Monument Valley has always been one of my absolute favourite destinations in the US. When I was younger, I became enthralled by it when I saw a photo of it on a calendar in my best friend’s parents’ house (long before it became a default feature in Windows photo folders) and my brain whirred into overdrive as I said, “I HAVE to go there!” In fact, when I booked my trip across the USA with Trek America in 2008, a huge reason I chose the tour was because it took us through Monument Valley – AND you even got to sleep in a Navajo hogan hut.
Needless to say, it was my most anticipated stop on the entire trip, and ultimately lived up to every single expectation and is still in my top 3 travel experiences.
This time around, we were doing it by ourselves, and I was excited to see what the experience would be like doing it independently. I found that you can book the overnight tour with Simpson’s, but we were on a budget and opted for the campsite instead. I still booked a two hour tour with Simpson’s though, because although Monument Valley is accessible by car, you really need a 4×4 and there ain’t no way I was risking it with a shiny automatic rental car.
Plus I was really excited for Ash to see this place, and I truly believe the best way to experience it is with a native.
Most of all, I was excited to get some postcard perfect photos of the place, because Monument Valley boasts one of the most photogenic landscapes in the world, which is probably why I was enticed by a photo on a calendar.
Which is why, when we got closer to the tribal park, my heart sank when it looked like it was trying to rain. Even so, it skipped a beat the second we saw THAT view.
We had a couple of hours to kill before our tour, so we set about with our tent, and discovered that we were the only people there.
We literally had a private campsite with this view!
There is a hotel in the park – the only accommodation within the park itself – and we quickly decided that as we weren’t staying there, we would at least eat dinner there, and treat ourselves to a nice meal while we were at what was undoubtedly going to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Our guide, Vera, met us before our scheduled time, and it turned out that we were the only people on it!! I couldn’t believe it – we’d bagged ourselves a private campsite AND a private tour! “You picked a good day,” she said. “There’s a massive tour group arriving tomorrow so we’re packed out.”
It did mean that although I’d been excited to bump around on the back of the open truck, we sat up front with Vera for a personal experience, and to keep her company!
Vera was born at the other end of the valley, and grew up here. She told us stories of her childhood, of living in the hogans, of carrying out chores for her mother, of her father being born right by a rock that we passed.
She lives beyond the valley now, in a small town around an hour away. Her siblings have all moved to cities; she has a sister in Las Vegas and I think she said other siblings in LA. We chatted about those cities, and how she finds it living here.
We made our first stop at the famous John Ford point. It was really clouding over now, but it didn’t stop us getting some epic photos!
Unfortunately, it did start to rain. I couldn’t believe it! It rained last time I was here, too! I’m sure it doesn’t rain that often in Monument Valley.
It did mean that not all of my photos were perfect, but we were having so much fun it didn’t even matter.
Vera pointed out all the different shapes of rocks to us, telling us the names. There was one called Snoopy! “See, it looks like Snoopy lying on his back,” she laughed. There were dragons, camels, three sisters; I’m fairly certain there was a witch somewhere, too.
As we passed a couple of hogans, she pointed out one of them.
“That was Susie’s house,” she said.
“Is that the grandmother of the valley?!” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes! She died a few years ago. She was 106, I think. Although nobody really knows.”
I sat for a moment, taking in the update. I posted a blog a while ago about my Trek America experience, and talked about meeting the “grandmother of the valley”. Someone commented on the post to say that he had done the same tour in the 90’s, complete with the old lady, and we went on to muse whether she was genuine. Now, I felt guilty.
“I met her ten years ago,” I said sadly. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I told Vera about our tour last time, and asked if she knew our guide, Marvin. She thought for a moment, and said he hasn’t worked for them for some time and had been doing horse riding tours instead, but that she hasn’t seen him at all for a while. I didn’t tell her that one of my most treasured possessions is a piece from his necklace that he gave me, but we did talk about how lovely he was.
Vera wanted to take us to see some of the petroglyphs, but with the rain, one of the routes was flooded. She gave us a knowing look, and told us she’d take us to a more secret, secluded place instead.
On the way, we passed a group of horse riders, and I couldn’t imagine a better place to do a horse riding tour! Though perhaps not in this weather.
The rain was really coming down now – waterfalls were splashing off the huge rocks, and we pulled over to run to the carvings. Luckily, it was pretty sheltered, and we took cover to admire the carvings while it dissipated.
We were in the depths of the valley now, which is exactly why we couldn’t believe what happened next.
We had walked round the corner from the jeep, so Vera had locked the car just to be safe.
…and now we couldn’t get back in.
The key was jamming every time we tried to turn it. Vera stared at it in horror. She was mortified!!
I just laughed – this is exactly the sort of thing that happens to us, I assured her.
She frantically called her boss, John, who said he would come out to rescue us, but we knew he would be some time, especially as we were sort of off-route!
If it hadn’t been raining, this would have been a fantastic adventure. We could have gone for a walk and seen things that no one sees. I mean, we had this Jabba the Hut rock that we walked over to?
Instead, we sheltered ourselves from the rain on the back of the jeep – Vera, bless her, offered us her coat! I could glamourise the whole experience, or be really overdramatic about it (remember that time we almost froze to death in Monument Valley?), but it really was a matter of twiddling our thumbs and waiting to be rescued!
