Monument Valley: Have Rental, Will Travel

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After two and a half months basking in a Pacific Northwest summer and reconnecting with New York, our US visas were about to expire. We weren’t done with the country at all, but for now, the country was almost done with us.

With a couple of weeks left, it was time for something different, time to leave the cities behind and head out on the open highway. We hadn’t set foot in a National Park so far on this trip, and given how much I loved Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier last year, that seemed a major oversight. Yup, it was road trip time.

First stop: Phoenix, a sprawling mass of concrete that seemed it would be best seen from the rear view mirror. The following morning we proved that theory correct, quickly heading out of town on a winding route towards Flagstaff.

Red rock, AZ

Leaving the interstate behind we headed for Sedona, the red rocks and tree-lined roads vastly more interesting than the rear end of yet another RV. What we didn’t know was that these rocks, as impressive as they were, were just a taste of what lay in store for us the following day. We were off to Monument Valley.

Our Airbnb hosts suggested when it came to visiting the valley, there were two choices. Take photos from the viewing platforms beside the car park, have a bite to eat and leave, or drive the 17 mile road along the valley floor and see a whole lot more.

Given it was a three hour drive each way from Flagstaff, there was no way we were opting for the five minute photo stop. I mean sure, the valley road was extremely rough, consisting of more clay than dirt, and more pothole than anything else. Sure, we were behind the wheel of an underpowered, two-wheel drive Hyundai automatic that was blatantly not fit for off-road driving. There was, however, one other important factor to consider.

It was a rental.

And so it was we found ourselves bouncing from rut to rut as we descended towards the valley floor. Large pickups almost glided past us, their superior suspension and half a mile of ground clearance serving them well. Us, however? Not so much.

Within seconds it became apparent the 15mph speed limit was wildly optimistic in a car like ours, and why the signs had suggested these few miles would take two or three hours to drive. Still, with views like this from every window, I wasn’t complaining.

Monument Valley 1

On we crawled, stopping at every opportunity to take another photo or let the converted pickups that passed for official tour vehicles pass. Paying close to a hundred bucks to get crammed into the back of a pickup and spend a couple of hours having dust blown into my face, while listening to commentary blasting through a loudspeaker, didn’t seem like my idea of a good time. Judging by the looks on the faces of the passing tour groups, it didn’t seem much like their idea of fun either.

Nope, I’d rather stick with destroying the undercarriage of my rental car, thanks.

Monument Valley with road

One of the lesser known facts about Monument Valley is the great opportunity it gives people like me to bring out their inner teenage boy. Well, with place names like Elephant Butte (above) and Camel Butte, it’s hardly a surprise. Insert snigger here.

Three Sisters, Monument Valley

Past the Three Sisters we drove, the road finally starting to level out and become packed sand rather than rutted dirt. This was more like it! As long as the road stayed like this, I thought, this drive was going to be fantastic!

Of course, it didn’t.

Monument Valley road

Monument Valley vista

While the views didn’t get any worse, the track soon did. We had been warned we’d have to drive across at least a couple of creek beds that usually had some water in them in rainy season. This was, of course, rainy season. Surprise surprise, there was water in them.

The first one didn’t pose any problems, not much more than an over-sized puddle that even our little rental car could handle with ease. The next one, however? That was a different story. A large pickup was coming the other way, and I watched with some trepidation as the water climbed high up its wheels and sprayed outwards in great torrents.

Stopping beside us, the driver wound down his window and looked down bemusedly at our increasingly-insignificant-feeling vehicle. “Go where I just went,” he advised. “And drive fast.”

So I did.

Brown water gushed everywhere, dousing the bonnet and windscreen. The back wheels slid, the front wheels scrabbled for traction, we held our breath… and then we were through. Never any doubt — right?

Best of all, the car looked fantastic afterwards. If only the guy at the rental counter in Phoenix could see us now. He was adamant this thing couldn’t handle the highways and elevation changes on this road trip, never mind dirt roads and river crossings. How wrong he was.

Rental car

The rest of the loop road, as scenic as it was, was almost an anticlimax after that — although we did get to hang out with horses and pretend we were cowboys for a couple of minutes. It’s fair to say we were more excited than the horses.

Monument Valley horses

With time quickly passing, storm clouds gathering on the horizon, and my spine suggesting it had just about had enough of this road, I’ll admit to not being too upset to see the end of the trail approaching. We’d been seriously impressed by Monument Valley, but with that three hour drive back to Flagstaff still ahead of us, it was time to leave.

