For the past 7 months since COVID-19 hit Utah in March, hands down, the single most asked question I’ve recieved on our office’s visitor information line is, ‘Is Monument Valley open?’. This is closely followed by, ‘When is Monument Valley going to re-open?’ and ‘Is there anything to do in Monument Valley if I can’t visit the park?’
Well, for anyone who doesn’t already know, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is currently closed through January 1, 2021 as of an October 2nd press release issued by the Navajo Nation. (So that answers questions #1 & #2) As for the 3rd question- Yes, there are other ways to experience Monument Valley even though the park is closed!
Over the past 7 months I’ve heard a lot of confusion from callers about what exactly is closed at this time. Many of the people who have called our office have heard that ‘Monument Valley is closed’, and many of them think that because of this closure, they are unable to drive through the area on the highway, for example from Moab to Flagstaff. While Monument Valley Tribal Park is currently CLOSED, Highway 163 passing through the community of Monument Valley remains OPEN and services (lodging, dining, groceries, gas, etc.) are still available to residents and visitors.
While there definitely are places along Highway 163 where you can get good views of the rock formations of Monument Valley without entering the park, one of the best ways to experience Monument Valley while the park is closed, is to go on a tour with Goulding’s Lodge. While they can not currently run tours in the park, they are running a new ‘Beyond the Park’ tour that takes guests to all the best locations to view the landscape of Monument Valley without entering the park.
On a sidenote, Goulding’s Lodge has remained open and maintained operations of their lodge, restaurant, RV park, grocery store, convenience store, laundromat, gas station, etc. throughout COVID. They have worked hard to keep their employees who still wanted/needed to work during COVID, employed during this time. And they have instituted some of the strictest protocol for sanitaion, social distancing, and mask requirements that we have seen in San Juan County!
Knowing about their strict sanitation and social distancing protocols, and knowing the number of people who are calling our visitor information line asking about Monument Valley Tribal Park, I thought I should experience this tour for myself so that I could better provide information to callers on the activities that are currently available in Monument Valley while the park is closed.
I called down to Goulding’s to get the scoop on this tour, since it’s new (Started since COVID) and not one of the tours they have traditionally offered. I found out that the tour visits the following locations:
- A traditional Navajo hogan (dwelling) for a rug weaving demonstration.
- Various pullouts and scenic points along Hwy 163 including the Redlands Viewpoint and Forrest Gump Hill.
- Back to Goulding’s for a quick bathroom stop at the RV Park
- Onto the mesa behind Goulding’s with stops at a couple different scenic overlooks as well as an archaeolgical site and Teardrop Arch- a place I’ve wanted to visit for YEARS!
After I got information on the tour route, times, prices, etc., I asked what types of precautions they were taking on tours in relation to COVID, and I was really impressed to hear all the extra steps they’re taking to ensure the safety of their employees and guests. Here’s what I learned:
- Goulding’s is limiting the number of people allowed on each tour. Their vehicles seat 20, but they are currently capping each tour at 8 people to allow space for social distancing.
- Masks are required at all times on tours.
- Each vehicle is throuroughly cleaned before and after each tour.
- Guides are providing hand sanitizer to guests after each stop.
- Tour vehicles are open-air vehicles, so already perfectly suited for COVID-era tours.
As someone who is social distancing pretty seriously, and still only going to the grocery store, post office, etc. once/week and always, ALWAYS with a mask, hearing the precautions Goulding’s is taking was enough to make me feel that going on a tour with them at this time is safe. So I went ahead and booked my tour and made the 1 hr 40 minute trip from Monticello to Monument Valley to see what this new tour was all about.
Upon the recommendation of one of the staff at Goulding’s, I booked the afternoon tour so that I would be able to enjoy the beginning of sunset while still on the tour. When I arrived, checked in, and boarded the waiting open-air tour vehicle, our guide for the day, Dennis, reminded us to spread out on the vehicle to allow for social distancing, and also reminded us that masks are required at all times on the tour. I was glad to see that the precautions I had been told about were being followed and taken seriously.
There was just one other couple on the tour, so it was very easy for us to spread out on the vehicle. They were from Florida and were on a trip that they had planned before COVID, and had to delay for quite a few months until most of the locations they had planned to visit had re-opened. (This couple, like many other people who have been calling our office asking about Monument valley, had reservations that they’d booked a year or more in advance, and Monument Valley was just one of the stops they’d planned on making as they visited the Mighty 5 or various locations around the Grand Circle.)
