Location: San Juan County, UT and Navajo County, AZ
The Monument Valley terrain is ancient, resilient, and breathtaking in its beauty. This distinctive landscape—a hallmark of the Utah desert—came into being through the erosion of the Rocky Mountains' sandstone deposits and geologic uplift, and it was further shaped by the relentless forces of wind and water over many centuries.
Monument Valley's prominent buttes reveal three main layers—Organ Rock shale, de Chelly sandstone, and Moenkopi shale. The tallest of these stand-alone formations ascends 1,000 feet above the valley floor. Encompassing 91,696 acres, Monument Valley forms part of the expansive Colorado Plateau.
While commonly referred to as Monument Valley Park, the area's Navajo name, Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, offers a more authentic reflection of its character, which roughly translates into 'the valley of the rocks.'
Contrary to what some might assume, Monument Valley is not a National Park, but rather a Tribal Park, as it lies within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. The Tribal Park’s designation is important in order to preserve its unique heritage and geological wonders.
Monument Valley History
The formation of Monument Valley started 300 million years ago as a low basin. Slowly, the sandstone layers were deposited in this basin, which later became the buttes of Monument Valley.
Over time, the forces of wind, water, ice, and temperature variations slowly eroded away the softer materials, leaving behind the massive sandstone buttes we see today.
The Navajo Nation
The earliest known inhabitants of the Monument Valley area were the Ancestral Pueblo, who lived there from about 1 AD to 1300.
After the Ancestral Pueblo, the Navajo people later inhabited the area. The Navajo, known as Diné, moved into the American Southwest around the 15th to 16th century.
They established a pastoral society and lived in harmony with the environment. The land of Monument Valley is sacred for the Navajo people and featured in many of their creative narratives.
The first recorded European contact was in 1776 with Spanish explorers. However, Monument Valley remained largely unknown to people other than the Navajo until the late 19th century.
In the 20th century, the creation of the Monument Valley Tribal Park in 1958 by the Navajo Nation helped to protect the area and promote tourism.
Modern history and popular culture
The area really came into the spotlight in the 1920s when the Goulding family began operating a trading post in Monument Valley. They sold the local population groceries and other supplies, serving as a 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 arrange a meeting with the film’s location manager.
They showed him photographs of Monument Valley. Not long after that, the movie Stagecoach (1939), featuring America’s original cowboy, John Wayne, was filmed with Monument Valley as the setting. Since then, numerous major motion picture films have been shot in the area, along with countless commercials, music videos, and other productions.
Perhaps the most famous of all is the film Forrest Gump (1994). Monument Valley features in an iconic scene where Forrest Gump and his band of running followers jogged along U.S. Route 163. Fans of the movie often visit this stretch of the highway to recreate the scene or just take a few photos.
Monument Valley embodies the Old West with its iconic red sandstone buttes standing tall against the clear blue sky. However, no film can truly do it justice. Only by experiencing this majestic landscape firsthand can one fully embrace its awe-inspiring spirit!
Visiting Monument Valley
Straddling the border of Utah and Arizona, the magnificent allure of Monument Valley captivates visitors throughout the year. The giant sandstone formations that tower over the desert floor are unique structures you don’t see every day! They aren’t mere mountains, or canyons, or even just big rocks, but something totally different–they are monuments to the power of nature.
These formations have been given interesting names like 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 most ethereal moments in the valley are perhaps during sunrise and sunset. The play of light and shadow drenches the landscape in an otherworldly glow that compels professional photographers or weekend Instagrammers to capture the breathtaking vistas.
Admission is $8 per person, per entry, per location and National Park Passes are not accepted.
Things to See and Do in Monument Valley
Goulding’s 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 a past age when a small community brought goods and wares to sell and trade among each other and their Native American neighbors.
Driving Through Monument Valley
One of the most popular ways to experience Monument Valley is from the road! As you follow “The Valley Drive” through the desert, the wide-open spaces and towering rock structures allow for easy viewing of all the natural beauty around you.
This scenic drive takes you across the Utah border and into the Arizona side of Monument Valley, but you can easily return 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 and capture the perfect photo or appreciate the skyline from a different angle.
The Valley Drive is a dirt road that runs through Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park when you cross over to the Arizona side of the valley. 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 marked with a numbered sign and the name of the formation.
The Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte
When envisioning Monument Valley's iconic landscapes in the American Southwest, one cannot help but conjure images of the renowned trio of buttes: the East Mitten Butte, the West Mitten Butte, and the Merrick Butte.
