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5 Adventures on the Navajo Rez

Exploring the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona is one of my favorite baby boomer travel memories. However, with just two visits under my belt, I’m far from an expert. Not to worry. Vera Marie Badertscher became extremely familiar with the area during the ten years that she researched her current book, which she co-authored with Charnell Havens, Quincy Tahoma: The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Today, Vera shares five adventures on the Navajo Reservation that active boomers will want to try.

If you have not yet explored the alternate culture that exists on the largest American Indian Reservation, it is time for a baby boomer adventure on the Navajo Reservation. If you thought that all you could do on a reservation is ride a bus through the scenic country of Painted Desert and deep canyons, here are some suggestions that will get you out of the car and moving around.

1. Take a scenic drive

Central room of the Mummy's Cave at Canyon de Chelly

Central room of the Mummy’s Cave at Canyon de Chelly

Actually, I think of the entire Navajo reservation as one big network of scenic drives. If you are a Tony Hillerman fan, you can follow his Navajo policemen Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn with a book by his daughter. Anne Hillerman and her photographer husband, published a beautiful book called Tony Hillerman’s Landscape: On the Road with Chee and Leaphorn that travels to the places mentioned in the mystery series.

If you like a mile-by-mile guide to geography, history, culture, and geology, Fran Kosik’s Native Roads: The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations should be your companion.

2. Hike down to a ruin, ride a jeep, truck or a horse to see the canyon

Navajo sheep herder by Charnell Havens

Navajo sheep herder by Charnell Havens

If the vastness of the Grand Canyon overwhelms you, pay a call on Canyon de Chelly (duh Shay, a Spanish interpretation of the Navajo word for canyon, tseghi). The National Park Service oversees this beautiful Shangri La of the desert, but Navajo people actually live in the canyon with their horses and their sheep.

There are several ways to see Canyon de Chelly, and you may want to stick around a few days and try them all. Because it is private land, if you are traveling through the bottom of the canyon, you must have a Navajo guide, either by riding in on a horse, hiring a driver for your own 4-wheel-drive vehicle or by sitting in the back of an open truck for a bouncing ride weaving across the stream bed.

However, you can hike straight down the White House trail from the rim to the major pueblo ruin at the base of the cliffs — White House Ruin — without a guide. Allow two hours.

Finally, drive along the cliff edge and enjoy the canyon below from ten overlooks.

3. Jeep tour through a movie set designed by nature

West Mitten Butte sits in the center of this Monument Valley view.

West Mitten Butte sits in the center of this Monument Valley view

Harry Goulding (owner of the historic Goulding’s Lodge) told John Ford and now all movie makers know — Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park in northeastern Arizona and southeastern Utah, is THE place to make a Western movie. The towering monoliths of red rock stand like guardians over a flat, desert land. Clouds that seem lost in the vastness of turquoise sky cast shadows the size of small towns. Cotton balls bobbing across the desert turn out to be a herd of sheep watched over by a woman in brightly colored skirt and velvet blouse with silver glinting around her neck. It is a baby boomer photographer’s dream. (Donna here: we took a photography workshop that included Monument Valley. I agree with Vera, the photo opportunities are outstanding).

You can get a sense of Monument Valley, and make your own Western movie, by driving the loop road open to visitors, but to really feel the open land and to see some hidden rock formations, petroglyphs and ancient pueblos, sign up for a Navajo guided jeep tour into the back country.

4. Hike/camp to see an ancient pueblo

Betatkin Ruins at Navajo National Monument

Betatkin Ruins at Navajo National Monument

At Navajo National Monument, take a 17-mile guided hike to see the striking Keet Seel pueblo ruins, some of the best preserved in the west. It looks like the ancient ancestors just moved out yesterday from this early version of a condo. You can make it in one day, or camp in primitive conditions at the bottom of the canyon before returning. If a baby boomer doesn’t want to make the strenuous hike to Keet Seel, she can go to the restored Betatatkin on a five-hour round-trip hike. See health warnings at the National Monument site.

5. Fish at Navajo recreation areas

Despite the fact that most of the reservation is dry and rocky, there are lakes, and the Navajo nation makes the most of them with basic campgrounds and fishing. The best fishing for the baby boomer whose idea of heaven is fresh trout cooked on the campfire, reportedly can be found at Wheatfields Lake. You will find it east of Canyon de Chelly, and SE of the town of Tsaile, AZ near the New Mexico border. You will need a Navajo tribal fishing permit which you can get at the local Wheatfields store, or at Tsaile.

Nice to know:

      • It is illegal to sell alcohol on the reservation, but if you want to have your own cocktail hour, stay on the porch of Goulding’s Lodge overlooking Monument Valley, you can bring your own.
      • If you are visiting during Daylight Savings Time, remember that Arizona stays on Mountain Standard. However when you cross the border of the Navajo Reservation, which is on daylight savings time, reset your watch. To further confuse the issue, the Hopi Reservation, which is totally surrounded by the Navajo reservation, stays on Arizona (non-Daylight Savings) time.
      • Fill up with gas when you have a chance. There are a lot of wide open spaces with gas stations few and far between.
      • Carry water to drink. It is a dry land and can get quite hot in the summer.
      • You will not have a problem finding a place to stay, but it is wise to reserve ahead if you are traveling during summer vacation time. The Navajo nation runs some very nice motels. The historic lodges at Canyon de Chelly (Thunderbird Lodge) and Monument Valley (Goulding’s) are charming, and you have the alternative of chain motels at all tourist stops and a beautiful new The View at Monument Valley. Partly because the Navajo Nation has been loathe to adopt the craze for Indian casinos and their accompanying resorts, you will not find luxury hotels on the reservation.
      • Food choices parallel lodging choices. You will find basic, but not gourmet food. An assortment of mom and pop restaurants and chain fast food places do business in towns like Tuba City, Window Rock and Kayenta (where the Navajo-run motels run restaurants with ethnic food on the menu), but many towns offer nothing but a trading post and snack foods.
      • Get a good map — topographical if possible — and if you intend to take any back roads, be sure your 4-wheel drive vehicle is well equipped. The unpaved roads are notoriously vulnerable to washouts in sudden storms.

Have you explored the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona? Join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook or send us an email to ask a question or share your experience.

I have included an Amazon Link to Tony Hillerman’s Landscape and Native Roads for your convenience. However My Itchy Travel Feet does receive a small percentage for purchases made at Amazon.com.

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