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Don't go to Arizona or Utah without visiting Monument Valley!
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (USA)
Member Name: redhead78
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (USA)
Date: 06/07/12, updated on 09/07/12 (40 review reads)
Advantages: Great value for money, unique scenery, awe-inspiring and tranquil setting
Disadvantages: If you ignore the inevitable tourist tack then none for me
On our recent trip to Arizona, Utah and Nevada the first major planned day was a visit to Monument Valley (after a very long detour to Antelope Canyon - watch out for future review!). My husband had been briefly before with his brothers but they hadn't entered the actual Navajo Tribal Park itself, just driven past the edge. He had bought a huge landscape picture whilst there which has hung on our living room wall since we married and has been teasing me with it's majestic beauty ever since. It was a place I'd been desperate to visit for a while and was meant to be one of the (many!) highlights of our trip. So what's all the fuss about?
Where is it and how do you get there?
Monument Valley is right on the border between Arizona and Utah in the United States. It has become a major tourist destination over the last couple of decades, thanks mostly to its appearance in numerous movies over the years. On trips around the national parks of the south west USA it is a popular stop and when visiting you can hear languages and accents from all over the world. People normally stop here, or pass through here, en route from the Grand Canyon to the eastern side of Utah and places such as Canyonlands or Arches National Parks, although our route was slightly different to the norm as we pretty much started here and finished at the Grand Canyon.
There are several smaller airports close by, including one at Page, the nearest town of any size, and one at the Grand Canyon. But the nearest major international airports for foreign visitors are either Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas, Nevada, hence why it is usually visited as part of a road trip. We flew into Phoenix and I would estimate that the drive from there would take around 5 hours (without the detour we took) which, in American terms is nothing much at all really, but in England would be a big effort of a drive. Even if you flew into one of the smaller airports you would still need to hire a car and drive for an hour or two to get there, or alternatively book onto one of the many organised coach tours to the valley.
Despite not being what the English would consider to be easily accessible, it is still a major tourist destination and can get very busy. We were there early on a Tuesday morning at the beginning of June and by the time we left (mid-afternoon) the carpark was packed full so I would definitely recommend getting there early.
What is it and what's all the fuss about?
I hardly know where to begin describing Monument Valley really. It is made up of dozens of "buttes" all sticking up into the valley and every way you look is a photo opportunity! Most people will no doubt have seen pictures of it and if you've seen Forrest Gump then you've definitely seen it, whether you were aware of it or not. There is an iconic scene in the film where he is running down a seemingly endless road with several red rock, flat topped mountains jutting up as a back drop..this is Monument Valley. In fact, on the road out of the valley there is a sign on the verge marking the spot where that particular scene was filmed..something we came across only after my husband insisted on stopping about 8 times at various places looking for the exact same scene!
The area is on Navajo tribal reservation land and is pretty much in the middle of the Arizona/Utah desert. Red sand, cactus and open views are pretty much the norm around here until suddenly, as you drive along, these huge towers of red rock appear out of nowhere. It's not a mountain range and they're not all joined together. Created by thousands and thousands of years worth of erosion, they're individual spires of all different shapes and sizes. Some close together, some set miles apart from the others. It really is an impossible place to describe adequately but is absolutely one of the most awe-inspiring places I've ever been. The picture Dooyoo shows gives you an idea of the views but not the vastness of the park..imagine that picture replicated over a few miles of endless desert and you can start to build an image in your head.
Despite the hustle and bustle of what is obviously a thriving tourist business, the place has a serenity and stillness that you wouldn't believe possible with other people around. The tribal park itself is huge though and maybe this contributes to that feeling. Also, many of the visitors seemed to just stay in the visitor centre, take photos from there and then leave without actually getting out into the park and exploring it to experience what is has to offer first hand. It would appear that many people don't stay overnight in the area and just "do Monument Valley" as a stop off on their way to somewhere else. Shame for them but all the better for those of us that did more than that!
Fees and facilities.
