The classic southwestern landscape of stark sandstone buttes and forbidding pinnacles of rock, poking from an endless expanse of drifting red sands, is an archetypal Wild West image. Only when you arrive at Monument Valley do you realize how much your perception of the West has in fact been shaped by this one spot. Such scenery does exist elsewhere, of course, but nowhere is it so perfectly distilled. While moviemakers have flocked here since the early days of Hollywood the sheer majesty of the place still takes your breath away. Add the fact that it remains a stronghold of Navajo culture, and Monument Valley can be the absolute highlight of a trip to the Southwest.
The biggest and most impressive of the monoliths are a pair called The Mittens, one East and one West, each of which has a distinct thumb splintering off from its central bulk. Over a dozen other spires are spread around nearby, along with rock art panels and an assortment of minor but nicely sited Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
You can see the buttes for free, towering alongside US-163, but the four-mile detour to enter Monument Valley Tribal Park is rewarded with much closer views (daily: May– Sept 6am–8pm; Oct– April 8am–5pm; $5; Tel:435/727-5870; Web: www.navajonationparks.org ). A rough, unpaved road drops from behind the visitor center to run through Monument Valley itself. The 17-mile self-drive route makes a bumpy but bearable ride in an ordinary vehicle, and takes something over an hour (daily: summer 6am–8.30pm; rest of year 8am–4.30pm). However, the Navajo-led jeep or horseback tours into the backcountry are very much recommended; a 90-minute jeep trip costs from around $50 per person if arranged on the spot, with plenty of longer and potentially much more expensive alternatives. As well as stopping at such movie locations as the Totem Pole, most tours call in at a Navajo hogan (eight-sided dwelling) to watch weavers at work.
The stunning Navajo-owned hotel alongside the main viewpoint at Monument Valley, appropriately named The VIEW (Tel:928/727-3470, Web: www.monumentvalleyview.com ; Price: $201-250), offers luxurious rooms with absolutely magnificent views, plus a reasonable restaurant and its own extensive program of well-priced tours. Nearby, the exposed Mitten Viewcampground is first-come, first-served, with water available in summer only (summer $10, winter $5).