Three spectacular prehistoric cliff dwellings, last occupied about 700 years ago, lie within scenic canyons. The ancestral Puebloan people who once lived here probably have descendants in present-day Hopi villages. Navajo families later settled in the area and named the canyons and ruins. Of the three sites, Betatakin is the most accessible; you can see it from a viewpoint near the visitor center or join a ranger-led hike into the dwelling.
Keet Seel, a 16-mile roundtrip hike to the northeast, is the largest and best preserved cliff dwelling in Arizona. Inscription House, to the west, is the smallest of the three ruins and is closed to the public.
You can reach the monument's headquarters and visitor center by following US 160 northeast 52 miles from Tuba City—or southwest 22 miles from Kayenta—then turning north nine miles on AZ 564 at Black Mesa Junction. Tsegi Overlook, on the right just after you enter the monument, provides a fine introduction to the canyon country here.
The ancestral Puebloan people left many questions behind when they abandoned this area. You can learn what is known about these people and ponder the mysteries at the visitor center (HC 71, Box 3, Tonalea, AZ 86044-9704, 928/672-2700, www.nps.gov/nava, 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, possibly extended in summer; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day). Exhibits of prehistoric pottery and other artifacts attempt to piece together what life was like for the early peoples. An excellent 25-minute video on the Hisatsinom ("people of long ago," the Hopi name for ancestral Puebloan people) and a 20-minute Betatakin tour video are shown on request. Rangers answer questions and sell books and maps. A bulletin board lists campfire programs and ranger-led walks. Navajo often demonstrate their arts and crafts in or near the visitor center. A gift shop offers Navajo work. You can peek into an old-style Navajo forked-stick hogan and see a sweathouse and wagon behind the visitor center. There's a picnic area across the parking area. Mosquitoes can be pesky at times—campers and hikers should have some repellent handy.
The easy paved Sandal Trail begins behind the visitor center and winds through a pinyon-juniper woodland to Betatakin Point Overlook, which has a good view of the ruins across the canyon. The trail is one mile roundtrip and drops 160 feet to the viewpoint. Signs along the way identify native plants and describe how Native Americans used them.
Aspen Trail branches off to the left 400 feet down Sandal Trail, then drops 300 feet with some steps into the head of Betatakin Canyon, 0.8 mile roundtrip. The trail offers pretty scenery along the way and a view of the quaking aspen, Douglas fir, water birch, and red-osier dogwood trees on the canyon floor below; there's no ruin view or access from this trail.
Betatakin—Navajo for Ledge House—lies tucked in a natural alcove that measures 452 feet high, 370 feet across, and 135 feet deep. It contains 135 rooms and one kiva. Inhabitants built and abandoned the entire village within two generations, between A.D. 1260 and 1300.
You may hike here only with rangers, who lead daily four-hour tours in summer and occasionally off-season. Groups are limited to 25 people, first come, first served. Starting at the trailhead, one mile from the visitor center, the five-mile roundtrip trail is primitive and drops 700 feet, then winds up a canyon to the cliff dwelling. Rangers warn of rock-fall danger in the alcove, so some visitors prefer to view the pueblo from outside. Thin air—the trailhead elevation is 7,300 feet—can make the hike very tiring. People with heart, respiratory, or mobility problems shouldn't attempt it.
Visiting Keet Seel
This isolated cliff dwelling is one of the best preserved in the Southwest. Keet Seel—Navajo for Broken Pottery—has 160 rooms and four kivas. The ruins look as though they were abandoned just a few years back, not seven long centuries ago. The site, 16 miles roundtrip by trail, is open in summer. A permit is required, and there's a limit of 20 people per day. Visitors should make reservations two months ahead, though last-minute spots may be available. To pick up your permit, you must attend a scheduled trail orientation the afternoon before (recommended so that you can get an early start the next day) or in the morning. Remember that you're in daylight saving time.
