Monument Valley is arguably one of the most beautiful places in North America – if not the entire planet. But visitors are only allowed access to a small portion of it without a guide. And one of the most popular guided excursions in the area is a sunset tour through the aptly-named Mystery Valley.
Located about nine miles southwest of central Monument Valley, Mystery Valley was originally settled by the Anasazi, now better known as the Ancestral Puebloans. And while the area is now inhabited by the Navajo, they still revere the valley as highly sacred.
Thus, Mystery Valley tours place equal emphasis on scenery, culture and archaeology. A number of different companies offer this tour, and you can learn more about different options at the end of the guide, in addition to details on transport and accommodation.
The Pancake Rocks
As Mystery Valley is most scenic in late afternoon, that’s when tours commonly begin. Meeting at 4:30 PM in the parking lot of the Navajo Welcome Center, our small group got in the open-air wagon attached to the back of our driver/guide’s truck. For this tour I went with Navajo Spirit Tours.
Like much of the area, the roads are unpaved once you leave the highway, and things can get bumpy. But that only adds to the adventure.
In the distance, we could see the iconic buttes of Monument Valley under the light of the descending sun. But it was soon apparent that Mystery Valley has an altogether different look and feel.
While the formations are comprised of the same Navajo sandstone, they’re generally rounder and smoother. And in contrast to massive buttes, you’ll encounter things like arches, alcoves, and even ‘pancakes.’
The Pancake Rocks – named for obvious reasons – was our first official stop. And here we were allowed to walk around freely for a while to take photos of the area during golden hour.
But prior to that, we’d also stopped briefly during the ride over, during which our guide gave us an introduction to Navajo culture and worldview. At least according to his particular clan, as he emphasized that stories and teachings can vary from clan to clan.
Here’s a summary of what he told us, together with some additional context:
According to the Navajo, he explained, the Bering Land Bridge Theory is false – at least to some degree. Many modern academics believe that the Amerindians came to the Americas via a land bridge that connected Asia and Alaska some 12,000 years ago when ocean levels were lower.
Notably, the Najavo language is part of the Athabascan language group, which, aside from the US Southwest, is spoken throughout northern Canada and Alaska.
So while the evidence of past mass migration is undeniable, many Navajo believe that it occurred in the opposite direction. In other words, the Navajo believe that they’ve always been here and that some of them migrated outward.
Be that as it may, many modern archaeologists date the arrival of the Navajo (who refer to themselves as Diné, which means ‘people’) to the Southwest as recently as the 16th century AD – roughly the same time as the Spanish.
The Arches & Ruins
Next, we were taken to some ancient cliff dwellings called the Square House Ruins – not unlike those found at Mesa Verde National Park, albeit on a smaller scale.
And like Mesa Verde – not to mention countless other ruins throughout the Southwest – these ruins were established by the Anasazi people, not the Navajo.
Anasazi is a Navajo term which translates to ‘ancient enemies’ or sometimes to the more neutral ‘ancient ones.’ But their modern descendants, which includes tribes like the Hopi, object to the term, and prefer ‘Ancestral Puebloans’ instead.
Whatever one calls them, this civilization inhabited these lands for many centuries, building elaborate structures and cities before mysteriously abandoning them around 1300 AD.
According to many historians and anthropologists, the Navajo arrived here later and adopted many of the ancient Puebloan customs from their surviving descendants. But the two groups were not always on good terms, hence the ‘ancient enemies’ moniker.
But when it comes to the present day, the Navajo, who do indeed recognize these ruins as Anasazi, treat them with much reverence and respect and consider them sacred.
I was wondering if our guide, who had just told us the Navajo had always been present in this region, would explain how or why these Anasazi ruins seem to predate the Navajo’s arrival, but he did not elaborate.
Not far away, we stopped at Honeymoon Arch, one of the most iconic sites of Mystery Valley. While the natural arch is impressive in its own right, the alcove in the middle is home to even more ruins.
They’re not visible from afar, and you’ll only notice them if you stand under the trees to the right. Our guide mentioned that visitors can also climb up the sandstone to see the ruins from up close, but that it wouldn’t be worth the trouble given the cloudy sky.
While I still would’ve liked to do it, it was already time to move on.
A short distance away was Stout Arch – yet another impressive arch, and unlike any formations you’ll see in the central area of Monument Valley.
As far as I could tell, there were no ruins in this one, but we soon hopped in the vehicle to drive to yet more Anasazi cliff dwellings deeper in the valley.
