Exploring Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

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Long a setting for American westerns, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park offers sweeping desert vistas and a chance to explore the area’s Native American history of culture.

I will never forget my first view of massive sandstone buttes in Monument Valley, Arizona. Framed by a brilliant blue sky, they rose high above a sweeping desert vista. Occasional vehicles kicking up dust along nearby dirt roads resembled ants. I had never been a huge fan of ‘cowboy movies,’ but suddenly felt like I had stepped into one.

The full name of this area is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The Navajo (Diné) Nation owns and oversees this land they call Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (White Streaks Amidst the Rocks). Four hundred to 1,000 feet tall, the signature stone buttes that characterize this landscape have long starred as iconic backdrops for Westerns.

This desert area is always a gorgeous place to visit. Today, you’ll join annual crowds topping 400,000 visitors. But there’s more to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park story than beautiful desert surroundings. Here’s what you need to know about this one-of-a-kind destination. 

Gorgeous views abound inside Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Gorgeous views abound inside Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

When Hollywood Discovered Monument Valley

The Navajo (Diné) Nation is the second-largest US tribe. Diné mainly raised livestock, farmed, and sold their arts and crafts to make a living until the early 1900s. Beginning in the 1920s, growing numbers of Navajos worked to extract oil, coal, and natural gas.

Then Hollywood discovered this gorgeous natural landscape. By 1938, legendary director John Ford filmed his first movie in Monument Valley. His Stagecoach starred John Wayne. Ford made 10 movies in this valley, including films whose story didn’t occur in Arizona or Utah.

Over the years, many contemporary movies used Monument Valley as a partial backdrop, including Easy Rider, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Forrest Gump. In 2013, a new version of The Lone Ranger became the final movie filmed in Monument Valley.

Some members of the Navajo Nation worked as movie extras, livestock handlers, interpreters, and general laborers for movie productions. However, movie makers often established tent villages amid the buttes while bringing their own food, livestock, and support staff.

Ford's Point

A photo op at Ford’s Point in Monument Valley. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

Exploring the Park

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park emerged in 1958 when the Navajo Tribal Council set aside Navajo Nation Reservation acreage in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.

Some local Navajo have feared the ongoing impacts of road construction, vehicles, and aircraft on medicinal plants and animals living here. Some still make offerings for deities that live here. So, it’s no wonder Diné initially objected when the Monument Valley Visitors Center was dedicated in 1960.

To explore Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park by car, you can follow a scenic 17-mile loop road between early morning and early evening. But skip your motorcycle, SUV, or RV. They’re not allowed due to rough terrain and deep sand dunes. Two dozen Navajo tour operators offer guided and narrated tours with paid reservations.

One significant benefit of these tours is seeing special landmarks such as Ear of the Wind—a natural sandstone arch. That’s because much of the park is off-limits if you’re not on an organized tour. About one mile before the Visitors Center, you may find the perfect piece of Navajo art or sample Navajo food at roadside stands.

Navajo Parks

Navajo families set up tables to sell their wares throughout the Valley. Photo by Elizabeth R Rose

I admired hundreds of exquisite handmade Native American arts and crafts at The View Trading Post. I saw concho belts, woven baskets, Navajo rugs, and pottery from traditional fire pits. Operating near The View Hotel, this spacious, jam-packed, brightly lit space is a beautiful marketplace for Diné artisans. During my visit, delicately painted kachinas dressed in buckskin and feathers also viewed the valley through a massive window.

Several handcrafted kachinas lined a window sill inside the trading post. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Several handcrafted kachinas lined a window sill inside the trading post. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Grab a Bite in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park 

Before I left the park, I ordered Red Chile Posole with Pork from The View/Hashke Neiniih Restaurant. This regional favorite dish was a pleasantly spicy combo of tender seasoned pork and plump hominy, braised with New Mexico Red Chiles. Fluffy Navajo frybread accompanied this filling, satisfying dish.

Enjoy authentic Navajo dishes and Hollywood-themed burgers or sandwiches inside the park. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

Enjoy authentic Navajo dishes and Hollywood-themed burgers or sandwiches inside the park. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray

You can select several other traditional Diné dishes here, too. Or check out a wide array of hamburgers and sandwiches that reflect Hollywood’s interaction with Monument Valley. Think the Henry Fonda Burger and the Tom Hanks Club Sandwich.

Behind the scenes, this restaurant utilizes ingredients grown without pesticides or fertilizers whenever possible. You’ll also be supporting Navajo high school students who help grow seasonal vegetables and herbs while using composting and environmentally sensitive planting and harvesting.

A Great Night’s Sleep in the Park

I might have booked a spacious guestroom at The View Hotel if my schedule hadn’t been tight. Brilliant starry skies and magnificent dawns are standard views from private balconies that face the park.

Operating since 2008, this Navajo-owned property greeted me inside a breathtaking lobby where large kachinas decorated a two-story stone fireplace and long wood beams punctuated white ceilings. Natural light still floods this room through two levels of tall windows. Handmade Navajo rugs decorate the space.

But you won’t find a swimming pool here.

The hotel website says, “The View Hotel does not offer a swimming pool out of respect for the residents on the Valley floor that do not have running water and must haul it daily to meet their families’ basic needs.”

Designed to blend with and honor its natural environment, the hotel also incorporates numerous eco-friendly features. Guests use low-flow water devices beneath a reflective roof and overhangs, while double-pane windows feature Low-E values (an applied coating makes them substantially more energy efficient).

A stunning lobby awaits guests of The View Hotel. Photo by Lisa Waterman Gray.

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When You Visit Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Touring Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park will introduce you to authentic Navajo culture wrapped in a naturally stunning, iconic landscape. And your visit to this massive park will remain with you long after returning home. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more travels in Northern Arizona and other parts of the Southwest. We also share some of our favorite national parks.

Long a setting for American westerns, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park offers sweeping desert vistas and a chance to explore the area's Native American history of culture. | Monument Valley | Navajo Nation | Northern Arizona | National Parks | Southern Utah | American West

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Exploring Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Written by Lisa Waterman Gray

A Kansas City-area resident, Lisa Waterman Gray has savored Quebec’s finest cuisine, ridden in a pickup before a Kansas buffalo herd, and toured natural Arizona landmarks with Native American guides. In June 2011, 18 months of driving, research, and writing ended with national publication of Lisa’s book, An Explorer’s Guide: Kansas. During October 2014, she was a U.S. delegate for Terre Madre and Salone del Gusto in Turin, Italy – a conference for Slow Food International. Lisa has written for Dreamscapes Travel & Lifestyle (a Canadian magazine), USA Today.com, Midwest Living, four AAA magazines, and other clients. Visit her online at http://www.lisawatermangray.com/.

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