Road Trip USA: Monument Valley and The Grand Canyon

After covering almost 3,000 miles, our Road Trip USA was now heading to the two scenic big ones: Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.

East Mitten Butte in Monument Valley
East Mitten Butte in Monument Valley

Heading north from Chinle on the 6,000 ft high Arizonan plateau, and then just over the border into Utah, led to the remarkably familiar Monument Valley. Familiar from all the films and adverts that feature this magnificent, stark scenery.

It brought back memories to me of Christmas days many, many years ago when the film Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, was standard fare on BBC television. The old Marlboro cigarette adverts also flashed into my mind.

We were unsure whether it would be a good idea driving the Monument Valley Scenic Route with its unpaved roads, or whether a guided tour would be better – even at a cost of about $60 per person.

Senior Travellers on the Scenic Drive near Totem Pole
Senior Travellers on the Scenic Drive near Totem Pole

In the event we found the driving straightforward, with many standard saloon cars managing the route with no apparent difficulty. Maybe it would not be quite so easy when icy or after prolonged rain, but we had dry, sunny weather.

One of the guided tours that passed us was using an open-back truck, so passengers were gulping in clouds of red-brown dust. Not a good way to view the scenery!

Driving 3-4 hours south-west from Monument Valley takes you past the Little Colorado River Gorge to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Again a familiar sight for me, but this time because I had visited five year before on my San Francisco to Las Vegas road trip.

Little Colorado River Gorge
Little Colorado River Gorge

However, the Grand Canyon is one of the very few places on earth that I am happy to return to, and that first glance over the rim still very much has that ‘wow’ factor. Also I was keen this time to head down from the rim into the canyon, even if only a short distance.

February proved a great time to visit the Grand Canyon. There were still relatively few tourists around, and, not unrelated, we were able to drive our car to almost all the viewpoints along the rim-side road. From March 1st to November 30th each year, access to the road west of Grand Canyon Village, is restricted to the Park’s shuttle buses.

Start of the Monument Valley Scenic Drive
Start of the Monument Valley Scenic Drive

Highlights of Monument Valley

Monument Valley Scenic Drive. The Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation Department is the custodian of Monument Valley and charges a very reasonable $20 per car to travel along the Scenic Drive.

The 17 mile route, mostly on unpaved roads, gives views of many of the major monuments (referred to as buttes, or mesas when larger) and goes completely around the Rain God Mesa.

West Mitten Butte at Sunset
West Mitten Butte at Sunset

There are several stopping places and short walking trails take you to some of the best views.

We started driving along the route in the early afternoon, but were so transfixed by the views and photo opportunities, that when we left it was almost sunset – making the colours even more intense.

Yes, Monument Valley definitely lived up to my expectations.

• The Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, situated next to the hotel where we stayed (see below), traces the establishment of Goulding’s Lodge and its involvement in the production of many films made in Monument Valley, from old westerns to modern-day blockbusters.

Goulding's Trading Post Museum
Goulding’s Trading Post Museum

For further nostalgia, there is a theatre showing some of these old westerns and a cabin labelled as being John Wayne’s.

The museum also aims to educate visitors to appreciate and respect the local Navajo and their way of life.

Entry to the Museum is free, but donations are accepted which help to fund college scholarships for local people.

Highlights of the Grand Canyon

Viewing the Grand Canyon from the various viewpoints along the 35-mile rim-side road is the obvious highlight. Not only do the views across the canyon change considerably at every viewpoint, but also according to the time of day, with sunset again producing an intensity of colours.

Desert View Outlook with Colorado River a Mile Below
Desert View Outlook with Colorado River a Mile Below

Don’t forget to keep an eye open for the wildlife! We saw both mule deer and elk close to the roadside and several species of birds. Entry to the Grand Canyon National Park costs just $10 per car for a seven day pass!

• The Bright Angel Trail is the safest walking path down into the Grand Canyon, a total distance of 9.5 miles descending 4,400 feet. No, we didn’t manage the 19 mile round trip; we are senior travellers after all! However we did walk the first 1.5 miles, descending more than a 1,000 feet, providing us with canyon views from a different perspective. There is an excellent online guide to trails with free downloadable routes.

Start of Bright Angel Trail
Start of the Bright Angel Trail

•After our physical exertions earlier in the day, the IMAX Theatre provided a relaxing and informative experience watching ‘Grand Canyon – The Hidden Secrets’. Although seniors get a discounted rate, you are better to pick up one of the ‘Buy 1, Get 1 Half-price Adult’ vouchers widely available at hotels and online.


Gouldings Lodge is just a mile from the entrance to Monument Valley. Each room has panoramic views across to the buttes and mesas, which makes up for the rooms being rather small. Being in the Navajo Nation, once again there was no alcohol available, but the restaurant was quite happy to lend us a corkscrew!

Restroom 1.5 Miles Down the Canyon
1.5 Miles Down the Canyon to Get to a Toilet!

When we stayed in February, the rooms cost about $80 a night. Between May and October this goes up to over $200 per night. As always, it is quite an advantage to travel out of season, provided you are lucky with the weather.

The Holiday Inn Express Grand Canyon is in Tusayan, a mile south of the South Rim entrance. The main block was crowded and had an impersonal feel to it, whereas we had excellent suites in the newly redecorated adult-only annexe. This has its own small but well-stocked breakfast area. A discounted flexible Senior Rate is available at this hotel.

Road Trip USA articles:

1. Memphis to Las Vegas via Houston – Planning This includes a route map.
2. Memphis the Rock & Roll City
3. New Orleans and Mardi Gras
4. Houston, Gulf Coast and San Antonio
5. Across Texas to El Paso and Tucson
6. Sedona, Petrified Forest, Canyon de Chelley
7. Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon
8. The Final Fling – Route 66 to Las Vegas

Posted 13th March 2015 by Steve Hanson