#383. Photographing Monument Valley. Worth the trip ?

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Jul 26

Veni. Vedi. Selfie. For those who do not speak the local tongue, that’s Navajo for “Meh”.

A panorama of Monument Valley, Arizona. Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM

The Compulsory Panorama

Obviously, I’m not referring to the landscape, which is sublime, but to the whole photographic experience surrounding it.

A panorama of Monument Valley. Sony A7r & Zeiss Distagon 1.4/35 ZM.

Alternate panorama

Driving into Monument Valley, you queue up to pay your (reasonable) entry fee, walk up to the visitor center, climb a few steps and face this monumental panorama. One of the most recognised and photographed on the planet. The natural world’s Eiffel Tower of sorts.

And then that’s it. End of story. No build up, no exploration, no step-by-step discovery.

Hotel The View, Monument Valley. Sony A7r & Zeiss C-Sonnar 15/50 ZM

Rooms with a view

You can even take in the view from the comfort of your bedroom.

And that’s the triple problem here:

  • You are a passive grabber of a scene you cannot explore (except for a quick loop in the car). The weather and eon-old immobile landscape decide of what ends up in your memory card.
  • You end up with the same photograph as a zillion other visitors.
  • It really isn’t a very involving moment. No more than a quick grab of a celebrity.
Monument Valley in B&W. Sony A7r & Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM

Monochrome variation

Honestly, this is quick shot and tacky souvenir heaven. Jewellery sold at 10 times the price. You get it.

The real draw / issue is that the scenery is gorgeous, famous and almost impossible to photograph poorly. There even is a designed area for photographers.

Designated photographer area. Sony A7r & Zeiss C-Sonnar 1.5/50 ZM

Photograph here

So, let’s face it, this is selfie-stick heaven. A whole park organized not towards hiking, learning or exploring but towards herding visitors towards a single view, then the gift shop.

Slightly sad, right ?

DSC03554DSC03555DSC03562DSC03549DSC03550After 30 minutes, we left and I regretted not going to Shiprock instead. I didn’t even wait one hour for the sunset. The recent rains had added a touch of green to the scenery and there was no way I was going to let evening red light wash that away.

But I think 2 things really make this place come alive: variety and time.


Spice up the mittens

Monument Valley butte seen through a giant dreamcatcher.

Catch the MV dream

For one thing, the area surrounding Monument Valley is fabulous.

The road South, all the way from Holbrook is eye-poppingly beautiful (more to come on that story), for instance.


Shiprock lookalike – approaching Monument Valley

And the immediate vicinity of the park packed with photographic entertainment.

A Monument Valley butte seen through an old cartwheel

Cart-wheel foreground

Indian Jewelry shop outside Monument Valley.

Outside the park

So be sure you allow for plenty of time to explore the roadside shops (yes, they’re touristy as well, but some look great) and settlements in the vicinity for more varied shots.

Goat skulls in Monument Valley

Skull fun

A horned cow skull in Monument Valley



Meditate, Young Grasshopper

Let me repeat: as disappointing as the experience is, the sublime scenery really deserves better. It has meaning, scale, history and culture.

But the visitor center is set up in a way that just won’t let you search for interesting angles in a short spell. Indoors, you’ll get reflections on the glass (see below) and even outdoors, from the RV park on the left to the viewing platform right of The View hotel, the panorama doesn’t change that much.

Monument Valley mittens through the window of the visitor center

Through the window

It is one of these static landscapes that is difficult to explore and imposes the conditions.

My suggestion for photographing it is to apply one of the techniques tought in drawing school: sit around and stare. Let it sink in. Leave the camera in the bag and only take it out after a while.

This not only creates a connection but also destroys the mental construct associated to the scene (John Wayne, mega famous scenery, compulsory sunset …). All that is left are shapes, shadows, edges, highlights … The fanboy disappears, the photographer emerges.

