This is Part 6 of a planned 10 part series covering our U.S. National Park adventure across Utah, Northern Arizona, and Western Colorado. We will spend one whirlwind week traversing 1500 miles, exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities. Our travels will take us on a zigzagged route across the southwest from Las Vegas airport to Salt Lake City. In Part 6, we'll travel to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park area to explore some of the southwest's most scenic vistas.
We are back on the road, having departed Page, Arizona, and are headed toward Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park this time. The ride between the two locations is only a little over two hours, so not as far as most of the legs of this trip. The drive along the way is fairly uneventful (and unpopulated), but every once in a while, we pass a little scenic stretch.
Monument Valley is a picturesque valley located within the Navajo Nation dotted with rocky buttes and other immense sandstone formations towering 400 to 1,000 feet above the desert floor. The scenery is quite photogenic and has caught the eye of many a cinematographer. It is particularly famous for serving as the backdrop for many John Wayne Westerns. However, Monument Valley has also been featured in classic films like Forest Gump, Back To The Future Part III, and National Lampoon's Vacation. Having seen it depicted so many times in video snippets--and photographs--I'm excited to experience the towering monoliths in person.
The more time I spend in the Southwest, the more my interest in piqued with regard to the Navajo Nation. I'd been somewhat oblivious to the fact that the Navajo Nation essentially runs their own government, complete with law enforcement officers and a president, prior to researching this trip. Certain criminal cases (ex. capital crimes) are handled by the Federal Government, and Federal Law still trumps local law, but in general terms, the Navajo Nation makes and enforces laws within certain prescribed Federal parameters. They run their own independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. In fact, the Navajo Nation has the largest and most established tribal legal system in the world*. It is quite impressive.
One thing I am taken aback by as we drive, though, is the visible poverty we see many living in on Navajo reservation lands. A whopping 35% of valley residents do not even have running water**. Some of the structures I see serving as homes feel more like something I would expect to find in an underdeveloped country. Given the extreme desert heat, I cannot imagine spending a summer here without any access to air conditioning. Yet many residents do just that despite the scorching temperatures. A startling 36 percent of Navajo Nation Households live below the federal poverty threshold (compared to the national average of 13 percent)**.
Covid has hit the Navajo Nation particularly hard. The Navajo people have suffered a disproportionate contraction of Covid 19, topping the highest per-capita coronavirus infection rates in the country**. As a result, they have implemented strict shutdown and curfew measures. These are necessary to curb the spread of the virus, but the measures have also dramatically impacted local incomes. Many Navajo Nation residents rely on tourism as their main source of income. Without it, the poverty level has only continued to increase. It's been an extremely tough balancing act for the local government, caught between keeping people alive and keeping them from their livelihoods.
*Source: University of Arizona
**Source: Prosperity Now
As a result of the Covid protection measures the Navajo government has put in place, the Monument Valley Tribal Park is currently closed*. In fact, all Navajo Tribal Park sites are closed--as we found with Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, as well. It is a disappointment, but we obviously understand this is only a one-day inconvenience for us--it is impacting locals' lives daily.
Despite the closure, we are fortunate enough to be able to get a glimpse of one of the Tribal Park's most iconic views right from our hotel room tonight. We are staying at The View Hotel**--the only hotel located inside of the Tribal Park. The hotel only recently received approval to reopen. We are happy to experience the panoramic valley scenery comprised of the famed West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, and Merrick Butte rock formations from our hotel balcony--much more than any other (non-hotel patron) valley visitors can see at the moment.
*Operating Status Note: As of July 2022, the park is OPEN and in "Yellow Status," which allows occupancy at no more than 75%, and requires masks both indoor and outdoors. You can find the latest status, restrictions, and hours here.
**Tip: The hotel's address is Indian Route 42, Oljato-Monument Valley, AZ 84536 and its GPS coordinate are 36 degrees 58′ 56.77″ N 110 degrees 06′ 43.77″ W.
As we cross into Utah* and near the entrance to the Tribal Park, we pull over to take in our first sighting of the rocky buttes cropping up from the valley floor surrounding us. I'm uncertain what we will be able to see once we've entered the park given how limited our movement will be on site. So, I want to experience a bit of the panorama surrounding us here first.
We have been told to check in at a booth located along the road to the hotel. I assume this checkpoint also serves as an entrance to the park itself when it is open since the Park Visitor Center** is in a building adjacent to the Hotel (also closed during our visit). Sure enough, when we arrive, the entry booth is staffed with a woman with a clipboard who has our names on her list for approved facility access. She directs us up the road to the hotel for official room check-in.
