If you ever visit Monument Valley in northeastern Arizona and feel like you’ve been there before, it’s likely because you’ve seen it in one of the many movie scenes filmed here. Today, the Navajo people generously share their land and culture with visitors, while expecting only care and respect for the land in return. Well, that and a modest permit fee.
Having served as the backdrop for many Western movies, the towering sandstone masterpieces of Monument Valley have helped raise this sacred place in the American Southwest to icon status.
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Movies filmed in Monument Valley
John Ford is credited with putting Monument Valley on the map with his film Stagecoach (1939), starring the young John Wayne. Ford and Wayne teamed up again at Monument Valley years later to produce the movie The Searchers (1956); considered one of the finest Westerns ever made.
Other movies with scenes filmed here:
- Once Upon a Time in the West
- 2001: A Space Odyssey
- Forrest Gump
- Mission Impossible 2
- Easy Rider
- Back to the Future Part III
- National Lampoon’s Vacation
- The Lone Ranger (2013 version)
Things to do in Monument Valley
Conveniently located close to nothing, you really have to go out of your way to get to Monument Valley. Nearly 30 miles away, Kayenta is the closest Arizona town with any real services to speak of. Unless you’re the type who is completely intrigued by American history and unique landscapes (like me), you might find Monument Valley quite boring. I’ve been here a few times and make new discoveries each time. It helps to plan a few activities before you go.
Take pictures of the landscape
A magnet for landscape photographers, the scenes at Monument Valley are constantly changing as the clouds, sun, moon make their way across the sky.
Tip: Don’t photograph local residents or their property (i.e. homes) without permission. Many people of native origin consider it a sign of disrespect.
Experience the Valley Drive
This is the main “attraction” at Monument Valley. Valley Drive is a slow-paced, 17-mile loop drive through rugged terrain dotted with desert plants and massive rock formations. You’ll receive a printed map at the entry station that points out the most noteworthy sites as you make your way around the loop. Here’s a basic map of the drive if you want to get a glimpse before you go.
Tip: The drive is not recommended for vehicles with low clearance because of the many hazards that exist.
If you’re not up for completing the entire drive, you can start the drive and turn around at the 4-mile marker. This is also a great vantage point to add some spectacular images and video to the memory card of your smart phone or camera.
Take a tour
If you want to experience the rugged 17-mile Valley Drive, but aren’t sure if you have what it takes to navigate the off-road route on your own, jump on a Jeep tour narrated by a Navajo guide. They’ll keep you entertained and point out all the worthwhile sites along the way.
Spend some time at the Visitor Center
Here you can learn about Navajo culture, purchase authentic jewelry and other hand-crafted items, then grab something to eat or drink. Plus, there are some great viewpoints of nearby rock formations with interpretive signs that describe what you’re looking at.
Monument Valley quick facts:
- Located on Navajo Nation – a reservation that covers parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico
- Size: 91,696 acres spanning from Arizona into Utah
- Elevation: 5,564 feet above sea level
- Sandstone formations tower 400 to 1,000 ft above the ground
- Admission fee: $20 per vehicle for up to 4 occupants; $6 each additional
- National Parks passes are not valid here
Learn about Navajo culture
You can pick up some tidbits of Navajo history by making a stop at the visitor center, but if you really want to learn about the plight of the Diné people, read up on their past before you go. Despite poor treatment in the past by the U.S. government, the legend of the Navajo Code Talkers is evidence that these are people who can set aside differences in the name of peace. One way to learn about Navajo Culture is to schedule a tour guided by a local and listen to their stories.
Visit the place where Forrest Gump stopped running
Although it’s technically in Utah, you can reach this iconic spot driving north on Highway 163 about 16 miles from the Monument Valley visitor center. There are a couple of gravel parking areas along the highway where you can pull off to take pictures. Plan on waiting your turn if you don’t want to edit other people out of your photos.
Gaze at the stars
Since there are no cities anywhere near Monument Valley, the sky is very dark and, on clear nights, you can see more stars than you’ve ever imagined.
Tip: download a stargazing app before you go, so you know which constellations you’re looking at.
What you need to know if you go to Monument Valley
- Regular visitor center hours of operation are 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
- Entry Fee: $20 per vehicle up to 4 people, $6 per additional person.
- Since indegenous people have been especially susceptible to the Covid-19 virus, you should expect tighter protocols than elsewhere in Arizona.
About Navajo Nation
With a population of more than 250,000 people, Navajo Nation extends from Arizona into the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, covering over 27,000 square miles of unparalleled beauty. Diné Bikéyah, or Navajoland, is larger than ten of the fifty states in America.
If you go, it’s important to abide by all Navajo Nation rules and regulations. Here are a few important rules you need to be aware of:
- Pets are prohibited in all Navajo tribal parks
- Camping and campfires are prohibited except in established areas
- Pack in, pack out all trash and recyclables
- Do not burn or bury trash
- Rock climbing is prohibited
- Drones are strictly prohibited
- Discarding of cremations is strictly prohibited
- Possession of firearms on the Navajo Nation is not allowed
- Consumption or possession of alcoholic beverages or illegal drugs is prohibited
- Permits are required for all photography, filming special-use projects
- Off-road vehicles are prohibited within the Navajo Tribal Park areas
All areas on the Navajo Nation are closed to non-Navajos unless you have a valid pass or permit issued by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department or other delegated tribal authority. Traveling on Navajo Nation without a permit is considered trespassing on a Federal Navajo Reservation.
Can you hike at Monument Valley?
Numerous isolated trails and routes are available on Navajo Nation, however hikers must have a permit at all times while on the nation. The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department has implemented fairly strict guidelines for backcountry use for the safety of hikers and for the protection of natural and cultural resources.
One of the most accessible hikes is Wildcat Trail – a 4-mile hike of easy to moderate difficulty that takes you around “Left Mitten”.
Be prepared. Water sources are few, so carry what you’ll need. Trails are not improved or maintained and are usually marked with rock cairns rather than signs. Reaching many of the trailheads requires the use of topo maps and driving over rough roads that can quickly become in wet weather.
Know your limits. Most trails are rated strenuous to moderately strenuous, and good physical conditioning is important. Getting lost out here can spell doom. For your own safety, it’s best to let someone know where you are at all times.
Where to stay near Monument Valley
Even though Monument Valley’s location is pretty remote, its popularity has given rise to sustainable source of tourism dollars. The Navajo tribe has responded by developing a number of lodging options in the area. Guests of The View hotel wake up to views of the famous Monument Valley rock formations. Not far from the visitor center, Gouldings Lodge offers more affordable options. Plus, a surprising number of Airbnb options exist in the area.
Is camping allowed at Monument Valley?
Although Arizona is known for ample dispersed camping sites, where you can just pull off the road and camp on public land, that approach does not apply on Navajo Nation. If you’re planning to camp, you must do so in one of several designated campgrounds. Check campendium.com for available campsites near Monument Valley.
Where is Monument Valley located?
Located on the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners region of the United States, Monument Valley stretches from northeastern Arizona into southeastern Utah. Tap the map below for directions from anywhere.
Western movies may have put Monument Valley on the map decades ago but relatively modern movies like Forrest Gump have helped raise this legendary place to icon status. Even if you’ve never watched a John Wayne movie in your life, you’re sure to enjoy the magical landscape that has served as a backdrop numerous Western films.