The trail descends 1000 feet from Tsegi Point to the canyon bottom, travels downstream a short distance, then heads upstream into Keet Seel Canyon with a 400-foot elevation gain. You may have to do some wading. Carry water, as livestock pollute the streams. Visitors can enter the site only with a ranger, who is stationed nearby. There's a primitive campground (free, one-night limit) near Keet Seel; spring water, which needs treating, may be available. Strong hikers can do the roundtrip in a day, though spending a night here makes for an easier, more relaxing visit. Ask for the Keet Seel Hiking Information sheet.
Campgrounds and Services
The free Sunset View Campground lies near the visitor center in a pinyon-juniper woodland; you can stay year-round but water is on only from about mid-May to mid-October. Canyon View Campground, one mile away, offers views, tables, outhouses, and group reservation sites, but no water or pavement; it closes in winter. There's nearly always room for campers; no reservations taken except for groups. Campfire programs may run in summer. Expect cold and likelihood of snow Nov.–mid-March.
Anasazi Inn (18 miles away on the road to Kayenta, 928/697-3793, $79-99 d, less in winter) provides basic accommodations. The little cafe here is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Black Mesa Shopping Center, nine miles south of the visitor center at the junction of AZ 564 and US 160, has the closest grocery store and service station. The road south from here goes to the coal mines of the Peabody Coal Company, a major employer of the Navajo.
The "Gateway to Monument Valley" has a population of 7,549 in a bleak, windswept valley (elev. 5,660 feet). Its name is loosely derived from the Navajo word Teehindeeh, meaning "boghole," as there were once shallow lakes here. Kayenta makes a handy stop for travelers, with good motels, a basic RV park, several restaurants, and shopping.
Drop by the Burger King, on US 160 west of the highway junction, to see Navajo Code Talkers exhibits. Next door, the Navajo Cultural Center has traditional forked-stick and octagonal hogans, a sweathouse, and a shade house.
Accommodations and Camping
$50-100: Roland's Navajoland Tours (US 163, 0.5 mile north of US 160, 928/697-3524, $60-70 d) provides a small bed and breakfast, plus Monument Valley tours. Hampton Inn (US 160, west of the highway junction, 928/697-3170 or 800/426-7866, $93-124 d in summer) offers spacious rooms along with a restaurant, gift shop, and an outdoor pool.
$100-150: Best Western Wetherill Inn (US 163, one mile north of US 160, 928/697-3231 or 800/528-1234, $108 d in summer) has an indoor pool and a gift shop. Its name honors John Wetherill, an early trader and rancher in the region who discovered Betatakin, Mesa Verde, and other major ancestral Puebloan sites. Holiday Inn (US 160 opposite the turnoff for Monument Valley, 928/697-3221 or 800/465-4329, $139 d in summer) provides a restaurant, gift shop, tours, and an outdoor pool.
Linville's Coin-Op Laundry (US 163 in town, 928/697-3738) offers basic RV spaces for $10 w/hookups. Showers are also available to noncampers for a small fee.
Hampton Inn's Reuben Heflin Restaurant (928/697-3170, daily for dinner, $8-26) serves American, Southwestern, and Navajo food. Holiday Inn's Wagon Wheel Restaurant (928/697-3221, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, $9-20) prepares American and Southwestern dishes plus Navajo tacos; there's a breakfast buffet in season. The popular little Amigo Cafe (0.2 mile north on US 163 from the highway junction, 928/697-8448, Mon.-Sat. for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, $5-13) fixes Mexican and American food. Golden Sands Cafe (near the Wetherill Inn, 928/697-3684, daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, $7-15) offers American items.
Teehindeeh Shopping Center near the highway junction has a Bashas' supermarket and deli. Next door, the Pizza Edge (928/697-8427, Mon.-Sat. for lunch and dinner, $4-16) dishes out pizza, calzones, and subs.