*Time Zone Note: The Navajo Nation is on Mountain Time. Since Arizona does not participate in daylight savings, during daylight savings, it is one hour earlier in Arizona than in Utah and the Navajo Nation. In non-daylight savings months, all three are on the same time.
**Note: The Navajo Nation Park Entry Fee is NOT included in the hotel rate. It can currently be purchased upon arrival, but you can get the latest update on the status of park entry and the current rate being charged here. The Park Visitor Center has some wonderful terrace views of the valley, as well. If you're not staying at the hotel, definitely stop at the Visitor Center to take in the scenery from the terrace.
Photos: The View Hotel Lobby
The View Hotel's lobby is decorated with a gorgeous round stone fireplace adorned with Native American artwork. There are also some interesting sculpture pieces spaced around the area. Check-in at the desk is quick and easy. We are told that we only have access to the hotel and terraces directly on property* during our visit. We cannot wander into the valley below the hotel at all. We are also informed that The View Restaurant** is currently closed, but we are offered a bagged continental breakfast for the morning. If we want food in the meantime, though, we will need to travel to the nearby Goulding's property which is offering takeout at their restaurant. (Goulding's is the next closest lodging to the park, located about 5 miles from the entrance.)
*Hotel Amenities Note: The hotel has a free fitness center for guests; it does not have a pool which it states is out of respect for valley residents who do not have running water in their own homes.
**Operating Status Note: The View Restaurant is now OPEN, offering a continental breakfast and a dine-in dinner with scenic views of Monument Valley.
For now, we decide to settle into our room. The View Hotel offers several different lodging choices ranging from hotel rooms to premium cabins to campground sites. We are staying in a second floor premium view hotel room tonight. The hotel is situated on a small rise, so even the first floor rooms with balconies appear to have wonderful views, but I'm quite happy with our second floor choice. We have a perfect, unobstructed view of the valley below*. The hotel has a total of three levels, with each subsequent level costing a bit more to reserve. Our room's view is quite perfect for landscape photography, and I would make the same selection again. Plus, if we don't have enough of a panoramic view from here, there are plenty of outdoor terraces surrounding the hotel building from which to take in the gorgeous giants towering up from the valley floor.
*Photography Tip: The balconies provide an ideal sunrise or sunset view of the valley. The sun comes up over this portion of the valley, so you will NOT see it set from here (pre-sunset is best), but the valley floor and buttes glow a fiery red as the setting sunlight projects out across the land. Sunrise is beautiful; you can physically watch the sun come up amongst the picturesque buttes (approximately between the two Mitten Buttes), but balancing the photography lighting with the sun right in your frame can be a bit more challenging. If you only have one night in Monument Valley, I'd suggest finding a sunset tour to take in the actual sunset from another valley location and watching the sunrise over the valley from here. You won't get a better view and can quite literally roll out of bed to see it. If you have a second morning, consider sunrise at the Totem Poles rock formation, debatably the second most picturesque sunrise spot in Monument Valley.
After situating our items in our room and enjoying the view from our balcony, we decide to wander the hotel's outdoor patios--the farthest distance we are currently permitted to travel within the park. At night, the hotel screens old Westerns out here against the backdrop of the real-life scenery. While exploring these viewpoints, we find that the hotel's Trading Post, which sells traditional and hand-crafted items, is surprisingly open. So, we stop in to check out the wares. It's a fun place to browse, and we find a few small items to purchase as souvenirs. From outside of the Trading Post, we find a particularly spectacular view of the West Mitten Butte.
From up here, we can just make out some dirt track roads below us. Typically, we would be able to drive the 17 mile Valley Loop Drive (also called Tribal Park Loop) in our own vehicle, but that is obviously closed*, as well. (The scenic drive can take several hours at a max speed limit of 15 MPH--the unpaved road can be quite bumpy.) So, we have to content ourselves with what we can see from the hotel's terraces. Luckily, we can still see a good bit. The valley floor sits at an elevation of approximately 5,500 feet, but the "monuments" tower almost another 1,000 feet above it; so they can be seen from quite a distance away.
*Operating Status Note: The driving route is now OPEN. This is a dirt road; it can be bumpy/dusty but can be driven in a regular car. However, if it rains, the road can be impassible, even with 4WD. This drive can be accessed with or without a Navajo guide.
The Valley also offers several walking trails, but most cannot be accessed without a Navajo Guide. The Wildcat Trail is an exception. The 3.9 mile loop trail starts/ends at the hotel and circles around the West Mitten. I really want to walk it, but the front desk attendant let us know that the walking trails are closed, as well-- even for hotel guests. The rules are the rules.