We got started on the tour, and had great views immediately. If you’ve never been to Goulding’s Lodge, although it’s located outside of Monument Valley Tribal Park and is a few miles from the actual park boundaries, it’s set in a very dramatic location with a tall, redrock mesa directly behind it and a view of the rock formations of Monument Valley from almost eveywhere on the property.
We made our first stop at a hogan, which is a traditional Navajo dwelling structure. Dennis explained the different types of hogans to us- male and female, and told us how the door must always face east towards the morning sun. He also told us about the construction process which does not involve any nails! The logs are cut, the bark is removed, and they are all wedged together tightly and covered with mud.
After leaving the hogan, we headed north on Hwy 163 to go to several of the best viewpoints that are located along the road. I’m constantly asked on the phone if you can see any of Monument Valley without entering the park. The 6 photos above show you some of the best views you can get from along Hwy 163 between Monument Valley and Mexican Hat.
We went as far north as Forrest Gump Hill, the straight stretch of highway where Forrest ended his cross-country run in the movie. This part of the road has become a popular photo stop for visitors, and paved turnouts have been added in recent years to allow cars to pull over more safely, but I cringe every time I see people standing in the middle of the road trying to recreate the famous scene from the Forrest Gump, when there are cars and trucks coming. If you’re going to take a photo here, please, please make sure there are no cars coming.
Dennis was extremely knowledgeable, and at each stop he would point out the rock formations, mountain ranges, etc, that were in view and tell us about them and also tell us about the movies that had been filmed at or near each location. It was really nice to be on a smaller tour because we had a lot of time to talk with Dennis about his experiences, family, and hear about his previous job of being the Fire Chief in Monument Valley. Each tour varies quite a bit depending on the tour guide and their areas of expertise, and Dennis was among the best I’ve experienced- so kind and knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions we had.
After we stopped at probably 4-5 locations along Hwy 163, we headed back towards Goulding’s and made a quick bathroom stop at the RV park before continuing on to Horse Pasture Canyon, which is the part of the tour that I was most excited about. I’ve been wanting to visit Teardrop Arch for YEARS, but as far as I know, it wasn’t on any of the regular tour routes since it’s not within the park itself.
The tour makes several stops in Horse Pasture Canyon- at a couple scenic overlooks that give you awesome, panoramic views of Monument Valley, and at a stop where a short hike takes you to an archaeological site and Teardrop Arch. If it wasn’t for the uneven ground and the fact that Monument Valley is at about 5,000 ft, I would call this a ‘walk’. But as the couple from Florida reminded us, not everyone is used to this elevation like Dennis and I are! Although I’m used to the elevation since I live in Monticello, which is at just over 7,000 ft, this was my first experience hiking in a mask and I could definitely feel it!
Teardrop Arch did not disappoint! I’d waited so long to see it, I was hoping it wasn’t going to be one of those things where you’ve built it up so much in your mind that the reality can’t possibily live up to your expectations. But finally seeing it for the first time as the sun was starting to set and the shadows were getting long was nothing short of magical! Definitely worth the wait!
**I’ll note here that the ONLY times any of us took our masks off during this tour were when we were posing for a photo and were away from the rest of the group. And even then, we’d pass our camera/phone off to someone else, walk away from the group before taking our masks off, then put them back on before walking back to join the rest of the group. I felt like it was done in a very safe way and have no issues being around other people without masks if we’re outdoors and maintaining at least 6 feet of distance between us.
The 3.5 hour tour seemed to fly by, and before we knew it, we were heading back towards Goulding’s as the sun was setting. I think this was my 5th tour of Monument Valley I’ve taken over the years, and although at no point in the tour did we enter the park itself, this tour ranked right up there among my favorites!
The day was perfectly capped off with a quick stop for a Navajo Taco at Goulding’s Stagecoach Restaurant. Anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) knows that I never go to Monument Valley without stopping for a Navajo Taco at Goulding’s, and this trip was no exception! The amazing scenery continuted on the drive home as well- it just so happened that there was a full moon that night so I got to enjoy watching the moon rise over the desert as I drove back to Monticello. Perfect ending to an amazing day ‘Beyond the Park’ in Monument Valley!
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Distance from Monument Valley to lodging in San Juan County, Utah: