We reached Monument Valley just as the sun was beginning to sink towards the horizon, casting a vivid glow on the red sandstone towers. As we stood on the balcony of our room at The View Hotel (the only hotel in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park itself), it was hard not to feel moved by the sight of the dramatic buttes – though this iconic “Wild West” landscape felt incredibly familiar, we hadn’t anticipated just how overwhelming it would feel to see such a majestic landscape in person, practically within touching distance.

Afternoon in Monument Valley

All images by Emma Gibbs

Monument Valley is far larger than its most classic view, of the Left and Right mittens and Merrick Butte, would have you believe, with the flat plain constantly revealing more and more brooding mesas and weather-carved towers. It’s hard to believe that people would live in such an unforgiving landscape, but the area was originally inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (until around 1300AD), and today Navajo people still live here – their basic houses looking incongruous against the stark beauty of the surrounding rocks as you drive through the park.

Late afternoon in Monument Valley

Staying at The View, it’s hard to drag yourself away from the sight of the valley – whether eating lunch in the restaurant, sitting in the lobby, or just in your room, it’s everywhere you turn, and I found that even glancing up from my book briefly would find me losing half an hour watching the scenery shift and change under the sunlight. But there’s only so much you can really experience from just looking at a landscape, after all, and the park is incredibly easy to explore, either independently or on a tour; the latter will enable you to get off the main road through the park and gain a unique local Navajo perspective – and some context – on the surroundings.

The Wildcat Trail is the only hike that’s possible in the valley without a guide, and was, with no exaggeration, the highlight of our two weeks exploring this corner of the US. For almost the entire route (an easy, if sandy, 3.3 mile-loop), we were the only people on the trail, which meant we felt as though we had the whole of Monument Valley to ourselves, the vast silence broken only by the occasional rustle of a wild horse, or our exclamations of wonder at our surroundings. The trail winds around the Left Mitten, allowing you to get a close look at the towering sandstone formation, with its distinctive “thumb”, and opening up closer views of the Right Mitten and Merrick Butte than you could experience from the road or the hotel.

Sign in Monument Valley

The only problem with the trail is that it allows you to only see a very small fraction of the park – to really begin to grasp how big it is, you have to hit the road. The self-drive route is a 17-mile, very bumpy (and, with a couple of hairpin bends to kick things off, mildly perilous) unpaved road through the valley. Though it doesn’t get you quite as into the wild as a guided tour, and though you do have to jostle at times with other tourists, it’s a great way to experience more of the park. We set off after lunch, just a few hours before sunset, and the dimming light lent the landscape an even more magical quality as the road opened up vista after vista of incredible rocks. Though you can’t get out and walk for any great distance, there are viewpoints continually along the road, so you can stop and really soak up the views – especially worthwhile when you reach a viewpoint that you have all to yourselves.

The trouble with visiting somewhere on your “must-see” list, as this was for me, is that there’s always the risk that it’s not quite going to live up to expectation. But visiting Monument Valley felt almost like seeing it for the first time, such was the drama of the scenery. On our last day, standing on the viewing terrace as the sun set, the light changing the reds of the sandstone to pinks and purples, it felt almost like looking out at the valley for the first time – an untamed landscape, waiting to be explored.

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