Shopping and Services
Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise (just east of the highway junction, 928/328-8120) has a good selection. Gift shops in each of the motels sell Native American arts and crafts. The post office is off US 163 just north of the shopping center.
Sheer-walled mesas, buttes, and pinnacles stand majestically in this otherworldly landscape. Changing colors and shifting shadows across the rock faces and rippled sand dunes add to the feeling of enchantment. Agathla Peak and some lesser summits, roots of ancient volcanoes, rise in the southern part of the valley; their dark rock contrasts with the pale yellow sandstone monuments. The desert valley lies at an elevation of 5,564 feet and receives an annual precipitation of only 8.5 inches.
In 1863–64, when Kit Carson was ravaging Canyon de Chelly and rounding up Navajo, Chief Hoskinini led his people to the safety and freedom of Monument Valley. Merrick Butte and Mitchell Mesa commemorate two miners who discovered rich silver deposits on their first trip to the valley in 1880. When they returned, both men reportedly met their deaths at the hands of Paiutes. Hollywood movies made the splendor of Monument Valley known to the outside world. Stagecoach, filmed here by John Ford in 1938, began a long series of movies, television shows, and commercials shot in the valley that continues to this day; warriors from John Wayne to Susan Sarandon have ridden across these sands.
Perched on the rim of the heart of Monument Valley, the visitor center (435/727-5872, www.navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm, www.discovernavajo.com) provides an information desk, exhibits, hotel, restaurant, gift shop, and booths where you can sign up for tours; it's open 6 a.m.–8 p.m. daily in summer and 8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily the rest of the year; closed Thanksgiving Day afternoon and Christmas. Visitors pay a $5/person fee (free ages nine and under) to enter the tribal park. Staff can issue permits for hiking and camping in the Rainbow Bridge and San Juan River areas. From Kayenta, head north 24 miles on US 163 to just past the Utah border, then turn right 3.7 miles. Navajo sell crafts and food from little shops near the highway turnoff. You can picnic at a viewpoint 0.4 mile north of the visitor center or near the entrance to Mitten View Campground.
Monument Valley Drive
This 17-mile, self-guided scenic drive begins at the visitor center and loops through the middle of the valley. Overlooks along the way provide sweeping vistas. The dirt road is normally okay if you drive cautiously, but don't attempt it with RVs over 27 feet or extremely low-clearance vehicles. Avoid stopping and becoming stuck in the loose sand that sometimes blows across the road. Allow 1.5 hours for the drive. No hiking or driving is permitted off the signed route. Only the visitor center and campground have water, so you'll probably want to bring some along. Entry to the drive closes half an hour before the visitor center does, and you must be out before dark.
You can get a good feel for Monument Valley on this 3.2-mile loop around the West Mitten. It's the only hike in the park that you can do without a guide. The trail—foot travel only—begins from the picnic area 0.4 mile north of the visitor center, then drops down from the rim. Cairns and a few signs mark the way. It's open the same hours as Monument Valley Drive.
Navajo guides at the visitor center offer tours year-round. The shortest trips last 1.5 hours and cover places on the self-guided route. Longer trips of 2.5 or 3.5 hours visit hogans, cliff dwellings, and petroglyphs in areas beyond the self-guided drive. Horseback rides from stables near the visitor center can easily be arranged for one and a half hours to all day; overnight trips are available too. Hiking tours can last from a few hours to a day or more.
Reservations aren't needed on day tours. If you'd like to do an overnight trip, it's best to call ahead and bring your own food and camping gear. Monument Valley Tours (435/727-3313, http://monumentvalleytours.net/) offers driving trips and photography tours including cookouts and overnights. Homeland Tours (435/272-7810, www.homelandtours.info/) can take you on a variety of backroad drives, trailrides, or hikes. Roland's Navajoland Tours (928/697-3524) offers many backcountry drives, photography tours, and hiking trips. Simpson's Trailhandler Tours (435/727-3362, www.trailhandlertours.com) runs driving, photography, and hiking tours, plus a hogan overnight cultural experience. Sacred Monument Tours (435/727-3218, www.monumentvalley.net) leads driving, horseback, hiking, and photography tours.
