Navajo-land & the Hopi Mesas

    Ancient ruins, contemporary crafts and majestic landscapes:

    For many people who have never been to Arizona, the northeast corner of the state, with its Navajo and Hopi reservations, is already familiar territory. Fans of Tony Hillerman's novels will likely recognize the names of many of the communities on the Navajo reservation. Likewise countless TV commercials and Hollywood westerns have familiarized the public with the otherworldly landscape of Monument Valley, which, with its red rock buttes and spires, has come to symbolize the Wild West.

    Using Flagstaff as a starting point, head east on I-40 to Holbrook, outside of which, you'll find Petrified Forest National Monument. Though much of Arizona is now desert, there was a time long ago when this was bayou country, and in the rocks within this national monument, you'll see the petrified remains of the trees and plants that once grew in the great Arizona swamp. Traveling from south to north through the monument will allow you to start your tour at the main visitor center and will then bring you back out on I-40 in the Painted Desert section of the monument.

    From here, head north to Ganado and the Hubble Trading Post National Historic Site. Established in 1876, this is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo reservation. Tours of the grounds are available, and the rug room and jewelry cases are always well stocked. From here, you can either head east to spend the night in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, or north to Chinle, a town just outside Canyon de Chelly National Monument. If you opt for the former, consider taking Indian Route 12 north out of Window Rock. This scenic road will take you to the community of Tsaile, which lies at the eastern end of the national monument.

    Though not nearly as well-known as the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly is almost as dramatic a piece of natural landscaping. Because the canyon is still home to Navajo families, its floor can only be visited on tours led by Navajo guides. One exception, however, is the trail to White House Ruins, a cliff dwelling just above the floor of the canyon. With a guide, you can explore the canyon on a truck tour, on horseback, on foot, or in your own four-wheel-drive vehicle. To do both rim drives and take a guided tour of the canyon floor will likely require two days.

    Northwest of Canyon de Chelly lies what must be the most familiar and most photographed spot in Arizona (after the Grand Canyon). Monument Valley, a Navajo tribal park, lies on the Utah border, and, as with Canyon de Chelly, is still home to Navajo families. Once again, with a Navajo guide, you can explore this region by four-wheel-drive vehicle, on horseback, or on foot. A 17-mile loop drive through the monument is open to the public, but be aware that this road is not paved and in places is quite rough (though usually passable to passenger vehicles. Alternatively, from the visitor center, you can snap photos of the famous Mittens buttes and other rock outcroppings. Kayenta, Arizona, and Mexican Hat, Utah, are the two nearest towns with lodgings, though Gouldings Lodge, just west of Monument Valley is the hotel of choice in the region.

    Southwest of Kayenta, the landscape changes dramatically and the barren windswept desert gives way to pine-forested uplands. It is here, in a narrow canyon, that the Anasazi people long ago built the impressive cliff dwellings of Betatakin and Keet Seel. These two ruins are now preserved within Navajo National Monument. Though it is possible to see Betatakin from the end of a 1/2-mile-long paved trail, it is a 5-mile round-trip hike to the ruins themselves. This latter trail is only open from May through October and a limited number of people are allowed on the guided hikes to the ruins. A trip to the Keet Seel ruins involves a 17-mile round-trip hike or horseback ride (there's a primitive campground at the ruins), and again only a limited number of people are allowed to make the hike each day. This trail is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

    From Navajo National Monument, it is well worth detouring up to Lake Powell, the massive rock-rimmed reservoir created by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. If you make it this far, you owe it to yourself to make the boat excursion to Rainbow Bridge, the largest natural rock arch in the world. Hikers and photographers will also want to explore Antelope Canyon, a narrow slot canyon just outside the town of Page.

    Continuing south from Page and Lake Powell and turning east at the Tuba City junction will lead you into the Hopi reservation. The Hopi claim to be descendants of the Anasazi and have lived in this area at least since the 12th century. The village of Oraibi is one of the two oldest continuously inhabited communities in the United States. While it is possible, with permission, to wander around Oraibi, you will likely learn more about Hopi culture by opting for one of the guided tours of Walpi village, which sits atop First Mesa. Throughout the Hopi mesas you will find numerous crafts shops and artists' studios where you can shop for kachinas, silver jewelry, and pottery.

    From the Hopi mesas, head south to I-40 and back to Flagstaff. In Winslow, be sure to drop by La Posada, a recently restored Santa Fe Railroad hotel that was built in the 1920s. Also, if you didn't already stop at Meteor Crater on the first day of this loop tour, consider visiting now. A visit to this mile-wide hole in the ground is almost like taking a trip to the moon. Farther west, just outside Flagstaff, you'll also pass by Walnut Canyon National Monument, where small cliff dwellings are tucked into the cliffs along a narrow canyon.

    The Route:
    From Flagstaff, head east on I-40 to Holbrook and Petrified Forest National Monument. From here, continue east to Chambers and then go north to Ganado on Hwy. 191. From Ganado, either go east to Window Rock (spend the night) or go north to Chinle (spend the night). If you stay the night in Window Rock, the next day go north on Hwy. 12 to Tsaile and then west on Hwy. 64 to Chinle (spend the night). From Chinle, go northwest on Hwy. 59 to Kayenta and then north to Monument Valley on Hwy.163. Return to Kayenta (spend the night) and the next day take Hwy. 160 southwest to Navajo National Monument.

    Beyond the national monument, go northwest on Hwy. 98 to Page and Lake Powell (spend 1 or 2 nights). From here, drive south on Hwy. 89, take the Tuba City turnoff onto Hwy. 160 and then drive southeast on Hwy. 264 to the Hopi mesas. From Second Mesa, head south to Winslow on Hwy. 87 and then drive west on I-40 to Flagstaff.