You can see some areas of Monument Valley from the road and so many people just stop here, take photos and then pass on by without actually entering the tribal park. These people don't know what they're missing and if you're ever in the area, take my advice; GO IN! The Navajos own all the land in the surrounding area and obviously cottoned on a while ago that they could capitalise on this amazing place that stands on their reservation. The entry fee is a mere $6 per person (an absolute bargain when you consider the entrance fees to some of the other area attractions), payable at a kiosk on the road into the valley.
In the park itself there is the View Hotel, the only hotel in the park boundaries, and a large visitor centre and gift shop. At the visitor centre you can find out all about the history of the area, visit the loos and get information about the scenic drive and hikes it is possible to do. There is also a campsite in the park but to those adventurous enough to camp here be warned, it is VERY basic (ie 4 portaloos are the ONLY facilities available - no running water, no showers, no nearby shop for supplies) and we both commented that we wouldn't like to have tried to find a suitable pitch for a tent with all the rocks on the very uneven ground.
The gift shop is exactly what you would expect a Navajo owned tourist gift shop to be. Full of the usual magnets, mugs, caps and tshirts but with equal amounts of native crafts including pottery, jewellery, rugs and sandstone paintings (one of which now hangs proudly on our wall!). The shop was very busy both as we arrived and as we left and obviously does a roaring trade, although I felt that the prices there definitely made up for the low entrance fee, this is obviously where they make most of their money.
There is also the possibility of going on a jeep tour of the scenic drive if you're not brave enough to drive it yourself, although from what we saw it took a lot more nerve to get into one of those jeeps than it did to drive it - more of that later!
Our experience of the valley.
For us this was always going to be an activity holiday and, as we'll probably not visit the area again, we wanted to do everything that we possibly could whilst on our trip. In Monument Valley this included both the scenic drive and a 3.5 mile self-guided hike.
Because of the heat (information at the visitor centre says that summer highs can reach 90F but it felt much hotter than that and, indeed, our car thermometer recorded 103F as we were leaving) we decided to do the hike first as it was still quite early in the day and so not at its hottest. The hike is called the Wildcat Trail and, beginning at the campground, goes around the base of the West Mitten Butte (which shows how big one of the monuments can be...and this isn't even one of the biggest!) and information recommends you allow 1.5-2 hours to complete it.
The hike itself isn't particularly taxing and most people should be able to complete it without too much fuss, although there is a bit of a climb back up to the campground at the end, but it is an easy to follow trail along sandy paths and dried out creek beds. The only thing that really makes it difficult to complete is the heat and I can't emphasise strongly enough the need to wear a hat and sunscreen and to take plenty of water with you - we got through about 4 litres between two of us in the time it took to complete the walk. The other necessity you must take is a camera! My hubby fancies himself as a bit of an Ansell Adams and we could probably have completed the hike in half the time if he hadn't been stopping, literally every 10 seconds, to take pictures! Cactus, lizards, monuments, vistas, creek beds, you name it, we have a dozen photos of it just from that one hike! I can't really blame him though. The views of the area are abolutely astounding and like nothing you've ever seen before and who wouldn't take a photo of a lizard if one ran right out in front of them?!
For some reason the hike is not a popular excusion whilst at Monument Valley so we only passed a handful of other people when we doing it which meant it was a very peaceful walk and enabled us to really experience the peace and tranquility of the area. Having said that I was very glad to get back to the campground (even if it did mean using a composting portaloo that sits exposed to the blaring sun all day every day, eww!) and then into the air-conditioned car for a while!
After the hike we set straight off on the scenic drive, which also starts from close to the campground. It is an obvious route to follow so there is never any danger of getting lost but it is a very challenging drive! The slope to get down to the bottom of the valley is heart-stopping at times, going over big rocks and into big dips, with some random sandy pits thrown in for good measure. The Navajos seem to think that it is suitable for any normal vehicle and only recommend that you don't go down it if you're in a motorhome longer than 25 feet but I would definitely be wary of going on the drive in anything less than a four wheel drive, unless you happen to have a high clearance car. In fact, my parents had been to the valley a few days before us (we were pretty much following them around Arizona in order to surprise them in Las Vegas!) in a saloon car and gave up on the scenic drive after about 200 feet as my dad was too worried about damaging the car.
Luckily for me my husband is made of stronger stuff than I am, because if it had been up to me I would have turned around too as I was literally gripping onto the dashboard and bracing myself to roll over down into a ditch at any moment. But he had booked a four wheel drive hire car specifically because he wanted to do that drive and was determined to put it through its paces! After we got down to the valley bottom the drive levelled off considerably and was even enough to make me loosen my hold. It was still quite dicey in places, but with concentration and avoidance of the big rocks it was quite do-able. The biggest risk actually came from the jeep tours run by the Navajos. As they're obviously used to the trail and drive it day after day they had no fear and absolutely raced around, expecting all other vehicles to get our of their way and bumping their passengers around all over the place with no seatbelts in sight. Over and over I said how glad I was that we weren't on one of those tours and nothing on earth would make me recommend them to anyone, particularly anyone that suffers from car sickness!
The drive itself, however, was well worth it. As you get further down the whole valley just opens up before you and the views of dozens and dozens of redstone buttes sticking up into the air is just amazing. You can get a (very basic) map from the visitor centre which gives you the names of all the different monuments and the good places to stop and take pictures. The most popular spot is actually called John Ford Point, named after the spaghetti western movie director who filmed many of his works in the area and who led to the valley becoming such a tourist destination.
There are a few facilities available on the scenic drive which are basic but necessary given that it is 17 miles and can take up to 2 hours to complete. There are the obligatory portaloos and a small caravan selling refreshments and Indian Frybread (a sort of cross between a naan bread and a doughnut which they sweeten with sugar and honey but sell as an accompaniment to savoury dishes - I couldn't get to grips with it at all but hubby loved it). There are also numerous stands selling native crafts and places where you can pay $5 dollars to get on a horse, be led to a popular outlook and have your photo taken - a bit of a rip off if you ask me because when I say be led to a popular outlook I mean literally about 20 yards...not particularly good value! You are also requested to tip any "natives" that you take photos of, something the numerous Japanese tourists were taking full advantage of. Now, if the "natives" had been dressed in native clothing I could have understood it more but they weren't. They were dressed in jeans and t-shirts, just like the tourists!
Despite these inevitable tourist traps, the scenic drive is well worth doing, if a bit nerve wracking and the photo opportunities en route are plentiful and incredibly scenic. But you do need a driver with a good level of concentration and I really wouldn't recommend it unless in a four wheel drive. We actually saw someone on the drive in a sports car and couldn't understand a) how they'd got down in the first place and b) how on earth they were going to get back out again!
So is it worth a visit?
ABSOLUTELY! In case you couldn't tell already I absolutely fell in love with Monument Valley and loved every minute we were there (apart from the climbs down and back up again from the valley floor maybe!). The scenery is unique and like nothing you've ever seen before or will ever see again and when you consider that the whole experience only costs you $6 per person it is excellent value for money. Other Navajo attractions we visited really capitalise on their assets and charge much more and were other tribes running it I have no doubt they would charge you an entry fee, a hiking fee and another fee to do the scenic drive. So the fact you can do everything there (apart from the jeep tours which cost extra but which I personally would have to be paid to do!) for around £4 is an absolute bargain.
The people that just sit in their cars on the roadside and take pictures really don't know what they're missing. From there you can only see the edge of the valley and it is much more expanisve than you can possibly imagine from the initial view. I think just passing by it en route to somewhere else is a big mistake and if you're ever in the area I would urge you to stay in the nearby village of Kayenta, where there are several hotels available if you don't want to pay the View Hotels rates, to be able to make much more of your visit to Monument Valley.
Summary: Do not visit this area without a trip to Monument Valley...awesome!