reservation. That includes the restaurant and grocery store at Goulding’s. In fact, the Old Bridge Bar and Grill in Mexican Hat is the only restaurant with a Utah state liquor license for 100 miles.
While there is a small, reasonably well-stocked grocery store at Goulding’s, we recommend bringing and supplies you think you will need with you.
Final Thoughts on Your Monument Valley Road Trip
A road trip to Monument Valley really is a special treat. If you’re looking for the freedom of the open road, you’ll certainly find it here. In fact, there’s very little around other than open road!
While it’s an immensely popular area, it’s also easy to find hidden gems. It’s even possible that you might go hours without seeing another person.
With just two or three days, you can enjoy Monument Valley and several other sites around southern Utah. If you have more time, you can easily extend your road trip in just about any direction. The entire region is filled with more natural beauty and cultural history than you can imagine.
A Monument Valley road trip will not only take you to and through the iconic landscape of the American West, it’ll also provide a window to the native peoples who have called this land home for thousands of years.
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