Have you ever seen a John Wayne movie? Even if you haven’t, you’re probably still familiar with the landscapes of Monument Valley. Sitting on the border of Utah and Arizona, Monument Valley is a Navajo Nation Tribal Park of unutterable beauty and spiritual importance. Many people visit for the day, but I recommend you stay for 24 hours so that you can watch the magic of the sunrise over Monument Valley.
Sitting on the Colorado Plateau, this vast area of desert landscape is punctuated by isolated sandstone buttes. The three most famous formations are East and West Mitten Butte and Merrick Butte. These striking figures rise up from the valley floor like hands reaching for the sky. Visiting Monument Valley, or Oljato in Navajo, is a soul-shaking experience – not just for the beauty and stillness, but also because of the sheer scale of the place.
Getting to Monument Valley
By far the easiest way to reach Monument Valley is to drive. It is around 7 hours’ drive from both Las Vegas and Salt Lake City international airports. Flagstaff is the nearest small airport, although fewer flights land here. You can easily add a stop at Monument Valley if you are visiting Utah’s ‘Big Five’ or combine with a trip to the Grand Canyon. We drove up from Grand Canyon via Tuba City to Monument Valley in 4 hours with stops. You will be required to pay a fee at the gate of the Navajo Nation Tribal Park – it costs $20 per vehicle with up to 4 people included.
Where to stay
There are limited accommodation options around Monument Valley itself. Outside the Tribal Park there is Goulding’s Lodge, which has a lower elevation, and therefore does not offer the best views of the buttes. By far the best accommodations are inside the Navajo Tribal Park. The View Hotel sits into the hillside and has been designed to blend into the landscape. Most of the rooms have balcony space and views out over the valley; as well as options for higher floors which offer night sky views too. The View Hotel also offers cabins which are set away from the hotel and offer a sense of solitude and quiet. A more recent addition to the Tribal Park accommodations is an RV park and wilderness camping site. With arguably the most spectacular views to wake up to, all the Tribal Park accommodation options offer a great view of the sunrise at Monument Valley.
In the movies
Perhaps most famously, Monument Valley featured in the Western movies made by John Ford and featuring John Wayne, Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956). Introducing this stunning and alien landscape to the masses. More recently, the famous buttes as well as the long stretches of highway surrounding the reservation have featured in the movies Easy Rider (1969), and Forrest Gump (1994). The View Hotel screens the classic Western movies outside on their patio, so that you can watch the movies while looking out over the very landscape where they were filmed.
Seeing Monument Valley for the first time
We visited Monument Valley as part of an 8-week trip across North America, and it became an absolute highlight. I can’t describe the overwhelming emotion I felt the first time I saw the view over the buttes and plateau of Monument Valley. After seeing the Grand Canyon, I knew I was falling for the desert landscapes of Arizona and Utah, but the vastness and other-worldly quality of Monument Valley cemented this love affair for me.
The Navajo offer guided tours around the park, but you can also drive some of the route yourself. A 4-wheel drive is highly recommended, although we saw several cars attempt the journey. We had a jeep with 4×4 capability, and we were very happy we had taken this option, as the road was very steep and bumpy in places. The hotel provides a guide booklet to the route around the valley floor and be sure to leave several hours to do this. I would recommend the guided tours and walks if you have time, as these provide a much deeper narrative to the area from the Navajo perspective. Please always be respectful of the Tribal Park rules and regulations, which include no smoking, littering, or going off the designated tracks. Climbing the buttes or the use of drones is also prohibited.
Setting up your vantage point
Whether you are camping or in the hotel, you will need to set yourself up with a spot from which to enjoy the sunrise. We had a balcony room at the hotel, so used the railings of the balcony to attach our travel tripod so we could film a time-lapse video of the sunrise.
While we certainly took a lot of photos of the event, we also wanted to be able to sit and enjoy the magic of the moment, so we positioned our chairs side by side facing east. I recommend waking up at least 30 minutes before the listed time of sunrise, as the light starts to creep over the horizon before the sun does.
Sunrise at Monument Valley
One of the most enchanting things about seeing the sunrise at Monument Valley is watching as the valley is revealed. Observe the shadows cast by the buttes as they shift perspective, and see the valley come alive. Perhaps it is the majestic scale of the place, or the other-worldly sandstone formations that make this ancient landscape so magical. One thing is for sure, our visit to Monument Valley topped our travel experiences of 2018. Of all the beautiful parts of the world, and of all the scenes to witness, sunrise at Monument Valley is one of the most awe-inspiring.