Thanks to John Ford, the filmmaker behind legendary Westerns like Stagecoach and The Searchers, Monument Valley is among the most recognizable vistas in the world.
Known for its majestic, free-standing sandstone buttes, this sprawling, 92,000-acre valley attracts more than 250,000 sightseers per year. Visitors come to this isolated area on the Arizona-Utah border to hike, drive, photograph or simply experience its natural and ever-changing beauty.
But contrary to popular belief, Monument Valley is not on public land. Unlike many nearby national parks in Arizona and Utah, Monument Valley is a tribal park owned and operated by the Navajo Nation.
“We’re a tribal entity,” said Nelson Parrish, a supervisor at Monument Valley. “Within park boundaries, you’re on Navajo land.”
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Here are five more things you may not know about Monument Valley:
- Visitors to the land haven’t always appreciated the stunning scenery. In fact, the first U.S. soldiers to explore the area in 1849 were disgusted by it.
The valley was “as desolate and repulsive-looking a country as can be imagined,” Capt. John G. Walker wrote. “As far as the eye can reach toward the southwest, west and northwest, is a vast mass of sandstone hills without any covering or vegetation except a scanty growth of cedar.”
- John Ford “discovered” the area in the 1930s and began filming Western movies there, propelling the landscape into international fame and defining “what decades of moviegoers think of when they imagine the American West,” Keith Phipps wrote in a 2009 article in Slate.
Monument Valley is still a favorite location for filmmakers. Blockbusters like Back to the Future, Mission Impossible, The Lone Ranger and Transformers: Age of Extinction were shot there. The valley even appears in the 2014 film The Lego Movie.
- The Navajo name for the park is Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii, or Valley of the Rocks. Ten families make their homes inside the park, where they live without running water or electricity and rely on farming and grazing for income.
A 17-mile loop road takes visitors through the park. Locals ask that visitors respect their privacy and stay on marked trails and roads.
“Because people live in the valley, they do want their peace and quiet,” Parrish said. “We ask that visitors exit before the sun goes down.”
- In addition to the loop road, the park offers two hiking trails and 11 lookout points. The most popular attraction is The Mittens, or two enormous buttes that look like mittens with their thumbs facing inward.
The Mittens can be seen from the visitor center—and from the rooms at The View hotel. An easy, three-mile hiking trail wraps around the west mitten.
Another popular destination is John Ford’s Point, a promontory at the edge of a plateau overlooking the desert. Visitors can recreate the iconic image of a solo rider on a horse near the edge of the viewpoint.
But don’t stop here. Stunning desert views and panoramas can be found throughout the park.
- The landscape is only part of the story. Navajo guides are available to present the unique cultural views of the land and its significance.
“Our visitors love the land,” Parrish said. “They enjoy the scenic views, but those views also come with background.”
For more information, visit Navajo Parks & Recreation.