When John arrived, he very nonchalantly used magic hands to unlock the car within seconds, and with a mere glance, asked if we wanted to go back with him or stay with Vera. I thought it was a strange attitude to have, given that we were customers who had just been trapped in the depths of the valley, in the rain, for almost an hour when it should have only taken him 20 minutes.
Luckily, I am very much a “it’s all part of the adventure” type of person, but it occurred to me that this would have really riled up a more impatient customer. That said, a private tour costs over double what we paid, so that’s another reason I can’t complain at all!
Of course, we stayed with Vera because apart from the mishap, she had been a fantastic guide. She was glad – but she also seemed a little miffed at how blasé he had been with us, too.
At last, we were off again – luckily, we had been coming towards the end of our tour anyway, and it was still light, so we didn’t miss out on anything and instead just had an extended length of time in the valley!
On the way back, Vera pointed out the hogans that I would have stayed in last time, off in the distance. It was really cool to see them again, even if we weren’t staying in them this time!
So it had been a very different experience to the last time I was there. There was no sitting in a cave listening to the flute, or shouting echoes down a tunnel of rock. Instead, we had a very real and open experience with our lovely Navajo guide, who was happy to stop before we got to the top for some sunset photos.
Thankfully, even with our extended jolly in the valley, we made it back in time for sunset, which was one of my most anticipated features of Monument Valley, and I had deliberately timed our tour so that we would experience it at the end.
As well as getting some lovely views in the valley, it was after we said our goodbyes that the sunset really kicked in. And in spite of the clouds – in fact, probably because of them – it looked absolutely epic, just for a few swift moments.
I took probably my favourite photo of all time, where it looks like a painting!
Most of all, I loved how uncrowded Monument Valley still was. Here we were, experiencing one of the most scenic sunsets in the world, with perhaps ten other people there to share it with. It was nothing like the Grand Canyon, which all things considered hadn’t been packed at all, but was still reasonably busy. Obviously it helped that we were there at the end of October, but because of its location and proximity to absolutely nowhere, it still feels relatively off the beaten path.
Not only that, but having a private tour of the valley was incredible!
After a quick change of clothes (after all, we were still wet!), we headed back to the View hotel for some dinner. The restaurant was actually full the entire time we were there, and it wasn’t hard to see why. With huge windows overlooking the mittens, it’s an instant attraction (although at this point it was obviously pretty much dark!).
The restaurant offers some traditional Navajo food, and I immediately opted for the Navajo taco sampler plate to share. And boy, am I glad we went for it. I still think of those tacos now.
Unlike the usual tacos that we know and love, these are made with thick bread, and they are DELICOUS – and extremely filling. We had no idea how we were going to manage our mains, and in fact Ash had to take most of his chicken away in a box!
The menu is full of fantastically named meals, like the John Wayne burger, and the Johnny Depp! Ash opted for the Clint Eastwood Fried Chicken (very traditional) while I went for a (much more traditional) Navajo mutton stew.
Both our meals were delicious! In fact, one of their chilli stews has been featured as one of the best things to eat in the USA! I don’t like spicy food, so I was very happy with my mutton.
It was well worth treating ourselves on, and we returned to the campground con-tent-ed, ha!
I woke in the morning to darkness; I knew the sun would be rising soon, so I braved the cold and surprised myself and everybody who knows me by getting up before sunrise to take a walk down towards the mittens.
To my delight, today was a perfect day. It’s a shame it hadn’t been like this for the tour, but then Vera had told us that they were packed out today with Japanese tour groups, so it’s really swings and roundabouts, and I will never knock having a private tour.
After all, to me Monument Valley is magical and spiritual. It’s about the traditions and beliefs, the way the Navajo people regard this place, the way it tries to knock me off my feet every time I look out at the view – and meeting someone who grew up here was incredible.
But I was still thrilled to get those perfect photos that I’d wanted all along.
Honestly, Monument Valley just strikes a very melodious chord somewhere deep within me. I could go back ten times and never get bored of it. I would find a different way to experience it every time (did you know you used to be able to do a hot air balloon over it?!? I’m not sure if you still can? But WOW, how incredible would that be?! Then there’s horse riding tours, driving yourself and even hiking!).
But we had to leave. Ash had to tear me away. On our way out, though, I managed to stop at the view I had been yearning to find for years.
Not only is it just an astonishing view, it’s also rather famous (much like a lot of Monument Valley) for a certain movie. It is, of course, the iconic Forrest Gump scene!
I couldn’t resist getting a ridiculous posing shot – in fact, I’m just surprised I didn’t get more!
Monument Valley, you will never fail to amaze me. You stir emotions. You are magical.
If you want to experience Monument Valley properly, The View is the only business that operates within the park itself. It owns the hotel, the restaurant, the shop, some cabins and the campground.
Otherwise, you can stay in a nearby town, but personally my favourite way to experience the valley is to book an overnight tour with Simpson’s! It’s pricey at $250 but I truly believe it’s bucket list worthy – after the tour, you get dinner and a traditional dance with Navajos, and sleep in a hogan mud hut. If you don’t want to spend that much, then camping out will only set you back $21 and you get to wake up with one of the most iconic views ever!
There is also a $20 fee per vehicle to enter the park (it’s not a national park, it’s a Navajo tribal park, so a pass won’t cover it).
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