Throughout my many trips to the American Southwest, somehow I’ve always missed Monument Valley. So on our trip earlier this month, Tanya and I made sure to see it, and I’m sure glad we did. The scenery and photography were superb. Monument Valley, by virtue of its role in many movies, as well as countless published still photographs, screams American West, making it one of the top attractions in the Southwest. This is one reason I’ve avoided it in the past. I prefer my scenery without huge crowds. And withthe popularity of Monument Valley, it was sureto be crowded. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad – though it certainly wasn’t deserted, Tanya and I were able to visit many of the viewpoints on the Scenic Drive without anyone else present.
The view from the hotel/visitor center, as well as the nearby campground is amazing. It sits above the valley with a view of the iconic West Mitten, East Mitten, and Merrick Buttes so close it feels like you can reach out and touch them. Just a quick trip to see this view and nothing more is worth the $20 entry fee (per car) into the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. But to get the most out of the park, the Scenic Drive is definitely worth taking.
There are many tours available into valley, including many photo tours. And I heard tours being sold because the Scenic Drive road is unsuitable for passenger cars. This is not true. The road, though unpaved, it completely drivable (when not wet) by two-wheel drive cars except perhaps cars with very low clearance. And it isn’t necessary to take a tour to come back with good photos (we did not take any tours). However, the general public is limited to the Scenic Drive route; even short walks off the viewpoints or road are not allowed. Therefore, you may consider a tour, as many tours go to areas not open to the public. Additionally, the Scenic Drive is only open to the public during limited hours. Photo tours allow access to the valley at many times of the year when the Scenic Drive is closed during sunrise and sunset.
The published hours for the Scenic Drive are 6 AM to 8:30 PM in May through September and 8 AM to 5 PM the rest of the year. However, it seems that the Park’s definition of September is different from mine. On the day we left Monument Valley, September 4th, I wanted to do a quick drive to several of the viewpoint on the Scenic Drive, driving to the gate at about 6:30. It was not open, and did not open until 8 AM. Needless to say, I was not very happy about that. Luckily, during the evenings we were there, it was open until 8:30 PM, and I was able to be out on the Scenic Drive at sunset.
Though the scenery is fantastic, Monument Valley is not without its annoyances. The “loose” interpretation of the opening hour for the Scenic Drive being just one. We camped for two nights at Monument Valley. For the photography, this was great. The campground there is called The View Campground, and with good reason – the view is amazing. Step outside your tent at sunrise and set up the tripod! However, for a camping experience, I suggest picking someplace else. The sitesare called “wilderness” sites, but there is nothing wilderness about them. These “wilderness” sitesare crowded together on a sandy slope overlooking the valley. The sites are small, semi-flat spots suitable mostly for small tents only. There are no picnic tables, fire pits, or even a water spigot (water is only available from the bathroom sinks). We saw many people cooking in the parking lot and not at their campsites. I think the campgroundis set up to “encourage” people to eat in the restaurant (which we did for one lunch). But then, the restaurant closes to non-hotel guests at 7 PM, so if you wanted to be out photographing at sunset then have a nice meal, forget it. The campground restroom was nice with electricity and running water, and even has showers. However, even thoughfairly new (it just opened this year), it was not built with commercial grade fixtures and some of the hardware was already falling off.
Another annoyance, at least to me, were the many roadside sales booths, some looking like rundown shacks, at many of the viewpoints along the Scenic Drive. It seemed like no matter which way you turned, there was someone trying to sell you something – be it a tour, a piece of cheap jewelry, or having your picture taken on a horse. And if you do want to buy some the jewelry (like Tanya did), be sure to have cash and exact change. While the commercialization of such a natural wonder is sad, I can’t really blame the Navajo people, many of who live in the valley in near poverty.
Commercial photography is prohibited in Monument Valley (and all Navajo Parks) without a permit. I did obtain a permit, but it was not easy. I will write a post on Navajo photo permits in a later post.