Road Trip: Monument Valley offers amazing panoramic views
On a road trip from Las Vegas to Chicago via Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, we saw so many amazing sites. One of the most memorable was a drive through Monument Valley along the border between Utah and Arizona off of US 163. It’s really worth it
By Ray Hanania
Every time we turn on the television, we can see majestic images of the American West. These iconic geographic images are stunning, but often burred by a sale pitch for a car, or distorted by a advertising promoting some agenda.
One of the most popular are the shale and sandstone buttes, narrow flat topped mounds with the steep sides of Monument Valley which stretches over the border between in Utah and Arizona.
Monument Valley has been used as the backdrop and setting not only for commercials but also for many movies including those Westerns staring John Wayne and John Ford. The images of the various buttes stir the imagination for those watching the big screens. But seeing them in person is breathtaking.
It’s something everyone should do at leas once.
We drove through Monument Valley during a road trip that started out in Las Vegas and ended in Chicago. It took us through the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, dinosaur fossils and desert panoramas, many Native American reservations, and the super high mountain roads in Denver that reached 10,000 feet into the sky.
Monument Valley was spectacular.
It is a collection of small and large buttes and mesas. Mesas and Buttes have one thing in common, very steep walls that drop straight down. Buttes are small isolated mountains and Mesas are wider mountains and hills with flat tops. They’re made of sandstone and shale, shaped by millions of years of desert winds, sand storms, and the heat from an oppressively hot Sun.
Monument Valley is located inside a 26,000 square mile Navajo Reservation that is on both sides of the Utah and Arizona borders.
The entrance to Monument Valley from the north is located off of US 163 inside Utah, and consists of a 17 mile dirt road “loop” which you can drive with a regular car that takes you across the border into Arizona. You don’t need a jeep or four wheel drive, but the road can be dusty and sometimes rough like a washboard.
Monument Valley has a Navajo Tribal Park visitor Center at the entrance where you can eat, enjoy the distant desert panoramas and pick up some souvenirs. You need to pay $20 per vehicle to drive your car into Monument Valley, but once inside you can either drive the 17 mile “loop” route yourself, or you can hire one of the many open air trucks to take you in as a group, or ride horseback. You’ll need to hire one of the Navajo guides to take you up close off-road to see the Buttes.
It was our first visit so we decided to stay in the comfort of our car. It wasn’t bad at all.
You should go in with a map that the Visitor Center will provide. Each Butte has a name. Most have signs and you can drive up to them. But some are far away in the distance, accessible mainly by horseback.
One of the biggest problems, though, is that not all of the Buttes and formation have signs with their names and there are very few well organized books or maps you can find that offer a carefully laid out design for the valley with a description of the Butte formations.
Many of so well known they dominate the Internet but many are few and far between.
Don’t expect anyone to help you understand where Buttes like Merrick got their names.
Still, the formations are awe inspiring. Beautiful in the changing lighting during the day. It will take you two hours to really drive through the 17 miles and pause to enjoy each formation but you’ll have to go there several times before you actually recognize all of them.
And before you leave, make sure you pause on US 163 to find that spot where “Forrest Gump” is running and suddenly stops while his disciples wonder what he’s up to. It’s a great place to get your own photo, too, if you are prepared to find it.
The Buttes are named by their appearance. The first group are the Mittens, East and West along with Merrick Butte. The Mitten Buttes each look like mittens with an area for fingers and a thumb sticking straight up.
Moviemaker John Ford often used these three Buttes as the backdrop for his Westerns. You can see them very well from the visitor’s center, and also from the road side.
View of the Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte from the Navajo Visitors Center before driving into Monument Valley. Photo courtesy of Ray Hanania
The next one is a view of Three Sisters and Elephant Butte on the right side of the trail. Elephant Butte consists of a face that looks like the narrow face of an Elephant with a large trunk hanging down. The Three Sisters are three formations standing together, almost forming what also looks like a “W”.
You can pull over to a large area where you can take in the beautiful views.