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Arizona / USA / Utah

Monument Valley – Iconic landscape of the Navajo Nation

There is not a cloud in the sky and despite our early departure from Tuba City the temperature has already risen above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun perfectly roasts the orange landscape around us. It will easily be over 40 degrees today. Again. The US deserts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all have the same harsh climate, with big differences between the cold winters and hot summers. It gets so cold in the winters that it can even snow. There is no risk of that today. It will be a long and sun-drenched drive, another 40 miles through the wasteland Moab in Utah. No other accommodations along the road could be found.

"Monument Valley is the place where God put the West."

John Wayne

En table is a large, flat rock formation with steep sides, while one mound is a minner mesa that is taller than it is wide.

For many hundreds of millions of years, the wind, sun and water have worn, gnawed and worn away at the great Colorado Plateau here in the southwestern United States. Bit by bit of rocks and stones have eroded and fallen apart, creating today's landscape of dramatic rock plateaus - so-called bullion tables and mounds. Ordes table comes from the Spanish word for "table" and was named by the first explorers who rode through the area. The name is very appropriate for these rocks with a flat top and steep cliff sides. Unlike a mesa, a butte is taller than it is wide.

Long desolate roads in Monument Valley

We are in Navajo nation - the large semi-autonomous country with its own urban structure, its own laws, its own flag, its own police, its own language and its own national anthem. The Navajo are the largest of the American indigenous peoples and today over 250.000 residents live here in the Navajo Nation. Maybe I shouldn't really write Monument Valley, but the name of the place in Navajo - Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgai – loosely translated to “klipdalen".

Having previously visited the historic cliff dwellings in Navajo National Monument, we turn off in Kayente on the way US-163 northbound. It doesn't take long until we see the silhouettes of the first rocks. A bump appears on the side of the road. We are entering John Wayne's classic cowboy country. The place that was barely on the map until the classic cowboy movies were shot here in the late 1920s. Now the area is perhaps the most American of American landscapes.

The road is very straight and there are relatively few cars. It is a "dry" country, not only because it is mainly desert, but also in the vernacular, "dry" from an alcohol perspective. In the Navajo Nation, alcohol is prohibited to both transport, drink and purchase. So don't fill the car with wine from Napa before heading here.

We often stop the car and look out over the dramatic views of the barren landscape. It is important to have plenty of sun protection and a sun hat, because here on the plateau at 1500 meters above sea level, the sun is treacherous. Although the views along US-163 are beautiful, the most famous views are inside Monument Valley Tribal Park. We turn off into the park at Monument Valley Road. Monument Valley is not part of the US National Parks, but the area is protected by Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation. Entry is therefore not included in the National Parks Pass, but entry costs $20 per car. Well worth the money to protect the wonders that nature offers here in the middle of nowhere.

Once inside the park there is a visitor center, a hotel and several campsites. A small center in the middle of the wasteland. I tried to book a room at the hotel for our visit, but the hotel was fully booked several months in advance. It is understandable why. It is a long way to the next hotel and many want to experience both sunrise and sunset here in the legendary rock desert. The only way to do it without having to drive for several hours in the middle of the night is to book a room at The View.

It is not only full of visitors here, but it is also full of commerce. Silver jewelry with turquoises, striped carpets in bright colors and dream catchers are sold to passers-by. We are not so interested in the shopping, but we are all the more interested in driving Valley Drive. The dirt road that takes you right into the landscape of mesas and buttes.

The gravel road Valley drive
You get close to the cliffs on Valley Drive

We start driving out onto the dirt road, towards the big rocks and the even bigger landscape. The road is only a little over 2 miles long, but it is said to take 2-3 hours to drive it. It is not difficult to understand why. Although the road is powder dry, this is a real challenge for our rental car. For once, we have not rented an SUV, but a large and rather low sedan. The road is far from well maintained. Here we are talking rather bumpy, uneven and full of large stones and holes.

We drive carefully on the road in our sedan. The views are both new and old, often the same cliffs you see from the main trail that you get much closer to here. Some of the rocks are up to 300 meters high, but it is difficult to get perspective on the size of the rocks in an empty desert. Even a large rock feels small in an endless horizon.

After a few kilometers the road gets much worse and we finally have to admit to ourselves that we have to turn around. Several SUVs pass us with ease on stretches that in our car feel like it's about to shake. I can only recommend renting a 4-wheel drive car if you want to discover Monument Valley. The weather can change quickly between torrential rain and sunshine, and the daytime shape of the dirt road is never guaranteed for ordinary passenger cars.

We park the car and try to discover the area on foot instead, but the sun is extremely merciless. No shade, no wind and 40 degree heat. Not the best conditions, even though we always carry liters of water with us. It is hard to understand that a tenth of all Navajo live in this landscape without electricity and that 40% of the inhabitants have no access to either running water or flush toilets. The United States is truly the land of great contrasts. The president's gold faucets in his private toilet in New York feel very far away.

It is getting time for us to continue north, towards Moab. The beautiful scenery follows us along the road well into Utah, although it becomes sparser and sparser between lonely mesas the further north we go. John Wayne is said to have said “Monument Valley is the place where God put the West.” the first time he saw Monument Valley. A perfect summation of this magnificent place.

Monument Valley's iconic landscape

How do I get to Monument Valley?

Monument Valley is located in the Navajo Nation on the border between Arizona and Utah, 29 miles northeast of Flagstaff and 25 miles south of Moab. Driving US-169 through Monument Valley is free, but if you want to visit the most famous sights, there is an admission fee.

Read more: Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation

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About the blogger

Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.

2 Comments

  • Ladies Abroad
    29 February, 2020 at 17: 28

    I might have to get a driver's license just to go here. And maybe just as well copy your entire trip. I remember thinking the same thing when I read about White Sands, so maybe have to start planning the trip now. And invite someone with a driver's license...

    Reply
    • Eva Gyllenberg
      March 3, 2020 at 19:47 pm

      Not exactly an easy place to go without a driver's license, I'm lucky to have a husband who loves to drive. There is so much unique nature in Arizona / Utah / New Mexico, a real high altitude region to travel around in. However, the distances are long, so there will be some driving... Good to invite someone with a driver's license 😉

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