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Monument Valley

Elevation: 5,200 feet (1,585 meters)

Location: San Juan County, UT and Navajo County, AZ

Monument Valley History

The land itself is ancient, rugged, and beautiful. The iconic rock formations that distinguish this iconic section of the Utah desert are eroded remains of their Rocky Mountain ancestors, formed by sandstone deposits and geologic uplift that then became shaped by years and years of wind and water. Three main layers of Organ Rock shale, de Chelly sandstone, and Moenkopi shale are visible in many of the buttes. The largest of the freestanding formations measures 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Part of the Colorado Plateau, Monument Valley spans 91,696 acres. 

The Navajo Tribe was the first group of people to establish themselves in the valley.
In the 1920s, a family by the name of Goulding began operating a trading post in the area. They sold the local population their groceries and other supplies while serving as hub of commerce in the area. Their establishment lasted through the 1960s. During their time in this remote area of Utah, Harry Goulding caught wind of a new western film in the works out in Hollywood. He and his wife packed up their things, went to Hollywood, and managed to get a meeting with the film’s location manager. They showed him photographs of Monument Valley. Not long after that, the movie Stagecoach (1939) was filmed with Monument Valley as the setting. Since that time, over numerous major motion picture films have been shot in the area, as well as countless commercials, music videos, and other productions.

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

Monument Valley in Film

Monument Valley has become one of the most iconic images of The West, and a popular tourist destination. It’s not always referred to by name in the movies, but most visitors will surely recognize it.

Forrest Gump and his band of running followers jogged along U.S. Route 163 right through Monument Valley in 1994. Fans of the movie often visit this stretch of the highway to recreate the scene or just take a few photos.

The uniquely-western location will likely get some more screen time in the future, but nothing beats a visit to Monument Valley itself!

Visiting Monument Valley

Spread across the border of Utah and Arizona, the spectacular scenery of Monument Valley is captivating year round. The giant sandstone formations towering over the desert floor are a unique kind of structure you don’t see every day. They aren’t mountains, or canyons, or even just big rocks, but something else. They are monuments. Some have been given descriptive names such as Mittens, Elephant Butte, Totem Pole, and North Window. But describing them doesn’t do it justice. You need to visit Monument Valley yourself to truly appreciate this magical place!

The best times to take in the location’s natural beauty is sunrise or sunset. Anyone from the professional photographers to the weekend Instagrammers will feel compelled to snap some photos!

Monument Valley can be accessed through the Utah cities of Bluff, Blanding, and Monticello by taking US Highway-191 to Highway-163, the main road into Arizona that leads through Monument Valley. This northern approach leads through one of the most familiar scenes: a long stretch of highway running through the deep red desert toward the towering mesas of Monument Pass on the horizon.

The city of Bluff, Utah is an excellent base camp for exploring the valley, with several lodging and dining options. Nearby Mexican Hat also offers a couple of eateries, as well as its namesake rock formation, which is also worth a quick visit. A bit further north along US Highway-191, Blanding and Monticello also offer dining and lodging while still offering convenient access to the large rock towers on the Arizona side of Monument Valley.

The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in Oljato has a visitor center, restaurant, and campground.

Things to See and Do in Monument Valley

Historic Sites

Goulding Trading Post and Museum

As perhaps the most influential people in putting Monument Valley on the map, the Goulding family’s contribution and heritage are on display at the location where they operated their little trading post and dwelled for years.

The Museum is filled with artifacts and photographs of an age now past, when a little community brought goods and wares to sell and trade amongst each other and with their Navajo neighbors.

Oljato Navajo Trading Post

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this Navajo trading post is still in operation. Here you can buy old west-style goods, food, Navajo crafts and jewelry, and books about Navajo culture and Monument Valley history.

Driving Through Monument Valley

One of the most popular ways to experience Monument Valley is on the road! The wide-open spaces and towering rock structures allow for easy viewing of all the natural beauty as you take “The Valley Drive” through the desert. This tour-by-road takes you across the Utah border and into the Arizona side of Monument Valley, but you’ll be able to come right back to your hotel on the Utah side when you’re done—It doesn’t take all day! Feel free to pull off to the side of the road to capture the perfect photo or appreciate the skyline from a different angle.

The Valley Drive is a dirt road through Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Arizona side of the valley. Admission is $20 per vehicle for up to 4 people. This scenic route stretches about 17 miles and passes by eleven designated stopping points for visitors. To help with your navigation, each stopping point is even marked with a numbered sign and the name of the formation.

The Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte

The East and West Mitten Buttes get their names from the way both formations resemble two gigantic mittens rising from the desert floor. When you stop to see this pair of buttes, you’ll also have a great view of Merrick Butte, which is just to the south of the two Mitten Buttes. The triangle shape formed by the rocky giants makes it seem like they were placed there on purpose. The trio stands in beautiful symmetry that you don’t see very often in nature.

Elephant Butte

It doesn’t look exactly like an elephant, but kind of sort of, right? Either way, it’s another stop on the drive worth pulling over for.

Three Sisters

Like the name suggests, the Three Sisters formations are three tall and narrow fingers close together off the edge of a large plateau. You won’t have any trouble finding the Three Sisters from the road. Below the pillars, you can see the crumbling sediment and layers of shale coming down the slope that have been worn away to form the unique structure.

John Ford’s Point

Another stop you’ll come to on the drive and one you definitely don’t want to skip is John Ford’s Point. During the mid-1900s, Hollywood film director John Ford used this location for many of his movie scenes. It was this location that helped establish the image of “the American west” in the minds of the rest of the world. John Ford’s Point is still used now and then in films.

The point serves as a stage overlooking the vast expanse of desert, highway, and sky. It’s widely considered the best view you can get of Monument Valley, so don’t miss out when you come to visit. There is a parking lot where you can leave your car while you go take in the view. Watch your step! The terrain has been left rugged and wild like Mother Nature formed it.

Camel Butte

Another stone formation right along the side of the road as you take the Valley Drive is Camel Butte. Being able to drive up close to the butte allows you to see the detailed erosion and layers that form these rocky “monuments” and more fully appreciate just how big they are!

The Hub

Another stone formation right along the side of the road as you take the Valley Drive is Camel Butte. Being able to drive up close to the butte allows you to see the detailed erosion and layers that form these rocky “monuments” and more fully appreciate just how big they are!

 

Totem Pole and Yei be Chei

When you get a look at Totem Pole, you’ll know why it has been given that name. The tall spire shoots up from the ground next to a collection of chunkier formations called Yei be Chei.

Totem Pole and Sand Spring

Sand Spring is an area where the red-orange hue of the sandy desert floor can be seen in all directions. From this stopping point, Totem Pole can be seen from a different angle.

Artist’s Point

Artist’s Point is another overlook in Monument Valley that makes for great photography and breathtaking views. From here, you’ll be able to see a great distance over the open desert and to some of the formations you’ve passed, all in one view.

North Window

North Window is a spot on the Monument Valley drive where you can get a clear view of East Mitten Butte standing in between Elephant Butte and a smaller formation called Cly Butte. This is one of the more popular destinations along the drive.

The Thumb

This stone monument is a little different from the others. The rounded shape of this formation is what gives it its name. The Thumbs is the last officially-marked structure on the Monument Valley driving tour.

Monument Valley Tours

While the valley drive is one way to show yourself the beauty of Monument Valley, there are also some guided tour options available. 

You can learn more about this area’s history while taking in the scenery by booking a Navajo-guided tour. This tour includes a stop at a real hogan, which is the traditional dwelling of the Navajo people. If you want to explore the trails and off-road sites within Monument Valley, you’ll need to book one of these Navajo tours. The only trail you can take by yourself is Wildcat Trail—a 3-mile loop that passes around West Mitten Butte.

Trails outside of the Tribal Park are unmarked and considered backcountry, requiring a $5 day-use permit from the visitor center. Monument Pass is accessible from the southeast side of Highway 163 and passes the Saddleback, King on His Throne, Stagecoach, Bear and Rabbit formations. The six-mile hike across mostly flat benches is moderate, although there are some rocky areas and small cliffs.

Monument Valley Climate and Weather

When you’re planning your visit to Monument Valley, keep in mind that this area on the border of Utah and Arizona experiences all four seasons. The winters are cold and the summers are hot. The high elevation of Monument Valley means the summer months are usually not quite as warm as they would be at lower elevation, but still hot and dry.

This area gets some occasional snow in the winter, but usually not very much. 

Plan a Trip to Monument Valley

Monument Valley is an iconic U.S. site that should be on every tourist’s bucket list!

We in San Juan County, Utah want to help your visit be exciting and memorable. While it’s likely that you’ll want to spend a good amount of time exploring the unique landscape just over the border into Arizona, many travelers prefer to set up “base camp” in Utah where there are plenty of places to stay, eat, and enjoy other attractions.

Utah’s Canyon Country is chock full of other amazing activities, parks, canyons, and history! Check out some of our travel guides and itineraries to plan an incredible vacation in Canyon Country.