A 14-mile dirt road through Monument Valley reveals well-known locations including the Mittens, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point and Totem Pole. But to discover the real treasures, you need a native Navajo guide to lead you deeper into Mystery Valley, Hunts Mesa, Ear of the Wind and more. And that’s where our Lower Monument Valley Safari tour came in.
Monument Valley is about 60 miles west of the Utah-New Mexico border on Highway 163 straddling the Arizona-Utah border. Entrance to the park is not included in the tour, as the money is collected by the local Native American tribe, the Navajo.
We stayed onsite in a cozy cabin overlooking the postcard-perfect dusty red landscape. After witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises of all time, we walked to the nearby hotel lobby, our 8am meeting point for this tour, where we were greeted casually by our friendly Navajo guide, Duffy. Since we were the only ones up that early, we had him (and the open-air truck) all to ourselves.
An early morning desert chill hung in the still air. We rugged up as best we could in our jackets and jeans, the cool temperature seemingly contrasting with the dry desert landscape, occasionally darkened by crisscrossing shadows cast by passing clouds.
Our first stop of the morning was near the iconic East Mitten and Merrick Butte, where our guide shared a little background about the valley and its native inhabitants. Each stop along the route offered stunning panoramic observation points; I really could have pointed a camera in any direction, closed my eyes and taken a beautiful photo. Duffy pointed out rock formations featured in movies including Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters, Big Chief and Sleeping Dragon Rock.
After we exhausted every angle at the prominent John Ford’s Point, Duffy directed his open-air truck into the restricted area of Monument Valley underneath Sun’s Eye arch. This portion of the trail was almost completely deserted, the paths rough and bumpy, with signage — indicating a local guide is required to enter — warning off casual tourists. As we passed by the valley’s oldest Anasazi ruins, it felt like we were the only ones left in the world.
The wind whistled past the smooth sandstone cliffs surrounding us, the only sound besides the truck’s tires crunching through the sandy path. The fresh scent of dew lingered in the air, but the day quickly warmed up as the sun rose high in the sky.
Our 2.5-hour tour included the Ear of the Wind arch, a walk inside Big Hogan and a visit to a traditional Navajo home called a “hogan.” Inside this dirt-clad structure was a smiling Navajo lady proudly displayed her grandmother’s belongings and local arts.
Toward the end we took an exciting sand dune ride through the back of the valley, going deep into canyons, making our way over a shallow river crossing before heading back out on the more familiar dusty path and through the public portion of the valley. We could barely wipe the smiles off our faces as several tourists gawked enviously at us; little did they know what they were missing.
Our guide was full of information about his ancestors and the rich culture of the Navajo Nation. He recounted fascinating ancient stories and answered all our curious questions.
So yes, you could explore Monument Valley by yourself, but don’t. Take my word for it. You don’t want to be one of those naïve tourists watching the lucky folks in the truck heading off-road to discover a deeper, even more beautiful side of this valley. Come join a safari with a Navajo guide and visit the real Monument Valley.
Learn about other Monument Valley tours.
— Erin Bender