Monument Valley landscape

A more personal touch

I had no idea before coming, but 1 hour on the spot is a bit frustrating. If I had to do it again, I would (1) try to spend a day sitting in one out-of-the-way spot waiting for the right moment and (2) go to Shiprock as well 😉


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  • Paul Ferzoco says:

    Although I have not visited Monument Valley I’ve seen enough shots of it that I would not spend the time. Most of the professional/enthusiast glimpses have been very well done (and over) that I’m satisfied. I respect your shot of the Shiprock Lookalike far more. I travel the back roads of Northern California trying to capture more meaningful views of our surroundings as I suspect you do.

    Something not seen before. The small stuff. Different viewpoints. Subtlety. Something that might trigger a memory. That’s the stuff worth shooting.

    Thanks for your post, it was invigorating to read.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Paul, I agree entirely. I’m currently writing an article on Holbrook, that small town that most visitors will overlook completely and consider only as a convenient stop before Petrified Forest. Holbrook which proved such a wonderful location for photography for me.

      Are any of your photographs of Northern California visible anywhere? I’d love to browse through those.

      Cheers, and thanks for the interesting comment.

  • PaulB says:


    It is sad to see that the area is so over the top at being touristy.

    I do like your cart wheel, outside the park, and skull fun images. Though the wheel is really from a wagon, not a cart. ;-). Your outside the park image shows my memories of traveling through the area when I was a kid. I think I may have even stopped at that place, and it did not look much different then either.

    I look forward to your Holbrook images.


    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Paul, the area outside the park does look like it doesn’t change much. It’s really interesting, too. The park is also wonderful, it’s just a shame there aren’t more ways of exploring independantly. Holbrook coming soon.

  • Leonard says:

    Oh dear!

    Nothing of what you saw and had to endure, except the landscape, was there when I visited in the mid-1970s, and the only way the public was allowed to see the park “officially” was accompanied by a Navajo guide and a jeep.

    Now, what did I do with my Kodachromes?


  • Philberphoto says:

    Pascal, the price all of us pay for cheap air travel is that all the world’s best tourist spots are overrun with people, and with devices to part them with their money. Venice, Kyoto, Monument Valley. Sometimes, it is best to just feast our eyes, and forget wasting the opportunity while on a quest for the impossible picture.
    But not only have you come up with many gems, but your last shot is, indeed, monumental!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Philippe. Thanks to a previous discussion with you, I decided not to forfeit this tourist hotspot and try to create a personal set of pics. Hats off to you.

  • Philberphoto says:

    Actually, this raises a question: is there a future for landscape photography, and “trophy photography” more generally, as more and more sites are flooded beyond recognition with tourist and commercialism? Many places are already almost impossible to shoot, as evidenced by Pascal. But what do you say when you see busloads of Asian tourists hugging every Icelandic waterfall on the Golden Ring? And when all hotels in Torres del Paine (Chilean Patagonia) are sold out 6 months in advance?
    Not only that, but pictures from those sites multiply, to the point that they lose their potential to amaze, replaced by the same attractiveness as Richard Clayderman’s “Adeline”.
    Obviously, my memories of Monument Valley in 1968, when there was only Harry Goulding and his lodge, and hardly a car in sight, are vastly different from what Pascal had to face. I thus need to apologise for mis-representation… The likely consequence is that less-well-known sites will become more important, until they, too, get overexposed…

    • pascaljappy says:

      I think there’s still potential in these heavily touristed areas, but the photographer needs to allow for more time for a personal interpretation now that the experience has been standardized for all from the main viewing areas. And yes, some lesser-know sites will indeed emerge. I was hoping to go to Blue Canyon, as a good example of this, but it was not to be.