Photos: West Mitten Butte, Merrick Butte, East Mitten Butte
When the park is open, a great way to get off the beaten path--or just avoid driving the rugged 17 mile road through the valley yourself--is by booking a tour guide*. Other than the Valley Loop Drive and very limited activities (like the previously mentioned hike), Monument Valley is off limits to those not on a tour with a Navajo Guide. Taking a tour is a great way to give back to local small businesses and get a Navajo resident's perspective. Some tours also provide access to Lower Monument Valley, which is only accessible via tour.
*Tip: A good, very detailed list of Tour Guides for various tours (sightseeing, horseback riding, photography, etc.) can be found at the hotel's website here. Often times, these depart right from the hotel lobby. Goulding's also offers tours ranging from a Basic Tour (2.5 hours, covers the Valley Loop Drive and visits a traditional hogan) to a Deluxe Tour (3.5 hours, covers the previous plus some restricted back country stop), Sunrise/Sunset Tours (2.5 hours each, also covers the Loop Road), and even an all day (8 hour) tour that includes the Deluxe Tour stops and visits Mystery Valley's Anasazi Ruins. More information on all of Goulding's offerings can be found here.
Now that we have explored the limitations of the hotel's grounds from all angles, we decide to sort out dinner. Given that we don't have any plans for tonight other than watching the valley change colors in the setting sun from our room, we head to Goulding's Stagecoach Restaurant* to place our takeout order in person. When planning our trip, I had considered booking Goulding's Lodge. However, given that I was uncertain that the Tribal Park would be open during our visit, I knew the only way we'd even get a glimpse of some of the valley's most famous sites was from The View Hotel. I also really wanted to experience sunrise over the valley floor, and whether the park was opened or closed, the easiest way to do that would definitely be from The View Hotel. That being said, I am interested to check out Goulding's.
Goulding's Lodge is a bit more historic than the fairly new View Hotel, having been established in the 1920s, initially as a trading outpost. The founders of Goulding's were actually responsible for bringing Hollywood out to Monument Valley, having personally petitioned John Ford with photographs of the area for his upcoming John Wayne film at the time, Stagecoach. Following that success, Goulding's hosted many film crews over the year, expanding lodging and dining to accommodate their new guests.
Today, Goulding's offers a plethora of accommodation options. They have traditional rooms, apartments, and even homes, as well as more rustic accommodations ranging from an RV park to a campground to cabins. Prior to the construction of The View Hotel (2008), Goulding's was the presiding accommodation in the area. It functions more like a little desert outpost rather than just a lodge.
Photos: Sites On The Gouldings Property
In addition to the lodging, Goulding's houses a small museum, gift shop with local items, and a theater* showing Jon Wayne movies and educational videos about Monument Valley (free to those staying at Goulding’s). It also houses amenities like laundry, a gas station/convenience store, and even an air strip. Most importantly, though, it obviously has an open restaurant.
When we arrive at the Stagecoach Restaurant**, we're greeted at the counter by a hostess with the day's takeout menu and quickly make our selections. We choose a stew on special and the Navajo fry bread. I'm excited to try the traditional fry bread, a fluffy flatbread served hot with honey, butter, and powdered sugar--it sounds amazing. We don't select a dessert since the fry bread sounds like one in itself!
*Note: The theater schedule can be found here and is free to those staying at Goulding's.
**Note: The restaurant is open 9am-9pm daily, now serving dine-in breakfast, lunch, and dinner; reservations not required.
**Note: Due to the impacts of substance abuse on Native Americans' lives, the Navajo Nation is dry. Alcohol cannot be sold (or transported) on reservation land per Navajo Tribal Law.
While we're waiting for our food, we decide to wander Goulding's grounds a bit. It's quiet, I assume once again a result of the Tribal Park Closure, but we do see a few guests out and about. We pass several buildings, most closed at the moment, so we decide to check out the open gift shop. It's great for doing a bit of browsing in the comfort of some air conditioning as we wait. I end up purchasing someone small that catches my eye here, as well.
Once our takeout order is ready, we collect it from the restaurant and reverse the drive back to our hotel room. We unpack our dinner and decide we will eat it inside and watch the view through the balcony's sliding glass window until we are finished. Hot weather and hot stew are just not particularly enjoyable when combined together.
All of the food is delicious and comes in rather large portions. The Navajo fry breads, though, are like little clouds of heaven. They are warm, fluffy, and sugary. They taste similar in flavor to a flatter and slightly chewier very fresh sugared donut but with the addition of buttery honey. The serving is large, but it's not easy to stop eating!