Accommodations and Food
For location, The View Hotel (tel. 435/727-5555, www.monumentvalleyview.com) in Monument Valley Tribal Park is the top choice; each room has a private balcony where you can take in the magnificent scenery. The hotel’s restaurant serves Navajo and American cuisine. Monument Valley Trading Post features a large selection of Navajo rugs among its Native American crafts and artwork. Sites at Mitten View Campground near the visitor center have great views, though campers may have to contend with winds in this exposed location. The cost is $10, with coin-operated showers from early April to mid-October. No hookups are available, but there's a fill and dump station. Off-season the rate drops to $5, and you can use restrooms next to the visitor center. Primitive camping may also be possible at the Wildcat Trailhead 0.4 mile north of the visitor center, though the camping fee is likely to be the same. You'll also find accommodations nearby at Goulding's Lodge, Kayenta in Arizona, and at Mexican Hat and Bluff in Utah.
Goulding's Lodge and Trading Post
In 1924, Harry Goulding and his wife, Mike, opened a trading post at this scenic spot and ran it for more than 40 years. It's just north of the Arizona-Utah border and 1.5 miles west of the US 163 Monument Valley turnoff. Their 1928 stone trading post is now the Goulding's Museum, full of prehistoric and modern Native American artifacts, movie photos, period rooms, and Goulding family memorabilia. It's open daily (on request in winter) and donations are appreciated; a leaflet available for purchase provides additional background on the exhibits. Nearby, a cabin built for John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon has exhibits from the movie. Also nearby, the multimedia show Earth Spirit portrays the region.
Goulding's Lodge (P.O. Box 360001, Monument Valley, UT 84536, 435/727-3231, www.gouldings.com) provides large modern rooms with balconies at $165 d June 1–Oct. 15, dropping to $67 d by midwinter. Guests enjoy views, in-room movies, and an indoor pool. The Stagecoach Dining Room (daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, $8–20) offers such American favorites as steak, chicken, pork chops, fish, pasta, stir-fry dishes, sandwiches, and a salad bar. Local specialties include fry bread and Navajo tacos.
The large gift shop sells high-quality Native American work plus souvenirs and books. Nearby on the main road, you'll find a convenience store with a fast-food counter, a gas station, and a laundry. Goulding's Grocery across the road is a good supermarket. An airstrip also lies nearby.
Goulding's Monument Valley Campground (435/727-3235 or 800/874-0902, March 15–Oct. 31, $16 tents, $26 RVs w/hookups) offers a pretty canyon setting one mile west of the lodge turnoff. Campers have an indoor pool, showers, laundry, convenience store/gift shop, tours, and a shuttle service to the lodge. Just before the campground, you'll pass a hospital and mission founded by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
Navajo guides narrate Monument Valley tours, which operate year-round at $35 for 2.5 hours, $40 for 3.5 hours, $58 for 5.5 hours, and $70 full day with lunch; children under 8 pay less. You can also experience Monument Valley on a full-moon tour, $35; call for dates and times. Pickup is available at both the lodge and the campground.
Oljato Trading Post
A sign near Goulding's Grocery points to the way 11 miles northwest to this old-style trading post, established in 1921. Besides the canned goods and household items, you can see Navajo arts and crafts plus some historic exhibits.
An inlaid concrete slab marks the place where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. This is the only spot in the United States where you can put your finger on four states at once. It's said that more than 2,000 people a day stop at the marker in the summer. Average stay? Seven to 10 minutes. On the other hand, five national parks and 18 national monuments lie within a 150-mile radius of this point. Navajo, and occasionally Ute and Pueblo, set up craft and refreshment booths in summer. Navajo Parks and Recreation collects a small fee during the tourist season.
On to Eastern Navajo Country