The Navajo Nation is an enchanting place, known the world over for its towering mesas and sky-high buttes, yet despite the reservation’s bountiful and heavily visited parks system, there are numerous hidden gems for the intrepid traveler to discover.
Described below are eight locations that not only inspire awe but more importantly touch the soul of anyone lucky enough to be a guest in North America’s largest Indian reservation.
Located just outside Tuba City proper on the western part of the Navajo Nation reservation, “the Spine” rises several hundred feet above the small Mercury-like canyons and dried riverbeds littering a rough triangle formed by the intersections of Highway 160, Highway 89, and Indian Route 6731. Although not a particularly difficult drive along 6731—by rez standards, that is—the spine requires a short but moderate hike through a few steep sand dunes and sometimes, if you’re unlucky, locals target shooting on the windswept side of the ridge. A sturdy sled is recommended for a quick downward escape as well as oxygen tanks in the spring when the howling winds make it impossible to simply breathe.
The Teardrop Arch
The Teardrop Arch is within sight of the famous Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park monuments. Hike through the staircase rocks that lead to ever higher mesas with majestic views of the entire valley or walk across a narrow rock column that juts precariously past the main mass of red rocks or better yet, stay left and look for the giant tear drop framing the famed monuments.
The Chuska Mountains
Not large enough to officially have names, the Chuska Mountains on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation reservation have dozens of small lakes that don’t often receive visitors save for a horse or two. These tiny bodies of water are beyond picturesque with fallen timber all around and grazing animals enjoying their refreshment. Secluded due to their altitude and challenging yet navigable rez roads, these small lakes are shrinking every year due to climate change and are in danger of disappearing.
Lechee, on the northwestern side of the Navajo Nation, is notable because of its unique slot canyons. The problem however is the nature of slot canyons, which are significantly deeper than they are wide and therefore are often crowded elbow-to-elbow and tripod-to-tripod with tourists. If you skip the crowds to the east and head southbound on Coppermine Road, the small thoroughfare that practically splits the chapter in half will yield dozens of small caves of varying sizes along either side of the road. And even better yet, not a tourist in sight.
Miraculously, Grand Falls is little known outside of Northern Arizona and even remains a mystery to some Navajos living within an earshot of its thundering waters. In the southwestern part of the Navajo Nation reservation and taller than Niagara Falls, the muddy waters flow at peak levels during snow melts and early monsoons in the spring but some water from the Little Colorado River usually trickles all year round. Visit in the late afternoon for good light on the falls and park on the south side avoiding a river crossing altogether.
The Lukachukai Mountains
When the Navajo Nation is hot the Lukachukai Mountains are cool. Located northeast of the Lukachukai chapter or “LA” as the locals slightly ironically call it, the demure range is blanketed with evergreens and Diné family reunions in the summer. Take the Indian Route 13 switchbacks and carefully and pull off when the trees overwhelm the sky.
The Shiprock needs no introduction and can be seen in modern Hollywood movies as a stand-in for Martian landscapes or a post apocalyptic world. Composed of volcanic rock in the northeast of the reservation, the remnant of a violent past long gone, the spire towers over the barren landscape at more than 1,500 feet. Although visited all year by tourists and locals alike, three of the four ridges/spines, basically rock walls intersecting it, are seldom accessed. Approach the Shiprock on the western side and traverse along the largest and most prominent of the spines until reaching the pinnacle. Then continue to the next ridge one quarter of the pinnacle’s width away. Rinse and repeat until all four walls are adequately explored.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
While most of the history is inside Canyon de Chelly National Monument, deep down the canyon walls nestled between the cottonwoods and Russian olives, much fun can nevertheless be found atop the famed canyon in its pristine sand dunes. Unlikely to be found in any park service map due to their relative small size and tendency to shift ever so slightly, the dunes are there just north of the intersection of the two canyon systems. Bring sunblock as there isn’t a proper tree in sight and also a sturdy dish-tray to test your mettle against the downhill sledding locals.