Named for their uncanny resemblance to enormous mittens emerging from the desert expanse, the East and West Mitten Buttes form a striking visual spectacle. As you pause to admire these formations, your gaze naturally extends to Merrick Butte, positioned just to the south of the Mitten pair. The arrangement of these rocky sentinels appears almost deliberate, crafting a harmonious triangle that embodies a rare marvel of natural symmetry.
The Biannual Mitten Shadow Event
Twice a year, a remarkable phenomenon graces Monument Valley – the 'Monument Valley Mitten Shadow.' This awe-inspiring event occurs during sunset, as the West Mitten Butte casts its flawless shadow onto the East Mitten Butte, drawing photographers and wanderers from across the globe to bear witness.
The magic of this biannual spectacle unfolds in late March, reaching its zenith around the 30th of the month, and then once more in September, reaching its peak around the 13th. Weather permitting, this event stands as an unmissable attraction for those embarking on a journey to Monument Valley. Yet, irrespective of the time of year, the trio of these majestic buttes is certain to leave you utterly mesmerized.
Source: MacNeal Crank
It doesn’t look exactly like an elephant, but it kind of does when you use your imagination, right? Either way, it’s another stop on the drive worth pulling over for.
As 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 has been worn away to form these unique structures.
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. This location 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 again in films.
The point serves as a stage overlooking a vast expanse of desert, highway, and sky. It’s widely considered the best view of Monument Valley, so don’t miss out on it when you visit. There is a parking lot where you can leave your car while you go to take in the view. Watch your step! The terrain has been left as rugged and wild as Mother Nature formed it.
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 it makes you more fully appreciate just how big they are!
The Hub is another geological formation in the valley with a unique appearance. It's a massive, isolated sandstone formation that rises from the valley floor and it resembles a hub or pivot point around which other geological formations seem to revolve.
While the natural beauty and grandeur of The Hub are enough to make it a point of interest, it's also significant in Native American culture and creative narrative. Like other parts of Monument Valley, The Hub has many stories and great spiritual significance associated with it.
Totem Pole and Yei be Chei
When you look at the Totem Pole, you’ll know why it was 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, the Totem Pole can be seen from a different angle.
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 some of the formations you’ve passed, all in one view.
North Window is a spot on Monument Valley Drive where you can get a clear view of East Mitten Butte, which stands between Elephant Butte and a smaller formation called Cly Butte. This is one of the more popular destinations along the drive.
This stone monument is a little different from the others. The rounded shape of this formation is what gives it its name. The Thumb is the last officially-marked structure on the Monument Valley driving tour.
Monument Valley Tours
Scenic drive tours
While a self-drive is one way to immerse yourself in the beauty of Monument Valley, we highly recommend a guided tour option.
Not only is the road extremely rough and rugged, your experience will be heightened by a Navajo guide that will provide information on the Navajo history and culture of the area.
These tours typically follow the 17-mile scenic drive through the park and the additional insights and narratives you receive will enhance your trip that you otherwise wouldn't get from driving the route yourself.
Another great way to explore Monument Valley is to go off the beaten track and visit Mystery Valley. This valley is known for its stunning rock formations, Native American archaeological sites, and petroglyphs.
While the more famous Monument Valley is noted for its dramatic and large-scale buttes, Mystery Valley offers a more secluded experience with natural rock formations, including natural arches, and the site holds a number of Ancestral Pueblo Cultural Sites.
Mystery Valley is less trafficked than Monument Valley, mainly because access to this area requires a local guide, which helps preserve the delicate Cultural Sites and rock formations.
Visitors can explore ancient dwellings, see pictographs from the Ancestral Pueblo people, and enjoy amazing views. It's an opportunity to learn about the region's rich cultural and geological history and the Navajo people's sacred connection to the land.
If you don't want to drive, there are other ways to explore Monument Valley. There are hiking trails outside of the Tribal Park that are unmarked and considered backcountry. Access requires obtaining a $5 day-use permit from the visitor center.
➡️ Self-guided hikes: The Wildcat Trail is the only self-guided walking trail in Monument Valley, located within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. It's a 3.2-mile (5.1 kilometers) loop that offers a more intimate view of the iconic West Mitten Butte sandstone formations than the scenic drive does.
➡️Guided hikes: For more in-depth experiences, Navajo guides can take visitors to areas not typically accessible by car. They can guide treks around specific formations or longer hikes through more remote parts of the park.
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 make your visit 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 in 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 amazing activities, parks, canyons, and history! Check out some of our travel guides and itineraries to plan an incredible vacation in Canyon Country.
It's crucial to recognize that Monument Valley is not just a park, but a sacred place to the Navajo people. For them, it's a significant cultural and spiritual location imbued with stories, traditions, and symbolic meaning passed down through generations.
Visitors to Monument Valley are not merely tourists, but are privileged guests entering a space of profound cultural importance. Therefore, it is incumbent upon visitors to show respect by adhering to the guidelines set by the Navajo people. This includes staying on marked trails, refraining from climbing sacred structures, and not removing any natural artifacts.
Getting to Monument Valley
Monument Valley's majestic landscape can be accessed via several routes. The northern approach from the Utah cities of Bluff, Blanding, Mexican Hat, and Monticello is particularly striking. Taking US Highway-191 as it merges into Highway-163 is the main thoroughfare into Arizona that winds through Monument Valley, you will be treated to iconic views. This route presents a picturesque tableau of a long stretch of highway flanked by the deep red desert, culminating in the towering mesas of Monument Pass on the distant horizon.
Alternatively, Monument Valley can be accessed from Page, Arizona, situated on the Arizona-Utah border. A journey of approximately 125 miles, usually completed in around two hours by car, offers an alternative route to the valley. Starting from Page, take the U.S.-89 South. Roughly 46 miles into the journey, turn right onto U.S.-160 East near the city of Kayenta. Continue on U.S.-160 East for an additional 23 miles, before taking a left onto U.S.-163 North, which leads directly into the heart of Monument Valley.
Lodging Near Monument Valley
Just a 25-minute drive away, Mexican Hat offers charming lodging options and restaurants and serves as the closest lodging option to Monument Valley outside of staying within the park or Goulding’s Lodge.
Receiving its namesake from the popular rock formation located right outside of town, Mexican Hat is a wonderful option as a basecamp for your exploration due to its rich Native American history accessible from short hikes or when floating along the San Juan River.
Bluff, Utah, serves as a remarkable base camp for valley explorations, offering a range of lodging and dining options.
For the history aficionados, Bluff is a great opportunity to start your educational adventure by checking out the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel, and Bluff Fort before setting off on a short hour-long drive to Monument Valley.
Blanding and Monticello
Venturing further north along US Highway-191, the towns of Blanding and Monticello also offer accommodation and dining options.
For those looking to enrich their Native American educational experience, we highly recommend checking out the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum located in Blanding. For those looking to cross off multiple parks in one trip, Monticello offers a great base camp to travel south to Monument Valley, and north to Canyonlands National Park.
Monument Valley Climate and Weather
As you plan your trip to Monument Valley it's important to keep in mind the area's seasonal weather variations.
Winters can be chilly with temperatures often dropping significantly, and summer temperatures, while hot, are typically moderated by the valley's higher elevation. Despite the heat, summer temperatures are usually less intense than they would be at lower elevations, which results in a hot, dry climate.
While snow does make an appearance in Monument Valley's winters, it's generally infrequent and light.
Awareness of these seasonal changes can help you prepare for your visit and enjoy Monument Valley's natural beauty to the fullest, regardless of the time of year.
Other Attractions near Monument Valley
Moki Dugway Scenic Drive / Valley of the Gods
The cliff-side view from the Moki Dugway road provides a fantastic look at the wilderness area known as the Valley of the Gods. This scenic area is north of Mexican Hat, Utah, on UT-261.
ℹ️ Distance: 37 miles, 45 min
From the remote location of Muley Point, visitors can see views of Monument Valley, Four Corners, Valley of the Gods, and Goosenecks State Park.
ℹ️ Distance: 45 miles, 1hour
Goosenecks State Park
Check out the view over the winding San Juan River, 1,000 feet down at the bottom of a colorful canyon. Camping options are available at Goosenecks State Park.
ℹ️ Distance: 35 miles, 45 min.
Four Corners Monument
Managed by the Navajo Nation, this unique landmark offers visitors the opportunity to stand in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado—all at the same time.
ℹ️ Distance: 105 miles, 1.5 hours
The Grand Canyon, located in Arizona, is one of the world's most iconic and breathtaking natural wonders, stretching over 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and over a mile deep.