Desert Road Trip Route - From the Valley of the Gods through Monument Valley

Connecting roads Route 261 and Highway 163 in Utah add up to an ultimate desert road trip route – one of the best in the world!. Starting in Cedar Mesa, Utah on 261, connecting in Mexican Hat, Utah to 163 and then riding into the glorious sunset as the colors of the formations in Monument Valley light up is one of those road trips that make you gasp in awe, try desperately to capture it in a photograph, and wonder why it took you so long to find this slice of heaven.

The amount of natural beauty in this area helps you understand why the Navajo have designated so much of it sacred – something this gorgeous has to have come from above. As much of this road trip route runs through sacred land, this detailed itinerary will help you navigate instead of desecrate.

Road Trip Planning

Starting Point of Road Trip Route: Cedar Mesa, Utah
Get a preview of the main event (Monument Valley) by starting your road trip in Cedar Mesa, a pinprick of a town located north of the Arizona State line on Route 261. Tour the Valley of the Gods via FR 242, a dirt road that wanders and winds through a beautiful miniature version of Monument Valley, complete with buttes, cliffs, and sculptural formations with fanciful names like Lady in the Bathtub.

This is a great place to spend a night and camp – not only will you get the exquisite beauty of this area at sunset, camping is actually possible here unlike in Monument Valley. As with camping, hiking is also permitted here, so you could make a day or more of exploring the area.

If you prefer your comforts, stay at the Valley of the Gods B&B, a rustic stone ranch house that’s completely Green (powered only by the wind and the sun) and run by a couple who will tend to your every need while you take in the perfect desert silence, glorious views accessible right from their porch, and the mind-boggling nightly desert star-show (one of my favorite parts of being in the desert). Two tips: bring your own liquor/wine/beer as there’s none for sale in the area and book the B&B ahead – they fill up quickly.

Depending on your interest in hiking, you can either stay here another day or continue on your desert road trip route to Monument Valley.

Road Trip Route – The Showstopper: Monument Valley
Route 261 connects with Highway 163 in Mexican Hat, Utah, a tiny town that boasts a nearby rock formation that, yes, looks like a Mexican Hat. The town itself has very little to offer, so head southwest on this road trip route onto Highway 163 to get to Goulding, Utah.

As you approach Goulding and the Arizona border, the incredible sight of Monument Valley will appear before you like a mirage. Not really a valley, this flat expanse of desert punctuated with brilliantly colored formations and buttes is otherworldly in its beauty.

You can see a lot of Monument Valley right from this road trip route, but to see everything (not just what’s visible from Highway 163) your best bet is to sign up for a tour. There are tons of them available in both Goulding and at the visitor center in the Navajo Tribal Park. The possibilities range from moonlight tours to horseback tours to sunset tours and they’re offered for varying lengths of time. What I can tell you from experience is to 1) make sure your tour includes the late afternoon and sunset (spectacular), and 2) the tour isn’t for more than 4 hours (usually too expensive and your senses are overloaded with views to the point you don’t see them anymore). One of the most highly regarded tour operators is Sacred Monument Tours.

Don’t have the money for a tour? No problem, assuming you have the right kind of car. This road trip route is not for low slung cars like convertibles. The roads in the park are unpaved and uneven – any regular-clearance car or an SUV should be fine, but my little Honda Civic would be kicked to the curb by these roads (and your car would be as well if it’s the same type). In the case that you must drive such a car, take one of the various guided tours mentioned above.

If you’re taking the right kind of car on this road trip route, the entrance to the Navajo Tribal Park is right across from the turnoff to Goulding and the current price is $5 per person to drive through the park (no hiking or camping is allowed here). Admission is free for children under 7 years old. Take Valley Drive, a dirt road that drives right through the heart of the park and enjoy the amazing scenery.

There are a few hotels available in Goulding and a lot more lodging options down this road trip route on Highway 163 in Kayenta, Arizona. If you’re camping, your best bet is Goulding’s Lodge and Campground – it’s got all the amenities and puts you right next to Monument Valley for the night.

Other Options
If you want to continue your vacation, you’re in the heart of canyon country – from the nearby sacred Canyon de Chelly in Arizona to the huge water-filled canyon, Lake Powell – so there’s plenty to do and see in the area. To really take this road trip to the next level, head further southwest to the world-famous Grand Canyon!

This road trip route will seem familiar – you’ll look around and say, "Haven’t I seen this somewhere before?" The answer – you have: the area you’ll be covering has been featured time and time again in movies, photos, and paintings. Did any of them do it justice? Having traveled it yourself, you’ll say what everyone says (including me): no. Nothing can do this spectacular landscape justice; you just have to see it in person.


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