When we steered Slow Sally (our van) toward southeast Utah, we knew very little about Monument Valley or the Valley of the Gods. We had done next to no research. My familiarity with Monument Valley was limited to the scene in Forrest Gump when he decides to stop running. It’s not a lot to go on. After spending months on the road, we sometimes tire of constantly planning and researching our next destination and decide just to wing it. There’s nothing like just showing up and discovering as you go. It’s a sure way to experience either pure awe or utter disappointment. Luckily, in this case, it was the former.
What struck us most about these places is how similar yet different, and ultimately comparable they are, and that’s what inspired this post. Both destinations are in southeast Utah and feature a 17-mile scenic road through spectacular sandstone rock formations: beautiful buttes, magnificent mesas, and stunning spires (see what I did there?). But the experience of visiting and being in these two places could not be more different.
For those of you who don’t want to wing it, we’re sharing our experience in each of these places, and… we pick a favourite!
Monument Valley straddles the Utah-Arizona border. It was first established by the Navajo people and lies on Navajo Nation Reservation lands. A visit to this popular, other-worldly destination requires paid entry to the Navajo Tribal Park. Amenities in the park include a welcome centre, hotel, and campground.
The Iconic View
Even if you know nothing about Monument Valley, you’ve likely seen the iconic image below. We assumed that this view was within the Navajo Tribal Park, so imagine our surprise when it appeared on the horizon of Scenic Highway 163. For two travellers just winging it, it was the perfect first glimpse of Monument Valley.
A photo of this view was on my bucket list, so I insisted that we pull off at Forrest Gump Point (yes, it’s actually called that). To our dismay, we weren’t the only ones trying to capture this photo. Over a period of ~ 15 minutes, I had to dodge hordes of tourists and risk my life ducking in and out of fast-moving traffic to snap some shots. The photos were taken in a state of pure impatience – not my best work. But hey, that’s what you get for winging it!
The Scenic Drive
The thing to do in Monument Valley is the 17-mile scenic drive that loops through the valley, around the stunning rock formations. The cost is a very reasonable $8/person. We learned this from the unwelcoming woman at the Welcome Centre. We also learned that RVs are not allowed on the scenic drive; apparently too many have been stuck on the bumpy, sometimes steep dirt roads. Hmm… our lack of research coming back to bite us. We explained that our vehicle was really a converted van, not a big RV. She insisted that we were not allowed. Fortunately for us, the friendly woman at the ticket booth – the ultimate gatekeeper – agreed that we were van-like and allowed us in. Phew!
In keeping with the theme of poor planning, we picked a wickedly windy day to visit Monument Valley. The wind whipped so much sand and dust into the air that it gave the sky a smoggy appearance. It blew our hats right off our heads several times throughout the afternoon and embedded sand deep into our sticky, sunscreen-coated faces. Despite the conditions and the fact that it was a Tuesday in April, the destination was busy with tourists. We followed the herd along the scenic drive, running in and out of the van at each scenic pull-off to admire the rock formations and snap a couple of pictures. The crowds gave Monument Valley a very touristy, almost theme-park-like feel, but there’s good reason for the number of visitors. The unique formations tower above the surrounding desert, looking more like architecture designed by aliens than like nature.
A memorable highlight for us was eating Navajo frybread at John Ford’s Point while hiding in the van, out of the wind. The bread was pure deep-fried deliciousness. It resembled baked pizza dough drizzled with honey.
After ~ 3 hours on the scenic drive, we were getting very red-rocked out and skipped stopping at the last couple of look-offs. It was late in the day and time to find a place to camp. We were unable to find any cheap or free camping in the area surrounding Monument Valley. As dispersed camping in the Valley of the Gods is free and less than an hour away, we decided to head there for the night instead.
Valley of the Gods
The Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area near Mexican Hat, Utah, in the Bears Ears National Monument. This hidden gem is often referred to as the “Mini Monument Valley” due to its similar looping scenic drive through sandstone rock formations. It’s free to visit and camp at the Valley of the Gods (these gods are generous!).
Camping & the Scenic Drive
As we entered the Valley of the Gods from Highway 163, the scenery was pleasant, but not remarkable in any way. Many of the campsites were occupied and close to the road. The iOverlander app claimed that the best sites were deep in the valley so to Marc’s dismay, I insisted that we continue crawling along the bumpy dirt road “just a little bit further”. My persistence paid off! As we drove further into the valley, the views became increasingly spectacular with every curve in the road and the campsites more private. Some of the rock formations looked like they came right out of Monument Valley.
We found one of the best campsites in the whole place. It was surrounded by nothing but open space, located along a creek bed, and in view of some of the most beautiful buttes. The best part: we somehow still had a cell phone signal!
We spent 3 days camping in the Valley of the Gods, admiring the views, hiking in the creek bed and along some of the informal trails, and finishing up our income taxes (boo!). We loved that we were free to explore the valley on foot, hiking right to the base of the monuments. Much of our exploring was in the same intense winds that we’d been experiencing since we arrived in southern Utah. There were a few other campers around, but they were quiet and widely spaced; we felt like we had the place mostly to ourselves.
After 3 nights of camping, we were in desperate need of food, water, a shower, and some services. It was time to leave our little slice of paradise. We aired down our tires to complete the final section of the scenic drive and tackle the Moki Dugway, which the Internet claims to be one of the most scenic yet “dangerous” roads in the US.
The Moki Dugway
The Moki Dugway is located at the western entrance of the Valley of the Gods. It winds its way up 1,000 feet of elevation over 3 miles, leading to the top of Cedar Mesa above. The Internet coins the drive “thrilling”, “dangerous” and a “hell road”. So, of course, we had to try it. We approached the switchbacks with trepidation; Sally (our van) is not known for her surefootedness. Video rolling, we slowly climbed the twisty road, waiting for the scary part, which never came… much to our simultaneous relief and disappointment. The route lives up to its scenic reputation but after driving so many steep, sketchy, twisty, sometimes missing roads in Mexico and Guatemala, this one was a cakewalk (note that a larger vehicle or wet conditions may make this road more difficult). As promised, the look-offs on the Moki Dugway provide stunning views of the Valley of the Gods below, and the twisty route up the mesa.
Choosing a Favourite
Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods were both so special, it’s hard to pick a favourite. If you have enough time and budget to visit both, we highly recommend it. But, if we had to pick a favourite, it would be… drumroll… the Valley of the Gods!
We’re always in search of hidden gems, and the Valley of the Gods is exactly that. The main reasons for it being our favourite are:
- there were few other tourists and visitors (felt like we had the place to ourselves);
- camping was amongst the rock formations… for free;
- we were allowed to explore the entire area on foot, and at our own pace (hiking in Monument Valley is limited); and
- the water in the creekbed added an interesting dimension to the landscape.
There were a few areas where Monument Valley excelled, including onsite information about the area and the rock formations, delicious frybread, and the opportunity to support the Navajo Nation.
“Moab Sucks”! Or does it? The bumper sticker says so. We decided to find out for ourselves and we share that experience in our next blog post!
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