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 – which straddles the Arizona–Utah state line, 24 miles north of Kayenta – do you realize how much your perception of the West has 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 pair of monoliths are The Mittens; one East and one West, each has a distinct thumb splintering off from its central bulk. More than a dozen other spires spread nearby, along with rock art panels and assorted minor 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. A rough, unpaved road drops from behind the visitor centre and View hotel to run through Monument Valley itself. The seventeen-mile self-drive route makes a bumpy but bearable ride in an ordinary vehicle and takes something over an hour. However, the Navajo-led jeep or horseback tours into the backcountry are very much recommended; a ninety-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.