If you want to visit Navajo Land in Arizona, the first thing you’ll need is a car.
The area is far from major airports and void of public transportation, so be prepared to drive long distances across vast expanses of landscape and fill up your gas tank whenever you can. Because temperatures in Arizona reach over 100 degrees in the summer and service stations are few and far between, make sure you also pack lots of water.
But the trip is worth the effort. With a little advanced planning and a hunger for real adventure, visiting the Navajo Nation can be a life-changing experience.
History and Culture in Navajo Land
The small city of Window Rock is a good place to start because it’s easily accessible from I-40. Window Rock serves as the capital of the Navajo Nation and headquarters for its tribal government.
While you’re there, visit the historic Council Chambers, an octagon-shaped building where the tribe’s legislature meets. Built in the mid-1930s, the chamber was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2004.
A short walk from the chamber will take you to Window Rock Tribal Park and Veteran’s Memorial. A 200-foot sandstone wall frames the park, and a natural arch provides a “window” to the sky beyond. A memorial statue of a Navajo Code Talker stands in front. Admission is free and photography is welcome.
“The zoo is structured along the Navajo belief system,” said Corrine Jymm, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Tourism Department. “Animals here have been hurt in some form or fashion and can’t be returned to the wild. There’s a lot of Navajo beliefs tied up in this practice, and the zoo is a good place to learn about that while seeing the animals.”
Adjacent to the zoo is the Navajo Nation Museum, which offers a concise history of the Navajo. For a more comprehensive study, visit the St. Michaels Museum, located in a century-old stone building only a few miles west of Window Rock.
Additional museums, small and large, can be found across the reservation in Arizona. The Ned A. Hatathli Museum, located on the Diné College campus in Tsaile, houses a permanent collection of about 3,000 artifacts, including photographs, documents and manuscripts.
Tuba City hosts two museums: The Navajo Interactive Museum and the Navajo Code Talkers Museum. The interactive museum features 7,000 square feet of space that mimics the journey Navajos take through life. Visitors are introduced to the four directions as they learn about the land, language, history, culture and ceremonial life of Navajos.
The Code Talkers Museum displays gear and tools used in battle during World War II, along with stories and transcripts of the code itself. For more on the Navajo Code Talkers, stop by the small exhibit inside the Burger King in Kayenta.
The Navajo Village Heritage Center, near Page, is a unique place to stop and engage in Navajo culture. Visitors can try authentic food, watch dance performances, listen to stories and learn about Navajo traditions.
For more than a century, trading posts have dotted the Navajo landscape, representing the intersection between Western commerce and traditional livelihoods. Here are some of the most popular.
For a journey to the past, visit Hubbell Trading Post, the oldest operating trading post on the reservation. Managed by the National Park Service, this trading post is located in Ganado, where it has been selling groceries, hardware, grain and other staples since 1878.
The Shonto Trading Post opened shortly after the end of World War I, in 1915. Still located on its original site on the floor of Shonto Canyon, this trading post is a low, stone building with a single door.
If arts and crafts are your thing, drop by Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, where local artisans sell jewelry, rugs, beadwork and other items. Established in 1905, this trading post offers a look at old-fashioned trading, along with displays of art and traditional objects.
Tribal and National Parks
Most tourists to the Navajo Nation visit one or more of the tribal parks, national parks or national monuments. With 250,000 visitors per year, Monument Valley is the most-visited and most-photographed park on the reservation.
The 92,000-acre tribal park straddles the Arizona-Utah border and offers stunning panoramic views of free-standing rock formations. Admission is $20 per vehicle.
The steep walls of Canyon de Chelly stretch more than 1,000 feet into the air and serve as the backdrop for hundreds of Anasazi ruins. This national monument also is home to modern Navajos who live and farm inside the canyon.
For additional scenic views, visit Antelope Canyon, near Page. These two slot canyons, carved from the red sandstone, are narrow passageways that stretch for several hundred feet. Bring your camera to capture the effects of the shifting sunlight on the angled rocks. Admission is by guided tour only. Schedule one here.
The Little Colorado River Gorge is a desertscape not to be missed. Located on State Road 64, this narrow gorge offers a look at 250 million years of history with its finely layered limestone cliffs towering above sandstone below. This tribal park, which serves as an entrance to the Grand Canyon, includes two lookout points, a visitor center, hiking, picnicking and vending.
Arizona’s two largest Indian ruins, Betatakin and Keet Seel, are located at Navajo National Monument, near Tonalea. Managed by the National Park Service, these two villages date from the year 1250 and boast original architecture like roof beams, walls and rock art.
The park offers a visitor center, scenic overlooks and replicas of ancient buildings. Hiking trails are also available for up-close views of the ruins. Admission is free.
As you drive the main arteries and back roads of the reservation, chances are you’ll stumble on some of these roadside attractions. Or, plan your trip around these easily accessible locations.
To the southeast of Tuba City is Coal Mine Canyon, a colorful combination of red mudstone, bleached white rock and coal streaks. Stop for photographs or to use the picnic tables on the rim of the canyon.
For a unique photo opportunity, stop at Elephant Feet near Tonalea on U.S. Highway 160. Two sandstone towers stand on the side of the road, looking for all the world like elephant feet. There is no visitor center, so feel free to pose between the feet.
If your timing is right when you reach Grand Falls, northeast of Flagstaff, you can see water flowing off the rocks. If your visit doesn’t coincide with the rainy season or snowmelt, enjoy the stunning views of old lava flows and contrasting sandstone.
Near the entrance to Monument Valley in Kayenta, find the El Capitan peak, which rises 1,500 feet over the surrounding terrain. The tower, an eroded volcanic plug known to the Navajo as “Aghaa’la,” or “much wool,” is a sacred site visible from U.S. Route 163.
Don’t forget to stop at Four Corners Monument, located a short drive north of Teec Nos Pos, on U.S. Highway 160. This is the only place in the country where you can be in four states at the same time.