Monument Valley
Utah
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Monument Valley

The most famous landscape in the American Southwest

Gooseneck State Park near Monument Valley Utah © John Crossley
Nearby, Goosenecks State Park provides an extended viewpoint of several huge river meanders, now flowing one thousand feet below ground level in a deep canyon.

Monument Valley provides perhaps the most enduring and definitive images of the American West. The isolated red mesas and buttes surrounded by empty, sandy desert have been filmed and photographed countless times over the years. Because of this, the area may seem quite familiar, even on a first visit, but it is soon evident that the natural colours really are as bright and deep as they are in all the pictures.

The Valley is not a valley in the conventional sense, but rather a wide flat, sometimes desolate landscape, interrupted by the crumbling formations rising hundreds of feet into the air, the last remnants of the sandstone layers that once covered the entire region.

Monument Valley lies within a Navajo Indian Reservation

Monument Valley lies entirely within the Navajo Indian Reservation on the Utah/Arizona border near the southeastern corner of Utah. The state line passes through the most famous landmarks, which are concentrated near the small town of Goulding. This isolated settlement was established in 1923 as an Indian trading post, but it now has a comprehensive range of visitor services. The town is 175-miles (250 km) from Flagstaff, Arizona, the nearest city.

There is only one main road, US163, which links Kayenta, AZ with US191 in Utah. The stretch approaching the Arizona/Utah border from the north offers the most famous image of the Valley - a long straight empty road stretching across flat desert towards the 1000-foot high stark red cliffs on the horizon. Although much can be appreciated from the main road, a lot more of the landscape remains hidden from view behind long straight cliffs (the Mitchell and Wetherill Mesas), east of the road. More scenery is contained within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (entrance fee $2.50), on a short side road opposite the turn-off to Goulding.

The best views are within the Navajo Reservation

Valley of the Gods near Monument Valley Utah © John Crossley
The Valley of the Gods is 30 miles north of Monument Valley along US163, and has more of the same landscape of stark red rock formations.

The view from the visitor centre is spectacular enough, but most of the park can only be seen from the Valley Drive, a 17-mile dirt road. It starts at the visitor centre and winds among towering cliffs and mesas including The Totem Pole, an oft-photographed spire of rock 300 feet high but only a few meters wide. The road is unfortunately very uneven and difficult without a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. As an alternative, there are many Navajo guides and 4WD jeep rental outfits, which wait expectantly by the visitor centre - typical prices are around $15 for a 3 hour trip. You can also tour the valley via horseback.

The Monument Valley area and the Navajo reservation provide some excellent opportunities to view Native American culture and to learn about the Navajo people. You can even observe some traditional Navajo craftsmanship and purchase hand-made items. You should refrain from taking photographs of the Navaho people, their homes or their possessions without first asking permission. Often a small gratuity is expected for photography.

There are several motels, restaurants and stores is Goulding, Utah. Accommodations are also available at Kayenta in Arizona, or at Bluff and Mexican Hat in Utah. The selection is somewhat limited, so reservations are advised.

The Valley of the Gods is nearby

The Valley of the Gods is 30 miles north of Monument Valley along US163, and has more of the same landscape of stark red rock formations. This Valley is almost as scenic as Monument Valley but has free admission, and very few visitors. It is reached by a dirt road starting near the small town of Mexican Hat. This small settlement is named after a curious formation with a large flat rock 60 feet in diameter perched precariously on a much smaller base at the top of a hill.

Around Mexican Hat, the San Juan River is slow moving and flows through a canyon with many wide bends. Nearby, Goosenecks State Park provides an extended viewpoint of several huge river meanders, now flowing one thousand feet below ground level in a deep canyon. Camping is allowed free of charge at the viewpoint, and although there are few facilities, this is an exellent place to spend the night - visitors can park just a few feet away from the cliff edge and watch the effect of the setting sun on the far canyon walls.

Written by: John Crossley
Top Photo Credit: © USATourist.com
Photo Description: Valley of the Gods