I’m not particularly sure what the next site is called, and information on archaeology in Mystery Valley is difficult to come by.
While the tour company’s website mentions The House of Many Hands, known for its painted hands on the rockface, I’m not sure if this was it. We didn’t get up close, and no handprints were visible from below.
Nevertheless, this portion of the tour was one of the main highlights. It was here that we sat down at the bottom of the canyon as our guide began singing traditional Navajo songs.
And almost as if right on cue, it began raining during the performance. ‘We believe that when it’s raining, it’s easier for the spirits to converge,’ he told us.
And that pretty much sums up the tour, which lasted about three hours. Despite being billed as a Mystery Valley sunset tour, there was no stopping to watch the sunset, and we simply watched it from the vehicle as we headed back.
The colors of the sky were gorgeous, and I would’ve loved for us to have made at least a few stops for photography. But I mostly had to make do with shooting photos from the moving vehicle.
We did stop briefly, however, to look at a butte that appeared in Close in Encounters of the Third Kind.
While indeed mysterious and magical, you may still be wondering if a Mystery Valley tour is really a must-do activity in the Monument Valley area. See below to learn more.
As mentioned, I chose Navajo Spirit Tours for this excursion, which seems to be one of the most well-known tour companies in this area.
If you’re on a bit more of a budget, Monument Valley Tribal Tours offers slightly shorter tours for $75 per person.
You can also book special photography tours for $150 by contacting the companies directly.
In the end, I’m glad I got to see Mystery Valley, and overall feel the price I paid was worth it. However, I was expecting a bit more out of it.
For example, I would’ve liked more stories or explanations on local history or beliefs. The website also mentions petroglyphs, which we never ended up seeing. We also didn’t visit some of the arches and ruins mentioned on the site. But who knows – perhaps different guides take their groups to different sets of landmarks?
The next morning, I would do a proper photography tour for sunrise but with a different company and in a different area. Looking back, I wish I had chosen the photography option for Mystery Valley as well. Not only would I have been given more photo opportunities (obviously), but there would’ve been more downtime to soak up the atmosphere at various locations.
If you only have the budget for one tour, I’d recommend the sunrise photography tour (even if you’re not a big photographer), which you can learn more about in our dedicated guide.
If you don’t have the budget for any tours, you still won’t regret coming out to this area to just do the Monument Valley Scenic Drive ($8) and the nearby Valley of the Gods loop drive in Utah (free).
As beautiful as Monument Valley is, it can be difficult to plan a trip here due to how expensive it is. The prices of staying within Monument Valley itself are astronomical.
And given its remote location, when it comes to towns outside of Monument Valley, there are only a couple of options: Kayenta, Arizona and Mexican Hat, Utah.
INSIDE MONUMENT VALLEY
First, let’s cover some of the popular options in Monument Valley itself for those who aren’t on a tight budget. The most iconic hotel in the area is Goulding’s Lodge, founded by Harry Goulding, the man who helped turn Monument Valley into a tourist destination in the 1920s.
The View is another popular option, and as its name suggests, guests can enjoy a stunning view of Monument Valley’s buttes from the hotel itself. As such, it’s more expensive than Goulding’s Lodge.
The cheapest option within Monument Valley is to camp or stay in your own RV. Some of these campgrounds are managed by The View and Goulding’s, so it’s best to contact the hotels directly about your reservation.
Monument Valley KOA is another camping option.
If you’re looking to rent an RV for your trip, consider using a site like Outdoorsy.
MEXICAN HAT, UTAH
I stayed in the oddly-named town of Mexican Hat, Utah to the north of Monument Valley. The drive from town to the Monument Valley Visitor Center takes about thirty minutes.
Mexican Hat is named after its rock formation that resembles a Mexican sombrero, while the area is also home to Valley of the Gods, a scenic drive which many dub ‘Mini Monument Valley.’
I spent a single night at San Juan Inn. While it was double the price of almost everywhere else I stayed on my Southwest trip, it was still cheaper than anything else I could find. Conveniently, the hotel also has an attached restaurant.
For whatever reason, San Juan Inn is not on Booking, but you can find it on Hotels or book with them directly.
Monument Valley is quite remote and the only way to reach it is to drive. There are no major airports nearby, with the closest being Phoenix or Albequerque – both about five hours away by car.
As such, most people visit Monument Valley as one stop of a longer Southwest itinerary. Many visitors come from places like Moab or southwest Colorado, home to Mesa Verde National Park. Page, Arizona (home to Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and other sites) is also just a couple of hours away.