Many American landscapes may remind you of the movies, but none are as iconic as the flat red earth and the towering rocks of Monument Valley.
Looking at the sandstone formations which are the result of 160 million years of wind and water erosion, it is easy to imagine John Wayne on a lone horse, staring over these plains – or members of the Navajo tribe, who have roamed these lands for centuries and still call it their own. It is a cinematographic wonderland, but more than that it is a place of magic. Not just because of its otherworldly geography, but also because of its silence – which you can only experience if you set out on foot on the Wildcat Trail.
Monument Valley is situated on the Arizona/Utah border, and the land is part of a Navajo Tribal Park in the Navajo Nation, a 71,000 km2 territory retained by this Native American tribe. Its mesmerising landscape has long been a secret – only the Navajo who lived here throughout the centuries in what they call the “Valley of the Rocks” knew of its existence. It holds a sacred meaning for them and has been the backdrop of their perseverance when other native tribes, the Spaniards and later European Americans came upon these lands. Visitors were few, however, as it was very remote – about a week on horseback from the nearest railroad station. It wasn’t until 1938 when a man named Harry Goulding who owned a trading post at the edge of Monument Valley convinced someone in Hollywood that he knew the perfect location to shoot a new Western movie, that the distinctive landscape made its way into the cultural heritage of American cinematography and with that into the imagination of the common people, who then started to travel so they could see it with their own eyes – including myself.
Most of Monument Valley is off-limits to the regular traveler – only Navajo are allowed to freely explore the territory, and independent visitors are restricted to drive a scenic loop drive by car or to walk the 6 km (3.7 m) Wildcat Trail. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the parking lot of the visitor center, where the paved road ends. The drive itself had been stunning; nothing can prepare you for that moment when the road dips after climbing a hill and suddenly in front of you you see those iconic large red Buttes.
But this is not a place for driving. It is a place for walking – moving around at the speed of those who have trodden here for centuries – and the Wildcat Trail is the only self-guided trail that allows visitors to walk around freely. The sandy path loops around the westernmost Mitten Butte, crossing dry river beds past rabbitbush, juniper trees and cliffrose.
We made our way down from the visitor center and soon we were alone. The path was sandy on the way downhill but became easier underfoot as we progressed. The monoliths seemed far away yet close to the touch at the same time. Even from up close it was hard to grasp their true size – because there is nothing in the landscape to compare them to or to provide some perspective. Only when a bird of prey started circling around the top of the Butte did I gain some notion of the magnitude of the rocks and their spires.
Despite its name, Monument Valley is actually a plateau, and its protruding Buttes are the sole remains of what once used to be a vast sandstone highland. At one point it was covered by sea, and over millions of years the remaining craggy shapes that now stick out like red silhouettes have been formed by flowing rivers and raging winds. There was no wind as we were walking now, and as I slowed my pace to stand and listen the true meaning of the expression ‘the sound of silence’ came to me. There was no sound at all. The Buttes were the only thing of substance in a vast expanse of emptiness. The lizards, the jackrabbits and the mountain lions and coyotes were all concealed in the sand or in the shade, the sky was a blue vacuum and the sun shone soundlessly. It was infinitely quiet. This is why people say that silence is deafening, I thought, because the entire world seemed to have gone mute.
With every few steps the landscape changed shape as the Buttes revealed a different form when looked at from another angle. They are wide from one point of view and slender from another, and from up close we could see a fraction of sky through a sliver of a crack in the rock and wondered how many more years it would take for this part of the Butte to also come thundering down, and the next and the next, until there is really nothing left to look up to. It would take hundreds if not thousands of years – more than a lifetime for us but an insignificant fraction in the lifespan of this sandstone. We were looking at the death scene of an exceptional landscape.
Although it was the end of the afternoon, the sun was still warm and the walk back up through the loose sand took some effort. We were just in time because long shadows were starting to form and the red hues of the rock intensified as the sun set in the West. Although, if anywhere was “the West”, it had to be right here – in this archetypal part of America that is fixed in the memories and imaginations of so many, but that only can be truly experienced by walking around beneath the towering monoliths and the blanket of silence.
Create your own adventure!
Monument Valley can be reached by Highway 163. It has a visitor center and a visitor fee of $20 per car is required to access the main viewing point, the Wildcat Trail and the scenic drive loop.
The Wildcat Trail starts just north of the visitor car park. It is 6 kilometers (about 3.7 miles) in length and requires about an hour to two hours of your time, depending on your walking speed and the number of times you wish to stop to take some breathtaking photos. Bring plenty of water, sun protection (hat and sun block) and proper walking shoes. The trail is exposed to all elements and there is hardly any shade. I recommend to walk this trail in the early morning or late afternoon. You will be able to profit from lower temperatures and beautiful sunrise / sunset colours. Make sure however to complete the loop before sundown, as it will get very dark out there. The trail is well signposted – be aware that there are some areas which are prone to flooding and the recommendation is to turn around when this is the case. Do not attempt to cross flooding areas. The trail is pretty easy to walk; it’s mostly flat with just some steep descending/climbing on loose sand at the beginning and end.
There are two hotels in the immediate vicinity of the visitor center: The View and Goulding’s Lodge. The View delivers exactly what you would expect given its name: brilliant views over the valley. It is the closest in proximity to the Buttes and you will need to book it months in advance to secure a room here. Goulding’s Lodge is a 5-minute drive up the road and although situated a little farther away from the Buttes most of its rooms also have an excellent view over the plains and the monoliths. Try to book in advance as well. The next available accommodation can be found in Kayenta, which is a 45-minute drive away.
Besides hiking the Wildcat Trail, I also highly recommend to drive the scenic loop which also starts off at the visitor center. It brings you to different viewpoints and is absolutely gorgeous – although you’ll have to do without the magical silence that you will experience during your walk. The road is not paved and is pretty rough. It will take about 1.5 to 2 hours of your time. Drive carefully and at maximum 15 miles per hour – it’s also not recommended for low-clearance vehicles to drive this road although I did see some people do that. We had a tough time with our mid-size SUV as it was. Don’t let this scare you off though, the drive is amazing and definitely worth it. Although you can briefly get out of your vehicle to take photos, it is not allowed to venture out on any hikes from this route. If you don’t have a self-drive you can also opt to take one of the guided driving tours that are offered by the nearby hotels and the visitor center.
If you are pressed for time and have only 2 days and 1 night at Monument Valley I recommend to do as we did: we arrived mid-afternoon and after booking into our hotel room we hiked the Wildcat Trail. We then watched the sunset from the visitor center viewpoint. The next morning we set our alarm clocks so we could watch the sun rise over the Buttes, and then set out for the scenic drive which took us nearly 2 hours. You will have beautiful light and colours in the early morning. As we did not have more time to explore Monument Valley further (independent exploring beyond the trail and the drive is not possible but you can sign up for Navajo guided tours into the area) we drove off before lunch.
It is possible to combine Monument Valley with a visit to Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon east entrance is about a 3 hour drive from Monument Valley down on Highway 163 then 160, change to the 89 south at the T-section after Tuba City and continue until you can pick up the 64 west just after Cameron.
To read more about Monument’s Valley’s intriguing history in Western movies, check out these informative articles: