Sunset at Monument Valley

Monument Valley is one of those places that makes you go ''Woah'' even if you hate that particular declaration of modern slang. It's one of the most imposing landscapes I've ever seen or photographed.

It's barren, desolate plains are interrupted by these giant sandstone monoliths (known as Buttes) that slice into the sky and seem strategically placed to make beautiful compositions for photographers and painters.

Even though you've probably seen the classic shot of the West and East mittens from the main hotel viewing area I defy you to resist taking that shot. I wrestled with my inner snob for a whole 5 minutes before giving in and trying to take my own interpretation of the cliche valley overlook. Even though I hated myself for doing it I'm still pretty happy with the results. Here are my Monument Valley Photo Tips.

The Photographers Guide to Monument Valley

Getting There

From Moab

It's a very easy drive down from Moab, just follow the 191 South and then take the 163 Scenic Route. When you get to the main intersection in Monument Valley simply turn left up Monument Valley Road. You'll have to pay around $5 per person per day at the toll booth to get access to the valley. The drive from Moab takes about 3 hrs.

From Page

Drive East on the 98 to Kayenta. When you hit the 160 take a left and go North-East to Kayenta and then join the 163 to Monument Valley which is left again. This drive takes about 2 hrs.

The Trail and Loop Road

There is only one walking trail that is accessible without a Navajo guide and you can access it from the car park at the visitor centre / View hotel. It's called the 'Wild Cat Trail' and takes you all the way around the West Mitten Butte. If you hire a Navajo guide you can get access to much of the valley.

The Loop road that snakes through the valley is 17 miles long and unpaved. It ranges from smooth sand to brutal potholes to slick rock and will seriously test the suspension of your vehicle. We were in a large 4X4 SUV with plenty of clearance so we had no problems. I watched one guy in a nice new Mustang creep his way out of the valley - that must have been one slooooow drive.

Private residents live in the valley itself and you'll pass their homes on the loop road so be careful not to accidentally trespass on private property. For an excellent map of the loop road and valley go here.

Photographers Guide to Monument Valley

Recommended Equipment

  • Rain Cover - We were there mid May and it rained a lot.
  • Heavy Tripod - The winds get pretty aggressive so if your tripod is super light you'll need some weights.
  • Polarizer - For control of reflections, glare and colour saturation.
  • Wide Angle Lens - Goes without saying really.
  • Warm Clothes - it was freezing on the second morning during mid May.

Monument Valley Tunnel View

Top Tips

For sunrise, skip the obvious overlook at the start of the valley and drive right to end of the loop road to 'Artists Point'. The sun will light up the Buttes from the East while you face West and you'll get an immense valley view during the best light. I got there about an hour too late because I'd opted for the classic backlit buttes shot - lesson learned.

If thunderstorms are forecast you'll get some spectacular weather conditions but don't expect them to be during typical golden hour. Any time of day can yield fleeting moments of amazing light so just fill up a thermos, strap on your rain cover and be ready.

Panorama of Monument Valley during Stormy weather

Accommodation

You have three choices if you are staying close to the valley itself. There is 'The View' hotel which sits at the very lip of the valley and is where you'll start the Valley loop drive. The other option are Gouldings Lodge or camping. We stayed at the Gouldings campground near the Gouldings Lodge and it was not bad.

There are other places to camp in the area but they seem pretty ramshackle. Apparently you can even camp right in the valley itself near the Buttes so if you fancy that I would ask at the visitor centre as I never actually saw anyone camping down there.

If you prefer more choice of accommodation there are a few chain hotels in Kayenta, which is about 20 miles South of Monument Valley.

Dining

I have to say that the dining options in Monument Valley are pretty grim. The only two restaurants are situated in the only two hotels and both offer similar food. I did however get a taste for the Navajo taco - that fry bread is pretty good.

Wildlife

I live in BC which has abundant wildlife so I was pretty shocked out how little life there is out here but it is the desert after all. I saw no snakes or lizards, few birds. I did however see lots of feral dogs, one poor fella was limping along on a maimed foot that he'd obviously gotten used to. I couldn't get him to come close.

Oh and I did see a rotting horse carcass beside the road right near the toll booth. I guess the desert takes care of the carrion in certain parts of Utah.

While You're There

This area has so many world class destinations for photography that you'll be spoiled for choice. It depends on which road you take to get here but if you're coming from Moab be sure to check out the 'Natural Bridges National Monument'. If you're coming from Page be sure to visit 'Navajo National Monument' which has 3 preserved cave dwellings.

Published by Gavin Hardcastle

Gavin is a professional landscape photographer from Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, BC. He teaches photography workshops all over the world and writes extensively about his experiences on location. You can read his photo guides and tutorials here at Fototripper.com.

17 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I’ve foud your homepage while I was surfing around looking for some interesting spots in Utah. Your tips look very inteesting. Next year September, I will be back in Utah for a photo trip and I hope that your page will give me some good hints.

    Regards
    Dirk

    Reply
  2. […] Also check out Lower Antelope Canyon and if you’re up for a drive, take a trip to Monument Valley. […]

    Reply
  3. […] Also check out Lower Antelope Canyon and if you’re up for a drive, take a trip to Monument Valley. […]

    Reply
  4. […] Also check out Lower Antelope Canyon and if you’re up for a drive, take a trip to Monument Valley. […]

    Reply
  5. Please put ME on the mailing list! I’m taking a photo excursion with a friend next month and your guides have been very helpful. Thank You!!!!

    Reply
  6. Thank you! Your guides fantastic for someone like myself who has never been to this area.

    Reply
  7. The iconic location in your first beautiful shot… is that easy to access or does it tucked back behind the pot holes and rough road you described?

    Reply
  8. “Even though you’ve probably seen the classic shot of the West and East mittens from the main hotel viewing area I defy you to resist taking that shot. I wrestled with my inner snob for a whole 5 minutes before giving in and trying to take my own interpretation of the cliche valley overlook. Even though I hated myself for doing it I’m still pretty happy with the results.”

    Classic!

    Reply
  9. Hi Gavin,
    I’ll be visiting Monument Valley on my honeymoon in November, (I’m from Australia) and I was wondering what your tips would be for the best sunrise and sunset experiences/photography locations, given we will be only staying one night, (getting there in the afternoon and departing mid morning)
    We are just hiring a standard car to drive across the US, not sure if it’s suitable to drive through the park or not.
    Would like to do one of the guided tours as well, could you advise what to do and when? Best to do a tour at sunrise or sunset? Will most likely stay at the view hotel.
    Any help would be greatly appreciated, as this will be the highlight of my trip.
    Dean

    Reply
    • Hi Dean, congrats on the wedding. It’s an awesome place to visit on your honeymoon but be prepared to rough it a little. The View is pretty much your only option for close access. As for where you want to be for sunrise/sunset, it depends on what type of shot you like. If you prefer the sun being in the shot as it rises between the Buttes you’ll want to be fairly close to t he hotel but everyone gets that shot. Instead I would advise going to the far end of the valley drive to this spot as mentioned in the article ”For sunrise, skip the obvious overlook at the start of the valley and drive right to end of the loop road to ‘Artists Point’. The sun will light up the Buttes from the East while you face West and you’ll get an immense valley view during the best light. I got there about an hour too late because I’d opted for the classic backlit buttes shot ‘ lesson learned.”

      You can easily do the drive in a rental, just go slow.

      Reply
  10. Thanks for the tips Gavin,
    I think thats what ill do. Sunset from the hotel / lookout area, sunrise from the back.
    Will the sunrise tours leave early enough to get to the location you mentioned before the sun actually rises? Or will we have to get out there on our rental early morning?

    Reply
  11. After many years of dreaming about it, I get to visit and photograph Monument Valley two weeks from now. Ive already made a preemptive upgrade to FX for the opportunity and am now contemplating just how wide I need to go… Currently my widest lens is a 24 mm – will I regret not having something wider?

    Reply
  12. Gavin,
    Thanks for the guide, it is very helpful. I will be staying at Goulding’s campground for a night and would like to take some sunrise picture of the valley. My trip is quite packed so I don’t think I have time to drive the wild cat trail you mentioned. I want to know if it is possible to take pictures at the view hotel even if I don’t stay there?

    Reply
    • Hi Ruth,

      Yes you can take pictures from the hotel as a none guest but you actually don’t need to be in the hotel to get good shots of the valley. If you want the classic shot you’ll be better off at the car park of the hotel right where the wall looks down into the valley. I would STRONGLY advise you take the time to drive the trail to see the lesser known compositions available to you.

      Reply

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