Monument Valley, Navajo Nation
By Kathy Ritchie
There’s a reason John Wayne once described Monument Valley as “the place where God put the West.” The landscape unfolds and extends until it touches the horizon, then massive monoliths erupt from the red clay. There’s nothing like it — sky and Earth come together to create this sacred place — and there’s no better way to see it than along Valley Drive.
The route doesn’t really begin until after you enter Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, off U.S. Route 163. Once you’re in the park, continue until you reach the parking lot of The View Hotel and veer left. Valley Drive kicks off where the pavement turns to dirt.
If you’re not already in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you’ll wish you were as you descend a very steep and bumpy hill. That said, postpone the drive if inclement weather is a possibility. The road bottoms out before you climb another hill, where you’ll enjoy a nice payoff. Right before mile 1, pull over and take in the panoramic view of East and West Mitten buttes and Merrick Butte.
As you roll along, you’ll notice (perhaps suddenly) that you’re right at the base of Merrick Butte. It’s both stunning and humbling to be so close to the massive land formation. After passing Elephant Butte (look hard and you might see its trunk), the road ascends, curving around more of Mother Nature’s handiwork. On your right will be the famous Three Sisters — three pillars that resemble a nun facing her students. At mile 3.4, the road comes to a signed intersection. Turn right and continue on to John Ford Point — a worthwhile and historic stop. Should you decide to continue on Valley Drive, the road turns to washboard and gets bumpy.
There are several restricted areas around Monument Valley that are only accessible to authorized guides and residents. The area is home to several Navajo families, and trespassers are not always well received, so respect posted signs. As the road curves, you’ll be sandwiched between Rain God and Thunderbird mesas. One can only imagine the sheer awe the Navajo people felt when they first came to this place.
At this point, the road goes from mostly navigable to rough again, and an impressive view of Totem Pole awaits on your right. A signed detour offers even more dramatic views of this lone sentinel. After passing through a craggy forest of piñon pines around mile 6.9, you’ll come to another junction. Turn right to explore Artist’s Point, a less-traveled overlook that offers even more painterly views. Stay the course and you’ll end up at The Thumb, one of the last stops along Valley Drive. There, you can get out of your car and marvel before returning to the John Ford Point intersection, where you’ll turn right to return to the hotel.
Photo: The hand-shaped West Mitten glows warmly in evening light. | Suzanne Mathia
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 11.6 miles round-trip (from the hotel)
Directions: From Flagstaff, drive north on U.S. Route 89 for approximately 62 miles to U.S. Route 160. Turn right onto U.S. 160 and continue for approximately 82 miles to U.S. Route 163. Turn left onto U.S. 163 and drive approximately 20 miles. Turn right onto Indian Route 42 and continue for approximately 4.5 miles to The View Hotel, from which the drive begins.
Travel Advisory: A $5 fee is required to enter Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous, so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone, and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.
Vehicle Requirements: A high-clearance vehicle is recommended, but a sedan, in good weather, can be used.
Information: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, 435-727-5870 or www.navajonationparks.org