Photos: Monument Valley at Dusk
After dinner, we sit on our porch for a while watching the valley become a deeper and deeper shade of red in the waning sunlight. It's still quite hot, but without the blazing desert sun, the entire valley seems to sigh in relief and us along with it. The buttes give the impression of glowing from within, as if radiating their stored heat. I find myself snapping more and more pictures the deeper vermillion the scenery turns. We even venture back out to the hotel's surrounding patios to take in the view from a few extra angles. Dusk is truly magical here.
After sunset, we decide to call it an early night. I'd love to wait until the sky darkens to take in the moon and stars from out here without all of the light pollution we're used to experiencing, but we're both pretty tired. Along with being an amazing backdrop for any photoshoot, Monument Valley also has the privilege of being a prime spot for dark sky photography. Due to the lack of nighttime light pollution, the Milky Way is quite visible in the right conditions. We cannot venture out into the valley at night due to the closure--and if it was open, we'd need to do so with a guide. However, the moon is too full (i.e. bright) currently to have Milky Way visibility at night anyway. I really want to come back one day specifically to do some dark sky photography here.
Photos: Monument Valley Sunrise Phases
In the morning, I roll out of bed well before sunup. I'm half asleep still and in desperate need of some caffeine, but I want to get my tripod set up in the pre-dawn light. I plan to take in the pink and purple sky before the sun breaches the horizon. Luckily, I don't have far to travel! The plan is to capture the sun rising from our balcony, and then, once it's visible, to get some shots from around the rest of the hotel grounds.
I had been hoping to do a photography tour during our visit, and even had one booked* early on in my planning in hopes of the valley reopening. In particular, I wanted to do one focused around sunrise and the early morning valley light. Unfortunately, it had to be canceled for obvious reasons. However, I'm happy to have gotten the chance to experience this part of the valley at sunrise. It feels as if I have stepped straight into a John Wayne Western.
*Tip: I booked a Monument Valley Sunrise Tour with Dineh Bekeyah Tours (I spoke with Andrea Harrison--she was very helpful). The tour was supposed to depart at 5am from the hotel's lobby and return at 9am, hitting some of the valley's most scenic spots. They also offer a Starlight or Full Moon Tour which sounds wonderful, as well. We obviously weren't able to go, but my research showed their tours are well reviewed and they were very helpful in answering my questions.
Once the sun is up, we decide to shower and get ready for the day. We plan to check out early this morning. We've seen what we can, given the restrictions here, and we have a drive planned outside of the Tribal Park. I want to take in a bit more of the valley rock formations that we aren't restricted from seeing along the highway en route to another iconic area viewpoint.
Our planned stop this morning is Forest Gump Hill, made famous by the movie's iconic scene where Tom Hanks' character, having traversed the country several times on foot, decides he will "go home now." The spot, located at the top of a hill on U.S Highway 163, about 16 miles from The Monument Valley Visitor Center, is outside of the restricted portion of the Tribal Park. So, this one we can access ourselves. My reading says that there are pullouts along the highway, so we should be able to safely stop to take in the view.
The drive to Forest Gump Hill* is quite scenic. We pass many valley rock formations and stop a few times to take them in from roadside pullouts. It's the only real drive we'll get of the area, so we take it slow and enjoy the scenery. When we get to the iconic spot near the top of the hill, we pull over again. The road has very few cars at the moment, so it's fairly easy to get a shot without any cars in the background. It's also fairly safe to venture into the road to snap a very quick shot while the other of us watches the photographer's back for any oncoming vehicles.
*Tip: The best time for photography here is early morning and early afternoon. In the later afternoon, you will be facing the sun and photos will not come out very well. The viewpoint is a 20 minute drive from the Park's Visitor Center (16 miles), GPS coordinates are: 37.101393, -109.990973.
Photos: Forest Gump Hill Views
We do encounter one other family stopping at the lookout--which works out well for all of us since we can trade off cameras to take photos of one another's groups. They do not appear to speak any English, but there's always the universal sign for photo taking in any language. After their departure, we stay for a few minutes, enjoying the desert view and snapping a few final photographs.
Once we've gotten our fill of photos, we make a U-Turn to drive back the way we came on Highway 163. Driving down the highway, now toward the landscape we were just photographing, feels like the perfect way to end this scenic trip. Our next stop is southern Colorado, and we need to retrace our steps a little in order to head in that direction. Today, we're off to the higher elevations of Mesa Verde National Park. There, we'll get to tour an Ancient Pueblo cliff dwelling and take in more of the country's rich Native American history.
Part 7: Mesa Verde National Park is coming soon!
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins