The Ultimate Guide to Monument Valley for First Time Visitors

Julie United States 45 Comments

With sandstone buttes, colossal mesas, and panoramic vistas, Monument Valley is one of the USA’s iconic landscapes.

Sure, it’s possible to drive right through the Valley, visiting the main sites in just two or three hours, but if you really want to explore it, consider spending at least one day here. We were surprised at how much there is to do in Monument Valley. There are even quick excursions and scenic drives in the nearby area, if you are looking for even more activities to fill your time.

Monument Valley Travel Guide

What is Monument Valley?

Located on the Utah-Arizona border, Monument Valley is part of the Colorado Plateau. It is not officially a National Park since it sits within the Navajo Nation Reservation. Most of the area that is visited by tourists is called the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Until the 1930’s, Monument Valley was an obscure, seldom visited location. The only ones who really aware of the beauty of this place were the Navajo Indians who lived on the land. It wasn’t until John Ford featured this landscape in his well-known films (including Stagecoach and Rio Grande) that Monument Valley began to experience some popularity.

Now, Monument Valley has been featured in a large number of popular movies, including Forrest Gump, National Lampoons Vacation, Mission: Impossible II, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the new HBO series Westworld.

Monument Valley Desert

Getting to Monument Valley

Monument Valley isn’t close to anything, which is why it stayed off the radar for so long. The closest airport is in Flagstaff, 176 miles away. However, to fly into this airport, you usually have to change planes in Phoenix, which does not save you any time.

Distances to Nearby Airports:
  • Phoenix – 320 miles
  • Albuquerque – 324 miles
  • Las Vegas – 400 miles
  • Salt Lake City – 380 miles

We flew into Phoenix and then drove to Monument Valley, which took about 5 hours.

Distances to Nearby Cities and National Parks
  • Four Corners Monument – 105 miles
  • Page, Arizona – 125 miles
  • Grand Canyon (South Rim) – 180 miles

Access to the Monument Valley Tribal Park is on US-163 just north of the Utah-Arizona border. It costs $20 per vehicle (up to four people) to enter the park. Once you pay this fee, you can come and go as often as you like.

Best Things to do in Monument Valley

Tribal Park Loop

This 17-mile loop, also referred to as the Valley Drive, is a scenic drive past some of the most popular sites in Monument Valley. It is a dirt and gravel road that starts and ends at the Monument Valley Visitor Center.

You can self-drive this loop. A 4×4 is not necessary; cars can drive this road without any real difficulty. It’s a bumpy, dusty road with a very low speed limit, but that’s OK, you want to take your time and enjoy the views.

The Mittens and the Valley Drive dirt road.

The Mittens

Please note: if it rains, this road can become impassable, even if you have four-wheel drive.

This is the only part of Monument Valley you can visit without taking a tour. To go off the Valley Drive and explore further, you must schedule a tour with one of the many companies.

Here are some photos of what to expect on the drive.

West Mitten Butte

West Mitten Butte

Three Sisters

John Ford’s Point

John Fords Point

Another view of John Ford’s point.

John Ford Point

Navajo Flag

Yucca

If you only have a few hours to spare, your time is best spent driving the Valley Drive. Tours to places like Mystery Valley and Teardrop Arch are fantastic, but I think you would be missing out on something if you skipped John Ford’s Point or the Mittens.

Take a Tour of Monument Valley

There are many options for tours depending on your interests. If you want, you can start the day at sunrise and go all the way to sunset.

The Valley Drive on a Tour

You can take a tour on the Valley Drive with a Navajo guide. This tour takes you to all of the same sites you would see on your own, however, you do it with a guide and in their vehicle. This is best for people who do not feel comfortable self-driving the dirt road or for those who just want to sit back and relax and enjoy the views.

Lower Monument Valley

There is a second loop that veers off of the Valley Drive. This is only accessible by tour. This tour takes you up close to the Totem Pole and past other rock formations and mesas you would miss if you only did the Valley Drive.

We took a sunrise Lower Monument Valley tour and had a great experience. Even in late April temperatures were cold and of course, it’s a very early start to the day, but it was awesome watching the sunrise in Monument Valley.

Monument Valley Sunrise

Prices average around $80 per person (depending on the tour company) and last 3 hours. Photography tours (usually offered at sunrise or sunset cost substantially more, about $125+ per person).

Mystery Valley

This is a very popular tour that takes visitors on a three-hour excursion to see petroglyphs and Anasazi sites. It’s more of a cultural experience than a panoramic, scenic experience.

Prices average around $90 per person (depending on the tour company) and last 3 to 4 hours.

Teardrop Arch

This is an unpopular, off-the-beaten-path tour. Which is exactly why we did it. Was it worth it? For us, absolutely. We were able to do a little hiking, explored caves, and got one of the most unique views of Monument Valley.

Teardrop Arch Earth Trekkers

It’s not for everyone, especially if you are short on time, but we recommend it if you want a little adventure or like to get away from it all.

Read more about our experience: Is Teardrop Arch Worth It?

Prices average around $80 per person and last 2 to 3 hours.

Hunt’s Mesa

The ultimate excursion in Monument Valley is the day trip (with an optional overnight stay) on Hunt’s Mesa. Pricing out around $300 per person, this was too expensive for our budget. But what you get are unbelievable sunset views over Monument Valley and a steak dinner cooked over a campfire. It’s a long excursion, lasting about 7 hours, and most of that time is spent driving over rugged terrain. It sounds awesome and we strongly considered it, but the price tag was too high. But if you are looking for an adventure and the best view of Monument Valley, put Hunt’s Mesa on your list.

How to Choose a Tour Company

There are at least ten reputable companies offering tours in Monument Valley. We use Trip Advisor to pick not only tour companies but also accommodations and restaurants. Take a look at the reviews on Trip Advisor and then visit the company’s website for pricing and full details on their tours.

We used:

Quick Excursions from Monument Valley

If you have a little extra time and want to explore farther, here are some ideas for you. By the way, just driving down the road here is packed with stunning views. This really is a beautiful part of the USA.

Forrest Gump Point

Located on US-163, the famous view of Monument Valley featured in the movie Forrest Gump is not to be missed. GPS coordinates: 37.101393, -109.990973.

This is just a 20-minute drive from the Visitor Center. This spot draws lots of visitors, so have patience when trying to take your photo without anyone else in your way.

Tim Rivenbark

What to expect at Forrest Gump Point

Forrest Gump Point

Forrest Gump

Pro Travel Tip:  The best time for photography is in the morning, midday, and early afternoon. In the late afternoon and early evening, you will be facing the sun. This creates a terrible sun glare. We have been to Monument Valley twice. On our second visit, at the end of December, we were staring directly into the sun and we were here at 4 pm. Our photos were terrible. The photos that you see above were taken in the early afternoon in May.

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods features a landscape similar to Monument Valley. It may not be quite as spectacular, but it also has much less tourist traffic. If you like scenic drives and want to leave the crowds behind, put this spot on your list.


Read more: Valley of the Gods: Off-the-Beaten-Path in Utah


Valley of the Gods

Mexican Hat

This rock formation is named for its Mexican Sombrero-like appearance. You can see it from US-163 on the drive to the Valley of the Gods. If you want, you can hike up onto the formation.

Mexican Hat

Where to Stay in Monument Valley

There are not a lot of options in the nearby area.

The View Hotel

Located in the Monument Valley Tribal Park, The View Hotel offers several types of accommodations. The priciest option are the hotel rooms, all which offer a view over Monument Valley. The higher the floor, the more you will pay, but you will also get the best view.

The Premium Cabins. These are relatively new. These cabins overlook the Mittens and some have better views than others. We stayed in a cabin (in the front row) and loved it. We had a deck with a great view and we could lie in bed and look out at West Mitten Butte. The cabins are surprising clean and warm (it got down into the low 30’s during our visit).

The View Hotel Cabins

View from our cabin

View from our cabin

Cabin View

Camping. There is a campground and RV parking. This is the cheapest option. The campground is located between the cabins and the hotel and the view is out to the Mittens. This is also a popular spot to watch sunrise and sunset.

Monument Valley Sunset

Goulding’s Lodge and Campground

Located just outside of the Monument Valley Tribal Park, Goulding’s Lodge offers rooms with a view and a campground. They also operate one of the only restaurants in the area.

There are two bed and breakfast places in Monument Valley, Tear Drop Arch B&B and Firetree B&B (you sleep in a Hogan). The next closest towns are Kayenta and Mexican Hat.

Where to Eat in Monument Valley

This is not a place you visit for the food. Expect overpriced, mediocre food in and around Monument Valley.

Goulding’s Stagecoach Dining Room. We ate dinner here one night. Entrees cost about $25 but the food is very mediocre. Tim and I dined on salads, which were nothing special, but they were a fraction of the cost of an entrée.

The View Restaurant. They offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Like Goulding’s Lodge, their prices are on the expensive side and the food is average. However, we did eat breakfast here after our sunrise photography tour, and we thought the food was pretty good.

Amigo Café. This restaurant is located in Kayenta, a half hour drive from the Visitor Center. This is a cozy restaurant with a local feel that serves Mexican and Navajo food. I ordered the Navajo Taco, which was enormous. This is enough food for two adults. Navajo fry bread is similar to funnel cake or doughnut dough, although it is not sweet. It’s delicious! On top of the fry bread were beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese and onions. If you don’t mind the drive, consider making the trip down to Amigo Café. Ray, one of our guides, also recommends the Blue Coffee Pot in Kayenta.

Amigo Cafe

When to go

The best time to go to Monument Valley is during the spring and autumn months, when temperatures are pleasant. During the summer, it can be very hot. Plus, this is when the Valley gets to be more crowded as many people are here during their summer vacations. In the winter, it does get very cold and it can snow here. That would be a sight to see!

How Much Time do You Need?

Since it takes about three hours to get to Monument Valley from almost anywhere else in the vicinity, it helps to stay overnight, at least one night. This gives you the opportunity to do a sunrise and/or sunset tour if you desire.

The must-do activities are the Valley Drive and the view from Forrest Gump Point. In my opinion, doing at least one tour is worthwhile because it lets you experience more of Monument Valley.

However, if you are short on time, you can do the Valley Drive, taking just a few hours of your time, if you are on a road trip through the area.

How We Planned Our Time

Day 1 – We drove from Phoenix, Arizona. In Kayenta we stopped for lunch at Amigo Café. We spent the afternoon visiting Forrest Gump Point, the Valley of the Gods, and Mexican Hat. We ate dinner at Goulding’s Stagecoach Dining Room and then watched as the sunset over the Mittens.

Day 2 – Up very early for a cold but beautiful sunrise photography tour of Lower Monument Valley. After a late breakfast, we checked out of our cabin and spent the mid-part of the day driving the Valley Drive. In the afternoon we took the three-hour tour of Teardrop Arch. Then we drove west to Page, Arizona.

Articles about Monument Valley


Do you have any other questions or comments? Leave them in the comment section below.

See all of our articles about Arizona in our Arizona Destination Guide.

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Monument Valley Travel Guide

Comments 45

  1. I love the guide to Monument Valley…we will be coming from he Grand Canyon. Is there any way we can get a PDF of the presentation?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Nancy. We don’t have a PDF available, but it’s possible to print this. I use Google Chrome. Go to File -> Print -> Open PDF in preview -> and then you can print it or save it. It will be a long document since it might have ads but that’s the best way that I know how to do it. Cheers, Julie

  2. Thank you for a great article. Based on your recommendations alone, we booked a Teardrop Arch tour with Navajo Spirit Tours and it was amazing. My 7- and 12-year-olds loved it and our guide was incredible. It was one of the highlights of our 7-day drive around the Four Corners area.

    1. Post
      Author
  3. Thank you for the great article! I am also planning to fly into Phoenix and rent a car from there to drive to Monument Valley and do self-driving along the 17 miles Valley Drive. Though, I have read that rental car companies usually stated in their contract that the use of vehicle on unpaved roads is prohibited. Is there any car rental company in Phoenix that allows the use of their vehicle on dirt and gravel road like the 17 miles Valley Drive?

    If I take Lower Monument Valley guided tour, how much of the 17 miles Valley Drive will be covered during the Lower Monument Valley tour? If I am unable to drive a rental car on the 17 miles loop would it be worth it to go on two separate guided tours, Valley Drive and Lower Monument Valley tours? Or are most of the highlights on the 17 miles Valley Drive will be covered during Lower Monument Valley tour?

    Thank you!

    1. Post
      Author

      The rules can vary for each rental company. I would look over the terms and conditions closely. You could also speak directly to the rental car company. There is a difference between unpaved roads and going off-road. In the last car we rented, which was for Wyoming and Montana with Hertz, I could not take the car off-road but I could drive the car on unpaved roads. When we did the Lower Monument Valley sunrise tour, we drove through a big chunk of the Valley Drive. We couldn’t stop and get out to take photos, but you do get to see some of the highlights. If for some reason you can’t get a rental car that you can take on the Valley Drive, I think it would be worth taking separate tour of the 17 mile loop. Many people like to have their photo taken at John Ford’s point, one of the most iconic spots in Monument Valley, and this would give you that opportunity. Cheers, Julie

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