The Haunting Beauty of Navajo Nation
Stretching for 27,000 square miles between northern Arizona, southeast Utah, and northwest New Mexico, Navajo Nation is the largest Native American–governed territory in the United States. It is also the site of some of the country’s most incredible monuments and natural wonders, a road trip through which offers not only spectacular scenery, but also a glimpse of one of our land’s most vibrant and resilient cultures.
Window Rock Tribal Park, Window Rock, Arizona
Named for the naturally occurring window-like sandstone formation that is the area’s major landmark, the small city of Window Rock, Arizona, right on the state border with New Mexico, is the capital of the semi-autonomous Navajo Nation. At the annual Navajo Nation Fair each fall, visitors can witness spellbinding powwows that celebrate the spirit of the land in a riveting procession of dance and incantations. This year’s 69th Annual Navajo Nation Fair will take place September 6-13, 2015. Camping is available for $5 a day.
Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona
An otherworldly work of nature, the Antelope Canyon is a striking passageway through vibrantly colored, undulating sandstone walls created by millions of years of flash floods and wind erosion. The slot canyon is divided into two parts: Upper Canyon, which is easier to access and more prone to the striking beams of direct sunlight that photographers covet, and the more rugged Lower Canyon, which is below ground and reachable via steep metal staircases. Access into the Lower or Upper Canyon is only permitted via guided tours led by authorized tour guides. Plan ahead as there is a limit on the number of visitors per day. Price and duration varies depending on the type of ticket (visitor/ photographer).
Horseshoe Bend is, as the name suggests, a horseshoe-shaped twist in the Colorado River. The often strikingly colored, curving water is visible from a steep cliff that’s just a short hike off U.S. Route 89. Exercise caution at this outlook, which stands 4,200 feet above sea level—there’s no observation deck or railings.
Visitors to Horseshoe Bend can drive half a mile east on Navajo Route 6211 to spend the night at camping B&B Shash Dine Eco-Retreat, where you’ll sleep in white, canvas-walled tents simply outfitted with cots and sleeping bags. A traditional Navajo breakfast of blue-corn porridge, fruit, and nuts along with coffee or Navajo tea is served every morning. Plan to arrive before dark, as this is a remote location.
Grand Canyon National Park
America’s most celebrated natural monument can take days to fully explore. One mile deep and between four and eighteen miles wide, the canyon reveals billions of years of history in the form of layers upon layers of sediment. It can be accessed through either its South Rim or the much less crowded North Rim. Both locations offer striking views of the canyon abyss, its immense, overwhelming beauty set in hues of beige, pink, tawny, and red. The area also offers something for everyone: hiking trails into the canyon, white-water rafting on the nearby Colorado River, jaw-dropping helicopter rides, or, for silent souls, sheltered corners for solitary meditation.
Monument Valley Tribal Park
North of Grand Canyon, at the junction of the Arizona and Utah state lines, Monument Valley (“Tse Bii' Ndzisgaii,” or valley of the rocks in Navajo) is the setting of colossal sandstone buttes that extend for about 92,000 acres across Navajo land. Images of Monument Valley’s commanding mesas are powerfully evocative of the American West; the iconic pink-hued landscape has been the backdrop to countless Hollywood movie scenes (think Marlboro ads, John Ford films, and that never-gets-old end to Forrest Gump’s run). The area can be traversed only by a 14-mile dirt road that loops around the most famous of the sandstone towers. The site is still inhabited today by about 100 Navajos, who support themselves by farming and raising livestock and live without running water or electricity. Visitors can set camp for a few days at the legendary Goulding’s Lodge & Trading Post. Don’t miss the kitchen’s renowned Navajo tacos and frybread.
The small town of Bluff, Utah, is a quick 40-minute drive from Monument Valley, and makes a comfortable base for exploring the area. When not visiting the nearby Valley of the Gods (where scenes from Thelma and Louise were shot) or the Canyon de Chelly, take some time to enjoy the town’s most charming offerings: the homemade pie at Cottonwood Steakhouse, organic blue corn pancakes at Comb Ridge Espresso Bistro, and the luxe, stylish accommodations at Desert Rose Inn & Cabins. The hub is also close to a variety of unsurpassed archeological trails along the San Juan River, namely Butler Wash Petroglyph Panel, River House Ruin, and the Sand Island Petroglyph Panel.
An hour north of Bluff, at the border of Navajo Nation in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park, is a huge sandstone rock etched with one of the largest known collections of petroglyphs in the world. Nicknamed Newspaper Rock, the Utah state monument features an astonishing 650 carved designs representing different animals, human figures, and other abstract forms. The pictographs date back as far as 2,000 years ago; they were made by prehistoric people from the Archaic, Basketmaker, Fremont, and Pueblo cultures, in addition to the Navajos. Visiting Newspaper Rock is free of charge.
Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise
In the vastness of Monument Valley’s colossal red-stoned mesas, an elderly woman feeds her sheep; she's regally decked with ample turquoise adornments, said to be worn for protection. On the road made famous by Forrest Gump, another sells silver and turquoise, a Navajo Nation flag proudly swaying in the wind. Others weave regional Navajo rugs or craft stamped silver belts. Established in 1941, the Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise was founded with the purpose of promoting and offering authentic, handcrafted Navajo crafts. Today Native Americans travel across the nation to sell their handmade Navajo goods. Navajo Arts & Crafts Enterprise has four locations on Navajo land: Window Rock, Kayenta, Chinle, and Cameron. The products can also be ordered online.