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Monument Valley: Movie Set and Natural Phenomenon

Monument Valley Utah

What do the movies Stagecoach, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Back to the Future III, and Forrest Gump have in common?  They all have scenes filmed in Utah’s Monument Valley.  If you haven’t been to Monument Valley, it’s possible you haven’t even noticed how often this famous Utah landscape is featured in movies and commercials.  But once you’ve seen these red buttes and spires jutting up from an otherwise flat landscape in person, you’ll understand why Monument Valley became a favorite of John Ford for shooting westerns, catapulting it into the famous landmark it is today. 

Dog Friendly Monument Valley Utah

We visited Monument Valley during a road trip through Arizona.  While we spent just under 24 hours in Utah, Monument Valley’s close proximity to the Arizona border provided too much of a travel temptation to pass up.

Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park.  The monuments are natural sculptures created by erosion.  I’m not a geologist and I’m not going to even try to explain how these formations were created millions of years ago, but the short story is they are made of orange-red sandstone which has been eroded by water, wind, and ice over time.

Signs of Erosion Monument Valley Utah

Visitors to Monument Valley can use their own vehicles and drive the 17-mile unpaved valley drive.  The valley drive passes West Mitten Butte, East Mitten Butte, Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, Three Sisters, Camel Butte, Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa, Spearhead Mesa, and City Butte.  The names come from what the formations look like.  Some are pretty literal, like the mitten buttes, but some are a little more imaginative, like Three Sisters which is supposed to look like a Catholic nun facing her two pupils.  Kind of like staring at clouds as a kid looking for animal shapes. 

West Mitten Butte Monument Valley Utah

Guided tours will take visitors even farther into the valley, past Thunderbird Mesa.  Additional monuments seen on the guided tour are Sleeping Dragon, Suns Eye, The Submarine Rock, Ear of the Wind, Yei Bi Chei, and Totem Pole.

Spearhead Mesa Monument Valley Utah

We spent a little over two hours driving the self-guided valley road through Monument Valley, but we could have taken even longer.  The formations and their bright color are fascinating and it seems there is always a better angle or a better viewpoint from which to take a picture. 

Artist Point Overlook Monument Valley Utah

Beware because the wind can really pick up while driving around the valley, causing orange dust clouds.  When this happens it’s easy to see how the wind could help these towers of rock gain their form.

Another view you must see if possible is that of the sun rising over Monument Valley.  There are two hotels that offer this view.  The first is the View Hotel, the only hotel within the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.  All guestrooms have private balconies so guests can enjoy the sunrise and a view of the valley. 

The other option is nearby Goulding’s Lodge, where we chose to stay and which also offers private balconied rooms with views of the monuments and sunrise.  The best thing about the sunrise view is you can watch it in your pajamas then fall back into bed for some more shuteye. 

Sunrise Over Monument Valley Utah View from Goulding's Lodge

The main reason we chose Goulding’s Lodge is its pet friendly policy.  But a close second was because Goulding’s Lodge is all about Hollywood kitsch.  On site is the Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, which showcases not only Hollywood history, where you get a reminder of just how many movies Monument Valley has played a starring role, but also trading and tourism history.  The “Movie Room,” now filled with movie memorabilia, was originally built to serve as a mess hall for The Harvey Girls’ crew.  “John Wayne’s Cabin” or “Captain Nathan Brittles’ Cabin” was originally used in filming She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Goulding's Lodge Monument Valley Utah

After driving through Monument Valley and watching the sun rise over the monuments, there’s still one more view and one more picture movie lovers need to find.  Remember when Forrest Gump was running back and forth across the country?  Remember when he decided he was tired and ready to go home?  This famous scene occurred at mile marker 13 of US Highway 163 heading northeast from Monument Valley.  It takes a little while to get there, and Rome kept thinking I was crazy, but I promise once you get there you will see it, and if you are anything like me, you will be giddy.  Sometimes you’ve just got to be dumb while traveling.

Forrest Gump Photo Op Monument Valley Utah

For the perfect mix of stunning nature, Hollywood, and history, head on over to Utah’s Monument Valley.

Travel the World: Monument Valley in Utah is a collection of orange-red sandstone formations which are the backdrop for many Hollywood movies.
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