Phoenix to Monument Valley: Exploring Utah's Historic Sites
Editor's Note: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Four Corners are closed until further notice, along with all Navajo Tribal Parks facilities. At this time we suggest adapting the first two days of this itinerary to include experiences in the Bears Ears National Monument area instead. Check out the Bears Ears Starts Kit for ideas in the region. Consult this resource for additional closures and travel considerations in Southeastern Utah.
Southern Utah is unique in that much of it seems as raw, unspoiled and unexplored as it did hundreds of years ago. Put yourself in the shoes of the area’s first inhabitants and imagine their excitement and awe at the same views that stretch before you as you embark on this six-day road trip to the Monument Valley Region.
Heading north, you can live like the pioneers who settled this once-barren area at Bluff Fort. Or imagine what life was like farming in desert country at the well-preserved Gifford Homestead. Explore an ancient Ancestral Pueblo village or take a Jeep tour through the majestic Navajo lands of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Then, explore the ruins of an ancient Fremont Indian village rich with rock art sites and well-preserved artifacts.
On the final leg of your journey, follow the route of pioneer explorers as you drive Hole-in-the-Rock Road. Afterwards, discover the wildlife that have long inhabited the Paunsaugunt Plateau, then seem them for yourself as you explore Bryce Canyon National Park. This road trip is all about celebrating Utah's open spaces as they are, and as they have been for years.
Start: Drive roughly five hours northeast from Phoenix to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
End: Kanab, a charming city in Southwestern Utah.
Hours of Driving: 22+ hours, including the commute to and from Phoenix.
Places to Stay & Local Guides: Monument Valley is only the first stop of many. This road trip will lead you through many of Utah’s best historic sites. While you may want to spend a few nights camping under the stars, there are many nearby towns with wonderful lodging options, including Bluff, Monticello, Boulder, Escalante, Torrey and Bryce City. Also, be sure to make reservations with local tour guides beforehand in order to make the most of your road trip.
- Hiking the Wildcat Trail
- Newspaper Rock
- Four Corners Area
Day one starts at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, an iconic symbol of the American West. You’ll start with a hike along the Wildcat Trail to see some of the most famous rock buttes in the park. From there, take a drive up to Newspaper Rock in the Indian Creek Unit of Bears Ears National Monument to see one of the most impressive petroglyph sites in the West. Bears Ears is certainly deserving of a trip all its own, so feel free to add a day or two to your road trip to explore it further. Otherwise, continue onwards to experience the deep cultural history of the Four Corners Area.
The Wildcat Trail is a 3.2-mile loop hike into one of the most scenic areas that Monument Valley has to offer. This trail lets hikers feel like they stepped back in time into the Wild West. Hikers will travel around one some of the most famous rock buttes in the park.
Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings tell stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and the mythologies of their lives. It’s a great stop on its own or as part of the Indian Creek Scenic Byway to the Needles District of Canyonlands.
More than the only place in the U.S. where four states meet at a single point, the Four Corners Area encapsulates a rich indigenous heritage.
- Sand Island Petroglyphs
- The Story of Monument Valley
- Bluff Fort Historic Site
Day two starts with a guided Jeep tour through Monument Valley to cover more ground and see some of the area’s most popular historic sites. From there, it’s on to the quaint and charming town of Bluff. Here you’ll see the unruly route that Mormon pioneers traveled across first hand at the Bluff Fort Historic Site. Don’t miss the petroglyphs and a chance to see the San Juan River at Sand Island.
The easily accessible rock art panel at Sand Island is extensive and represents images from 800 to 2,500 years old. It presents a good overview of the type of rock art that is found all along the San Juan River. Challenge your kids to find Kokopelli and the humpbacked flute player, among the many figures.
Ancient erosion and modern cinema joined forces to elevate Monument Valley to one of the world's most iconic places to visit — but it's also the sacred home of the Navajo people. Learn more about the history, size and scenes that define the Monument Valley Utah experience.
Bluff is the terminus of the well known Hole-in-the-Rock Trail on which Mormon pioneers traveled from Southwestern to Southeastern Utah over a daunting route in one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken. Portions of the original fort are interpreted at the Bluff Fort Historic Site.
- Fruita and U-Pick Orchards
- Gifford Homestead
- Anasazi State Park Museum
After a few days exploring Monument Valley, it’s time to head northwest to Capitol Reef National Park. Here, unbelievable monoliths of red rock stand watch over distinctively warped and remote landscapes. Imagine, then, setting up shop here as both early indigenous cultures and 19th century pioneers did as you gaze upon Capitol Reef’s petroglyphs. Nearby, the lush orchards and Gifford Homestead are both surviving testaments to the hardy settlers of the scenic valley. After some time rejuvenating in the orchards, head onwards to Anasazi State Park Museum for an even more rich understanding of the region’s ancient lifestyle.
Overnight in Torrey or another basecamp near Capitol Reef
In the spring, the blooming historic orchards of Capitol Reef splash mesmerizing colors against the sandstone backdrops. Come harvest, happy visitors wander unlocked orchards and sample ripe fruit in season. There’s a self-pay and bagging station to carry out ripe fruit for a nominal fee.
Take a walk back in time and learn about Capitol Reef’s early pioneer life at the Gifford Homestead Museum and store. Don’t forget to treat yourself to a freshly-baked piece of pie — your taste buds will thank you. Open March through November.
Inside the museum, you’ll find artifacts from the site and gain insight into how these people made a life for themselves in such a desolate environment. Outside, the kids will love being able to go inside the recreation of an Anasazi dwelling while parents can check out the original dig site.
- Hole-in-the-Rock Road
- Lower Calf Creek Falls
- Peek-a-boo Slot Canyon
Now it’s time to put Capitol Reef in the rearview mirror and drive onwards to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The first stop is a hike to a literal desert oasis — Lower or Upper Calf Creek Falls. It’s no wonder ancient people traveled through and left their mark on the canyon walls. Afterwards, reward yourself with a drink and a treat from Kiva Koffeehouse, a soulful favorite with magnificent canyon views. Next, having already seen Bluff, you’ll traverse some of the dramatic terrain that kept the early pioneer expedition in check. Stop at fascinating sites like Devils Garden and Peek-a-Boo Canyon or, with a high-clearance vehicle and the right conditions, drive the full 62 miles to where the road descends to present-day Lake Powell.
Hole-in-the-Rock is a 62-mile drive one way, and it follows the general route of the pioneer Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition to search for a route across the river (what is now Lake Powell). Most visitors travel the 11 miles to Devil's Garden and 26 miles to the turnoff for Peek-a-boo and Spooky Gulch.
At the lower falls of Calf Creek, a clear stream descends 126 feet into a pool, where happy folks take a swim after a 3-mile hike that is relatively flat, but frequently very sandy. It’s 6 miles total, and a great introduction to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Peek-a-Boo and Spooky Gulch slot canyons in the Dry Fork area of Escalante Utah offer backpacking hikers scenic views without special gear or know-how.
- Western Wildlife Museum
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Kanab: It's About the Sizzle
A short drive from Escalante, day five of your road trip explores the Bryce Canyon Region. First stop is the Western Wildlife Museum, where you’ll find a snapshot of the Paunsaugunt Plateau region’s fauna. Then, a morning in Bryce Canyon National Park can bridge the gap between museum exhibits and your own wildlife viewing memories. After a day rambling through Bryce Canyon it’s onto the charming town of Kanab. As the day comes to an end, drive south on Utah’s Heritage Highway, U.S. 89, to enjoy an evening meal in Kanab.
Overnight in Kanab
The Paunsaugunt region is named after the Paiute word for “home of the beavers.” Indeed, the land has always been known for its wildlife. Visit the fine selection of specimens at this natural history museum located just outside the entrance of Bryce Canyon.
Seek out the canyon floor on foot or stick to the overlooks by car — Bryce Canyon National Park invites discovery.
A remote small town draws inspiration from wilderness to elevate its culinary scene.
- Best Friends Sanctuary
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes
- Welcome to Little Hollywood
Before heading back to Phoenix, take some time to enjoy a Kanab activity of your choice. Volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary as a way to give back and enjoy the uplift that comes from getting to know rescued cats, dogs, horses and birds. Or try sandboarding at Coral Pink Sand Dunes. You might even enjoy a stop by the Little Hollywood Museum to learn more about the area’s cinematic past.
Best Friends Animal Society operates the nation's largest sanctuary for homeless animals and provides adoption, spaying/neutering, and educational programs. Tours and visits with the animals are available daily, year-round. The guided tour is free and takes approximately an hour and a half; there are four throughout the day.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is 3,730 acres, and more than 2,000 acres of sand are open to OHVs. It’s the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau, and great for OHV enthusiasts, hikers, sand boarders, and families in search of a unique site. HBO's "Westworld" has made a stop here, as well.
The towering Navajo sandstone cliffs and vistas of sagebrush have lured filmmakers to Kanab for nearly 80 years. Abandoned film sets collected in an outdoor museum are a tourist attraction. The buildings all over town have plenty of movie posters and autographed photos to support Kanab's self-proclaimed title, "Little Hollywood." Just walking the main drag is a self-guided tour through the town's film history.