As we rounded the corner, ghostly spires rose above the arid, red soil like the forgotten strongholds of a bygone era. These sandstone masterpieces, some towering at heights of 1,000 feet, are in various stages of undress as sunset shadows roam the desert floor.
It's easy to see why Monument Valley has left countless visitors spellbound. (Now, Matt and I can add ourselves to the list.) Aside from its fame as a western movie set, the area's fragile pinnacles and windblown sand are infused with a kind of magic that can't be felt anywhere else.
However, other than the spectacular landscape, the park really doesn't possess any of the attributes one would associate with the "wild west." Rather, an introduction to the Navajo culture is what awaits visitors. Located on the Navajo Reservation, a vast parcel of land spanning portions of Western New Mexico, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, Monument Valley is a closely guarded park that attempts to regulate its visitors very carefully. All of the park's attractions hold a spiritual significance for the Navajo and as such, visitors may not venture off the main park road to view those sites up close without a Navajo escort. (We tried and got into a bit of trouble with a Navajo guide....)
The best part of our experience was being able to stay at the park's primitive campground, which was $21 per night for the two of us, and overlooked the West and East Mitten Buttes. (So much so, that we ended up booking a third night at the campground.) Each morning, woken by the first rays of sun (and our alarm clock), Matt and I unzipped our sleeping bags and rolled out of our tent with the whole of Monument Valley spread out before us.
NOTE: The park is operated by the Navajo people and is far less developed than those of the National Park Service. The dirt road through the park is very bumpy; the campsites are barren and set close together; hiking is prohibited unless on the 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail or if accompanied by an escort and the Navajos selling tours in the Visitor Center parking lot are quite persistent.
How We Did It:
Per Vehicle (up to 4 people) - $20.00
Ages 6 or younger - Free
Additional person(s) - $6.00
**National Parks and Golden Eagle Passes are not accepted.
NOTE: Though the entrance fee is on the pricier side, keep the receipt you receive at the entrance kiosk if you are planning to stay overnight/ visit multiple days in a row. The receipt allowed us to arrive at 5pm in the evening and was valid the entire next day without paying an additional $20 fee.
Other than the 3.2-mile roundtrip Wildcat Hike, there are no hikes for visitors of the park unless accompanied by a Navajo escort. And they're easy to spot. In the parking lot of the Visitor Center, there are several booths, each promoting a separate tour (i.e. horseback ride, scenic drives, etc.) Simply go up to a driver or employee and secure your slot. Tours can also be booked through the Visitor Center.
Driving through the park doesn't require a 4x4 vehicle (we did fine in our little Nissan Altima), but we do recommend having a durable vehicle that can withstand unpaved, rutted dirt-and-gravel roads if choosing to venture out by yourself. The beginning of the drive is the worst - the incline is steep and there are some major rocks jutting up from the roadway - but the rest is pretty smooth sailing if you take it at a reasonable pace.