Situated where Utah
meets Arizona to the east, Monument Valley is undeniably the most iconic landscape of the American West. Some 35 major motion pictures have been shot here. After John Ford directed his first Western here in 1939, countless others have used the valley as their visual motif, including TV shows, cartoons, video games, advertisements and even French album covers.
Consequently, “It’s five square miles have defined what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West,” declares movie critic Keith Phipps. This is especially true for international tourists, who travel thousands of miles from Europe and Asia to immortalize themselves in front of a triangular trio of majestic red buttes.
But Monument Valley is more than just touristy good looks. Since there are so many nearby national parks, it’s probably not a stand-alone destination, unless you live in the region. But it is more deserving than the quick stops or short overnights most people give it. When planning a visit, consider these must-dos:
Stay More Than One Night
On a recent visit to Monument Valley, the vast majority of people I encountered either did a quick overnight or simply snapped a postcard picture before bouncing. This is a mistake. Thanks to the Navajo, who run the area, there is a peaceful reverence here that’s difficult to appreciate in less than 36-48 hours.
Besides camping, you really have only two options: Goulding’s Lodge founder successfully convinced Ford to put this place on the map—and The View Hotel, which offers the best perspective of the valley. For more conveniences and newer lodges, including wifi, pool, full kitchens and newer TVs, I’d jump for Goulding’s. For the best vistas, stay at The View. Rooms costs $160-$200 per night in the off-season (Nov-Apr) and $200-300 during peak season. Because the Navajo take pride in their work, the rooms at either lodging are immaculately maintained.
Get Up Close To The Mesas, Buttes and Spires
There are four ways to take in Monument Valley’s 1,000-foot sandstone clusters. While stationary from one of several impressive overlooks. On foot while hiking the 3.5-mile Wildcat Trail. From your car while driving the 17-mile loop dirt road, stopping at a dozen points of interest. Or for greater “backstage” access, on a paid truck, hiking or horseback riding tour with native Navajo. I didn’t get to do the latter, which rate well among visitors, but I enjoyed a full morning, afternoon and evening doing the first three. For more dramatic lighting, take the hike or drive the loop in the morning or evening.
Visit Nearby Wonders
After a full day and a half in Monument Valley, the following day my party drove an hour and 20 minutes north on the scenic “Trail of the Ancients” byway (which includes Highway 163 and 261) en route to Natural Bridges National Monument. Along the way, we passed through Forrest Gump Point (pictured), Mexican Hat, Valley of The Gods and the impressive Moki Dugway, which uses a series of steep, gravel switchbacks to climb the 1,200 foot Cedar Mesa. While I highly recommend all of our stops that day, Muley Point was the highlight. From this Grand Canyon-esque overlook, you can see Goosenecks State Park, Valley of The Gods and Monument Valley in the distance. Having visited hundreds of overlooks in my life, Muley Point is one of the most stunning I’ve ever experienced.
: Skip the nearby Four Corners gimmicky tourist trap with no real meaning. Instead, eat lots of fry bread while in the valley, especially when topped with cinnamon powdered sugar, butter and honey.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him on Twitter.