Early fall makes a grand time to visit majestic Monument Valley

Early autumn, along with late spring, marks one of the best times to visit the iconic Western scenery of Monument Valley, when days are generally balmy and bright in this desert destination on the Arizona-Utah border.

The remote area sits at nearly 6,000 feet and is accessible year-round by a network of paved secondary highways. Part of the sprawling Navajo Indian Reservation, Monument Valley lies south of Lake Powell and west of the Four Corners. Nearly 425 miles from Las Vegas, Monument Valley is a long day’s drive away. Many visitors from Nevada prefer to break the journey overnight in Flagstaff, Arizona, to avoid driving at night on two-lane roads across sections of open range.

From Las Vegas, follow U.S. Highway 93 into Arizona, catching Interstate 40 in Kingman and heading east to Flagstaff. Gas up before you leave Flagstaff. Nine miles from downtown Flagstaff, exit I-40 onto U.S. Highway 89, heading north onto the reservation. After 62 miles, turn on state Route 160. In Kayenta, turn north on state Route 163 and drive about 20 miles to the turnoff into Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the sacred and scenic heart of the region.

Navajo owned and operated, the tribal park is the Navajo equivalent of a national park. There’s an entrance fee of $20 per vehicle with up to four passengers and $6 for each extra rider. The park’s peak-season hours are 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sept 30. Offseason hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. from October until May.

The park offers superlative views of the beautiful, eroded bluffs familiar to us all through movies, television, scenic calendars and Western art. The vividly colored red rock formations rise 400 to 1,000 feet above the sandy valley floor, creating a spellbinding landscape.

Park facilities are centered at the entrance to Monument Valley on a bluff with panoramic views about four miles from Highway 163. The visitor center features native artwork and handcrafts, a gift shop, a restaurant and tribal offices. The adjacent three-story, 90-room hotel offers the only accommodations in the tribal park. Each guest room has a balcony and grand views over the valley. Reserve rooms at 435-727-3470 or monumentvalleyview.com.

Many visitors explore the park on the 17-mile, unpaved scenic drive, or follow the 3.2-mile Wildcat Trail, a self-guided desert trek around the West Mittens Butte.

There is one primitive campground located in the interior of the park. Since non-Navajo visitors must be accompanied by Navajo guides elsewhere in the park, most visitors take guided scenic tours by bus or van, guided hiking tours or guided horseback tours. Contact the park for special guided side trips to areas with ancient ruins and some of the rock formations with arches and windows.

Guided tribal park tours are also offered by Goulding’s Trading Post and Lodge six miles outside the park. In addition to the historic trading post, now a museum, facilities include motel rooms, cabins, campground, grocery store, swimming pool and restaurant. The stone trading post with living quarters dates to 1923. Developed by Harry Goulding and his wife, the outpost is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Goulding was instrumental in promoting Monument Valley as a movie location, touring Hollywood studios with pictures of the distinctive formations taken by famed landscape photographer and family friend Josef Muench.

Among filmmakers, John Ford used Monument Valley the most often, filming several John Wayne Westerns there. Because of such films, Monument Valley’s landscapes grew to epitomize the American West for people worldwide.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.

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