  • Yeahhh says:

    That’s very negative. I’ve been there in 2008 while on a road trip from San Francisco down to LA, Palm Springs, Joshua, route 66 up to Flagstaff and Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Zion NP and finished in Las Vegas. I remembering finding Monument Valley much more impressive than Grand Canyon or Zion. But it might be biased because we just had a sand storm in Tuba City, an native pride procession and we saw real cowboys. The sand storm was still ongoing but we were too energetic to stay in our motel in Kayenta and decided to just drive to Monument Valley because the entry fee counts for like 2 weeks anyways. And as we entered the valley, the sky cleared up and everything was just breathtaking. There were also just a few tourists and we didn’t went to the hotel there. We just took our 4-wheeler and went into the loop. And we where there in early October. Maybe that time is less touristy.

    However I totally disagree on your complaints about the accessibility guidance for non-photographers and over-used views. A) This is USA, land of the lazy ones. I actually wonder why there’s no escalator or self-driving cars 😉 B) What’s bad about showing average people where they can make nice holiday pictures? It’s actually very similar to any landscape photography workshop. C) Just ignore it! I mean, they’re not obstruct any of your shots, right. Just get over it. D) There’re so many possibilities to move freely in this park and find interesting perspectives … and you complain about that one hotel? E) What’s wrong with taking your own version of an over-used but amazing spot? Nothing, right. If you take it for your own, it doesn’t matter at all. And if you shoot it for selling, you still can sell Monument Valley panoramas.

    Well, yes, I enjoyed Monument Valley very much – like the whole trip through California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. But as I read on your other articles, I still have a lot to see further eastwards. Sure one day I’ll come back for a second (and third and forth …) trip.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi there, I’m glad you enjoyed it more than I did. And that’s not really my point. There’s nothing wrong with sharing a site with lots of other people or allowing the greatest number to take a memorable picture. On the contrary. What I’m saying is that, for someone who’s seen thousands of almost identical photographs of location like this one, you need to take more time than the average Joe (or myself) does in order to create something a little bit new (your own version, as you say). It’s great you were able to do the loop. When I was there, there were so many cars, I just didn’t bother. But that’s just me, I prefer quiet spots.

      I too find the site more impressive than most others, but you’re stuck to the exact same places (basically, the loop in the car or the view from the visitor center) and there’s no easy way to walk about, which is my prefered mode of exploration. You just follow the dots and shoot. Not my cup of cha.

      Also, in my 1 month visit, I wouldn’t say I have met many lazy Americans. I find them very outspoken, friendly and active.

  • Alan says:


    Very interesting insight on this! My wife and I were just there in September and we booked a Navajo overnight camping tour in the Valley. Apparently, you can only access deep inside the park if you book a tour with a Navajo tour company. There are a number of unique rock structures within the park that aren’t as well known. The view from the visitor center is probably the most recognizable view of the Monument Valley Park. I do recall having a difficult time trying to figure out the best way to take a unique picture of what I was seeing that I had already seen a million times on the internet of the Valley, and I was rather disappointed with the lack of hiking opportunities within the park. Even deep within the park, the view was not necessarily better. We camped in these traditional Hogans which is basically a hut where we slept on the ground with the provided sleeping bags for $200 a night per person. The tour included a tacos dinner, a traditional Indian dance for entertainment, and a sunrise tour where the tour guide basically takes you to some spot within the park and wait for the sun to rise over the Totem Pole. My picture of the sunrise was pretty dark and uninspiring. We were a bit disappointed with the experience and my wife never wanted to go to another Indian tribal park. Yikes!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Alan, we took a tour inside Canyon de Chelly, just South of Monument Valley and had a nice time, although it wasn’t extremely varied in terms of scenery. But the reviews of Navajo trips inside Monument Valley didn’t inspire us to try any and I didn’t feel like following the line of cars drving down. I’m sorry that you were disappointed too … Monument Valley really is a place to see when you’re a fan of John Ford and for the scale of it. But it really isn’t a place that I find that interesting for photography and it is so expensive and commercialised that I won’t return either.

      Better luck next time 😉


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