Bunny’s Monument Valley Road Trip
Monument Valley has the type of otherworldly scenery that has always fascinated Bunny.
This isolated landscape is instantly familiar from countless movies, ad campaigns and holiday brochures even if you’ve never set your foot there. It is the quintessential Southwest scenery.
Despite its name, Monument Valley is not exactly a valley but a wide flat area with isolated red mesas and majestic buttes that are surrounded by empty, sandy desert.
Naturally, Bunny wanted to experience Monument Valley firsthand during her recent adventures in Arizona.
What is a butte?
At first, Bunny didn’t have a clue what the hell people were talking about when they went on and on about these fantastic buttes in Monument Valley. Turns out, these mysterious buttes are just a fancy name for “an isolated hill with steep, often vertical sides and a small, relatively flat top”. Okay, then.
How to Get There
Monument Valley is located inside the Navajo Indian reservation on the Arizona-Utah border. Only one main road, US163, travels through the area.
You can enjoy nice scenery from the main road alone, but to truly appreciate the beauty of Monument Valley, you will need to enter the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, a couple of miles East off the main road, just after you’ve crossed the state line from Arizona to Utah.
There is an admission fee of 20 USD per car (maximum four people), payable upon entering.
Its remote location is definitely part of Monument Valley’s immense appeal. You will not encounter the hordes of people here that flock the Grand Canyon area or nearby Zion National Park.
The closest major airports are in Phoenix (5h drive), Albuquerque (5h drive) and Salt Lake City (6-7h drive). That’s a lot of driving.
If you’re on a road trip in Southwest USA, Monument Valley is best combined with Page which is about a two-hour drive away. Page is the perfect base for visiting the stunning Horseshoe Bend as well as taking a tour of the Antelope Canyon or going kayaking on Lake Powell.
If you would like to combine a visit to Monument Valley with the Grand Canyon, the driving time between them is slightly over three hours. Another option, Zion National Park, is 4,5-hour drive from Monument Valley.
If you’re in Las Vegas and thinking about popping by, Bunny has bad news for you: Monument Valley from Las Vegas is not doable as a day trip. The one-way drive alone will take you 6-7 hours.
If you continue onwards to Utah, Valley of the Gods is just around the corner from Monument Valley. It has similar scenery, fewer people, no admission fees and an excellent Valley of the Gods Bed and Breakfast in which to spend the night. Continuing further still, it will take you less than three hours to drive to Moab, the adventure capital of Utah.
Where to Stay
Most people just drive through Monument Valley or stay for one night at most. Bunny wanted to make the most of it, so she planned a two-night stay.
If you want to stay inside the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, there is only one accommodation option: The View Hotel. The hotel books up months in advance, so reserve your room well before your planned visit.
The View Hotel offers traditional hotel rooms, a camping site and newly-built wooden cabins with a view. Bunny opted for the cabins.
The View Hotel Cabins
The View’s Cabins are attached to the campground, some half a mile from the actual hotel.
The cabins have fantastic views, and are clean, comfortable and private. There is a full bathroom, a fridge and a microwave so you can also modestly self-cater, although you will have to bring your own dishes and cutlery.
All cabins have private porches with directs views over Monument Valley. Bunny had the Premier View Cabin, number 23, which probably had the best view of them all. It is absolutely worth it to pay a little extra for the premier view, Bunny says.
Monument Valley Sunrise
The most glorious moment of staying in the cabins is no doubt the sunrise. The cabins are ideally located to catch the magnificent sunrises from your own porch.
Nothing beats the feeling of sitting on the porch under a warm blanket, with a steaming hot cup of coffee in your paw, watching a new day break in the valley. There is total silence (apart from Mr. Bunny snoring) and the colours of the sky are just amazing.
This is why it is best to spend a night (or two) in Monument Valley, Bunny says. And the sunsets are not too shabby either…
The View Restaurant
The View Hotel Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The hotel’s website describes the menu as “Navajo inspired dishes and classic American cuisine created by our Navajo cooks”. Bunny had her suspicions but ended up being delightfully surprised with her dinner.
There were tasty nachos, Navajo tacos and quesadillas that could all be ordered as vegetarian versions. And then there was the view…
Please note that the restaurant does not serve any alcohol as the whole Navajo Tribal Park is a dry zone. There is some tasty non-alcoholic beer though!
Next to the restaurant is The View’s Trading Post, selling handicrafts and various souvenirs. It is not really Bunny’s thing but she did enjoy hopping around the colourful shop for a bit before dinner.
Other Hotel Options
The other accommodation option for Monument Valley is Goulding’s Lodge, just outside the Navajo Tribal Park. Bunny didn’t visit but it looked like a good second-best option.
Otherwise, you will have to drive half an hour either to Kayenta, Arizona, or Mexican Hat, Utah, to find more accommodation options. Though neither is ideal for catching those special sunset or sunrise moments in Monument Valley.
What to See
Monument Valley is all about the epic scenery. There are not so many things to do as such, other than taking in the majestic views and enjoying the spiritual peace and quiet the valley offers.
That said, there are a couple of things that are usually considered “must dos” when visiting Monument Valley.
Monument Valley Loop Drive
The Monument Valley Loop Drive, also known as the Scenic Drive, is a 17-mile dirt road that leaves from the Visitor Center and takes you to the towering cliffs and mesas in the valley. There are 11 particularly scenic spots along the drive. You are allowed to park your vehicle and stretch your legs there but hiking closer to the buttes is forbidden.
The road is dusty and bumpy but most family cars will be able to make it, provided you take it very slow. Bunny’s rental Ford Flex certainly survived but it took the Bunnies almost three hours to complete the whole loop, albeit with plenty of photo stops along the way.
Try and get a map before you go, Bunny says. There is little danger of getting lost but it is nice to know the names of the formations as you drive past them. Most have been named according to their appearance, such as Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, Camel Butte and Totem Pole, but sometimes it is difficult to tell.
Navajo vendors are at many of the spots selling jewelry, crafts, native food and souvenirs, but there are effectively no other services. Only at John Ford’s Point might a coffee stand be open or a portaloo available, but don’t count on it.
If you worry about damaging your fancy car on the scenic loop drive, you can instead always arrange a guided jeep tour from Navajo tour operators. There is usually no need to reserve these tours in advance. The View Hotel parking lot has plenty of vendors on call.
There are some amazing sunset pictures online taken from Hunts Mesa in Monument Valley. Naturally, Bunny wanted to go there and emulate the photos, but it turned out that you can only visit Hunts Mesa on an organised tour which currently run about 300 USD per person. This was a bit too much to swallow, even for a freewheeling, big travel spender like Bunny.
Monument Valley Hikes
Unfortunately, hiking in the Navajo Tribal Park is restricted as most of the land is privately-owned. Apart from the Wildcat Trail (see below), all hiking must be done in the company of a Navajo guide, for a hefty fee.
Wildcat Trail is the only hiking option inside Navajo Tribal Park itself for independent travellers. It is a circular 4-mile hiking route that leaves from outside The View Hotel. You can take the trail either in a clockwise or an anti-clockwise direction and it is well-marked. Bunny encountered only a few other hikers on the trail so the solitude alone was blissful.
The hike loops around the West Mitten Butte and allows you some nice, close-up views of the formation from all angles. The trail starts off as easy (going downhill) but gets more strenuous towards the end when you have to climb back up to the parking lot on a steady, sandy upward slope.
Hiking boots are recommended. Take plenty of water too and note that there is no shade once you get going. Before the hike, you should register at the Visitor Centre, although Bunny doesn’t think this rule is strictly enforced.
Monument Valley Visitor Centre
Another place of interest is the Monument Valley Visitor Centre which is adjacent to The View Hotel.
The Monument Valley Visitor Centre is not as sleek a production as the Information Centers in some of the nearby State or National Parks, but you do learn interesting tidbits about the area and its history.
Outside the Visitor Center is the Lookout Point where you can enjoy views across the valley and three of its most photographed peaks: East and West Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte. It is particularly beautiful just before sunset.
Bunny's Book Tip
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown. The title says it all. Reading this book, you will gain a new perspective on the history and struggles of Native Americans in the American West. It is quite a sad, but important read, Bunny says.
Forrest Gump Point
Everyone loves Forrest Gump! Even Bunny. One of the many memorable moments in the movie includes sweeping shots of Monument Valley where Forrest Gump abruptly stops in his tracks and ends his epic cross-country run.
Bunny knew it was possible to visit the exact spot where the crazy-bearded Forrest got tired from running and she needed to see it in person. Sure, it was only a movie but the scenery also left its impression.
Luckily, Google Maps proved very helpful in this endeavour. Just punch in Forrest Gump Point and follow the directions on your screen. It is an easy, 20-minute scenic drive from the Monument Valley Visitor Center.
Some enterprising soul has even erected a wooden Forrest Gump sign on the spot, although you are more likely to recognise it from the crowds that gather every day on that lonely road.
Bunny had learned that the best light for photography at Forrest Gump Point would be in the early morning. She didn’t quite manage a sunrise visit but she was there before 8am. And it was blissfully quiet!
So, the Bunnies had a lot of fun posing on the road and taking silly photos before, inevitably, other people slowly started to arrive.
Things to Know in Advance
If your itinerary takes you to the Southwest USA, you should put a day (or two!) aside for Monument Valley. The scenery is spellbinding.
And if you stay the night, you will be able to enjoy a quiet night under a canopy of stars and be greeted by a sunrise you will not soon forget.