Monument Valley's Iconic Landscape
Brings Native American History to Life

By Joyce Kiefer

If ever there was an iconic landscape of the American West, it’s Monument Valley. Red sandstone monoliths rise up from vast sweeps of desert.  Stark, jaw-dropping scenery is carved on a scale so large that it stands for the wild frontier in countless movies, commercials, cartoons, music videos. Close your eyes and imagine a classic Western movie: The bugle blows and the cavalry charges out from behind a huge rock shaped like a mitten.  John Wayne is leading the pack. John Ford is directing.  

Monument Valley is a Navajo tribal park in the Four Corners area of Arizona where that state meets Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.  Geologically it’s part of the Colorado Plateau, which includes Grand Canyon, Bryce, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks.  

As a child who preferred scenery to shootouts in Western movies, I yearned to see this place for myself. I got my first look when Bill and I were first married and lived in Utah.  But it was quick, as we had a baby and a VW Beetle.

We finally returned this year. Westerns are passé now.  The focus is more on the Native Americans and nature than on cowboys and cavalry. Tourists come from all over the world. 

With our SUV we could have attempted the steep, rocky drive from the Visitor Center into the area where unescorted visitors are allowed.  But I wanted to go in as far as possible and get a Navajo perspective.  We made reservations with Navajo Spirit Tours. Given the distance we had to drive each day from the San Francisco Bay Area, the only place we could launch our final push into Monument Valley was Flagstaff, Arizona.  During that final three-hour drive, we’d have to flip from standard to daylight mountain time once we hit the reservation. Therefore, we figured the noon hour was most practical to schedule our tour.  We’d have to put up with heat or wind. 

It turned out to be wind.  

Instead of the bright blue of stock photos, the sky was milky with dust. The formations looked all the more mysterious as they emerged from the haze.

We drove up to the Visitor Center perched on a cliff that overlooks the valley and the signature East and West Mitten monoliths.  The sweep of this view, not the wind, took our breath away.  We met up with our guide Harry and his flatbed truck with benches in the back. Since we were his only customers, he invited us to join him in the truck cab. We made a long stop at John Ford Point overlooking the location for his first film here - “Stagecoach” –1939 with John Wayne.  From then on Hollywood was sold on the place.

Unescorted tourists are allowed to drive further on from Ford Point, but a guide is required to go in deeper.  Here, our guide Harry showed us petroglyphs and rock formations with fanciful names. A band of wild horses crossed the road in front of us on the way to a spring.  We looked up through the window rocks. Desert varnish made eyelashes around the opening in one rock.  I thought “Ear of the Wind” was well-named, with sand blown against its base.

Tidbits that Harry shared as we bumped along:  Some Navajos in the Valley don’t have electricity or running water; each day he was bussed 77 miles to high school in Blanding, Utah; Western mystery writer Tony Hillerman visited his grandmother and enjoyed her sheep jerky.

Back at the Visitor Center we checked out the extensive exhibit on the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II.  We left the park and drove to Goulding’s Trading Post across the way to see the small museum devoted to films made in the valley.  It also had an exhibit on Code Talkers.

I would like to return again to Monument Valley.  Next time I’d get a permit and hike the trail around West Mitten.  I’d do this in late September or early October, as Harry advised, early in the morning, when the shadows are sharp and the Ear of the Wind hears scarcely a breeze.  


Website for Monument Valley Tribal Park.

Getting Around the Park
You can drive the 17-mile scenic drive (see map at above site) but the road is rough.  The Visitor Center parking lot has lots of guides ready to take you in their flatbed trucks.  Closed vehicles and other arrangements can be made through Gouldings Trading Post.  The tour we took was Navajo Spirit Tours.  Harry Nez was our guide.  $75/person during the day. 
See details on website called

Wildcat trail winds around West Mitten Butte for 3.2 miles and takes 1 ½ - 2 hours. A permit is required, which you can get at the Visitor Center.  See above link to Navajo nation parks.

Places to stay
High end hotel and cabins as well as restaurant, and a tent and RV campground, all within the tribal park. See

Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post
Across the road from the Tribal Park, Gouldings has all kinds of accommodations, including tours and a gas station. See

Lodging at Indian Hogan

Outlying towns
Make your reservations as far in advance as possible and ask about cancellation fees.  The nearest towns are Kayenta, AZ, and Mexican Hat, UT, both about 25 miles away.

Indian crafts, food court
One mile south of the park entrance on Highway 163 long sheds house various craft vendors and a food court.  The Visitor Center has souvenir-type items.

Joyce Kiefer is a regular contributor to Bay Area Family 


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