We’d hoped to see plenty of wide-open wilderness on this road trip, and only a couple of days into it, those hopes were already being realised. Dozens of Westerns had been shot around here, and it wasn’t hard to see why. It had made for a long day’s driving, but was absolutely worth the effort.

Those storm clouds broke directly over us on the way home, with thunder, lightening and rain so heavy that everyone was pulling off the highway until it stopped. The upside? No need to wash the car when we got back — it was almost as clean as when we’d picked it up.

Now that’s what I call a good day out.

Have you been to Monument Valley? What did you think of it… and did your car survive the trip?


We spent one night at the Red Roof Inn Phoenix West, a generic but perfectly acceptable hotel. The air conditioning kept the Phoenix heat at bay, and the bar at the hotel next door served reasonable pub food and good beer. There’s not much to see or do in the neighbourhood, but as a place to lay our heads for the night, it worked just fine.

Our time in Flagstaff was with delightful Airbnb hosts Rob and Aude. We loved their home among the trees just outside town, and really warmed to them and their dog. Aude had plenty of great local advice, and we were more than satisfied with our room. We’d absolutely stay with them again next time we’re passing through Flagstaff.

PS: If you haven’t used Airbnb before, you can save $25 off your first booking by using this link.


15 Responses to “Monument Valley: Have Rental, Will Travel

  • I have lived in Arizona for 9 years and still have not been to Monument Valley. I was actually there when I was 14 but have no memory of it. The only reason I know I was there was I found pictures of it from a trip I was on.

    I do know all about how those dirt roads that can wreck havoc on a small car. I got tricked into searching for some ancient cliff dwellings near Sedona earlier this year and felt lucky to get away without any damage.

    • Yeah, it wouldn’t have been hard to do some serious damage to the car – I was going so slowly down the hill at the start in particular that it barely felt like I was moving half the time…

  • Did you do any burnouts?

    • Not that day, but there might have been a bit of gravel to play in later in the trip… 😉

  • Haha this is brilliant! I would have done exactly the same thing. I’m glad you took the valley floor route – a much better view than the viewing platform or tour bus options.

  • haha what an adventure! well done for making it through! This article makes me realise how big the US is…. so many huge open plains

    • There was a lot more open space to come on that road trip as well, trust me! There’s a lot of dirt between Phoenix and Austin… especially when you keep taking side trips! 😉

  • So jealous that you have seen so much more of the American West than I have. Monument Valley is like my absolute #1. Planning to get there in 2014 though. Your adventures in MV sound pretty much exactly how Julia and I would end up handling it, actually., muddy rental car and all.

    • There’s a lot to be said for a very muddy rental car… it really makes it feel like you’re getting your money’s worth for the high fees they charge!

  • Awesome photos!! Monument Valley is one of my favorite places in the U.S., and I’m so glad you got to see it.

    I’m glad to hear your car survived, too! My sister and I did the Valley a bit differently. We went on a hot air balloon ride at sunrise, and then had a private backcountry tour with a Navajo guide afterwards. So yes, we were in a big truck – but we spent hours on own in spots where we saw no other tourists. It was the best day of our 2011 road trip, for sure.

    • Thanks Amanda! Your hot air balloon trip sounds amazing – it’d be stunning in that part of the world! I think the private tour would be the way to go – I think it’s just that I’m not a fan of group tours at the best of times. Doing it with just one or two friends/family, though? That’d be a whole different experience…

  • Gregory Laporte
    5 years ago

    hey man,
    I seriously almost pissed myself laughing reading your adventure in that rental car :p

    now i’ll be doing a similar roadtrip next september

    We’ll be coming from Page to Monument Valley in our pickup truck
    now I wonder, without a “tourguide with us”, how do we do this 3hour road you took?
    where is the starting point?
    Advise would be greatly appreciated!

    • It’s just called the Valley Drive, and you head down from beside the Visitor Center. You’ll see the signs for sure, but there’s also a map here.

  • Cindy Page
    5 years ago

    FYI – Credit card companies do NOT cover damages or losses if your rental car is on a dirt or unpaved road. God forbid if you rental car gets stuck, the towing bill is ginormous! Oh, & another tidbit of info when renting a vehicle while assuming your credit card will cover damages…they won’t if you rent a pick up truck either! I was there this year with an economy rental car, & did not opt in (didn’t have the nerve or guts) for that dirt road experience you had. Jelly!

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