Visiting Northern Arizona National Park Sites


Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant

Northern Arizona is home to three units of the National Park Service that celebrate Native American culture, both ancient and modern.

These three sites, Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, celebrate a combination of Ancestral Puebloan, Paiute, Hopi, Zuni and Navajo history and culture. All of these sites are located on the Navajo Reservation and have a deep connection with the Navajo people.

Mummy Cave Ruins in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona
Mummy Cave Ruins in Canyon de Chelly National Monument

While these sites are easily a destination unto themselves, they also make perfect side trips from the Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Monument Valley or Petrified Forest National Park. In fact, we visited these three parks in one day from Monument Valley. While we felt a bit rushed, we did have enough time to enjoy them, taking into account the limited accessibility at the sites due to COVID-19 restrictions on the Navajo Reservation.

(Disclaimer: When we link to places where you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes that earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy  for more information.)

Navajo National Monument

Navajo National Monument is located just west of the northern Arizona town of Kayenta. The monument preserves two cliff dwellings, Betatakin and Keet Seel. Betatakin is located just across the canyon from the visitor center. You should definitely hike the short (1.3-mile round trip) paved trail to a beautiful overlook with great views of the canyon. There are two other brief scenic hikes but neither have views of Betatakin. The visitor center, while small, has excellent exhibits about the cliff dwellings. 

Sandal Trail in Navajo National Monument in Arizona
The paved Sandal Trail goes down to the Betatakin Overlook, which offers the best view of the Betatakin cliff dwelling in the park.

Normally, you can take a guided hike to see both of the cliff dwellings up close. The trip to Betatakin is a moderately strenuous five-mile roundtrip hike. For those even more adventurous, there is a 17-mile roundtrip hike through shallow streams and up and down a 1,000-foot canyon wall to Keet Seel. Both guided tours require advance reservations.

Sadly, both of these tours were not offered when we visited due to COVID-19 and Navajo tribal restrictions. When we return to the area, we hope to return to the monument to take a tour of one of the two cliff dwellings. If you cannot do one of the tours, honestly, you can see almost everything you would want to see in around two hours. If you can do one of the tours, I would plan on spending the entire day at the park. 

Looking at Betakin Cliff Dwellings in Navajo National Monument
Grant checking out the Betatakin cliff dwelling from the Betatakin Overlook.

Pro Tip: The Navajo Reservation, along with the National Park Sites upon it, observe Daylight Saving Time. The state of Arizona and the Hopi Reservation do not. That means in the summer, the clocks on the reservation are one hour ahead of places off the reservation.

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site tells the tale of an important bridge between the modern world and the Navajo. The Navajo were adjusting to life after being forced onto the reservation following the tragedy of The Long Walk in the 1860s.

Inside the visitor center at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in northern Arizona
Bonnie checking out an exhibit at the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site Visitor Center.

In 1878, John Lorenzo Hubbell purchased a trading post near Ganado, AZ. Born in New Mexico, Hubbell spoke Spanish and Navajo. Hubbell’s trading post provided much-needed supplies to the Navajo people. It also gave them a place to trade their handicrafts. Hubbell became quite respected as an honest trader and trusted adviser to the Navajo people. Additionally, his demand for quality influenced traditional Navajo craftsmanship. The Hubbell Trading Post NHS preserves this trading post and his legacy. The park also tells the story of Hubbell’s impact upon the Navajo with extensive exhibits and demonstrations of traditional Navajo rug weaving. 

The trading post still operates to this day. It is an excellent place to acquire traditional Navajo art and crafts, including amazing blankets and rugs. Touring the trading post takes about an hour if house tours are not available.  

Inside Hubbell Trading Post
Inside Hubbell Trading Post

We really enjoyed seeing how the trading post operates and checking out the excellent blankets on display. I even picked up some fire-roasted pepper salsa made specifically for the trading post. It was quite good… and quite hot! I would plan to spend about two hours here if the Park Service is offering tours.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument Visitor Center
The Canyon de Chelly National Monument Visitor Center

Pronounced “de shay,” Canyon de Chelly National Monument is easily one of the prettiest canyons we have visited. The park is located in Chinle, AZ, which is southeast of Kayenta and north of Ganado. This park preserves several cliff dwellings and Ancestral Puebloan ruins as well as a magnificent canyon.

Start your visit at the Visitor Center to grab a map. There’s not much in the way of exhibits, but it does offer a place to get some water and use the bathroom. Then head to the North Rim Drive. Three different overlooks provide excellent views of cliff dwellings and ruins along the canyon floor. 

Canyon de Chelly in northern Arizona
Canyon de Chelly from one of the stops on the north rim of the canyon.

From there, drive over to the south rim for more exceptional views, including Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone spire. Spider Rock is a holy place among many of the tribes of the Southwest. It is said to be home to the Spider Woman, who originally wove the web of the universe. She also taught the Navajo how to weave. 

There is only one public trail into the canyon, the White House Trail. Unfortunately, the trail is presently closed due to law enforcement concerns. Since the canyon floor is home to many Navajo families, the only other way to tour the interior of the canyon is with an authorized Navajo guide. There are several companies in Chinle which offer tours of the canyon. Sadly, we simply did not have time to do a tour. Of course, we would definitely like to come back and tour the interior of the canyon. 

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly

Safety on the Navajo Reservation

Be wary while you visit Canyon de Chelly NM and drive around the Navajo Reservation. The Park Service and local law enforcement warn visitors about vehicle theft in parking lots, so be sure to take valuables with you. You will also likely see various private vendors at some of the National Park sites.

Sign in Canyon de Chelly banning visitors without a Navajo guide.
Visitors are not allowed inside the canyon without a Navajo guide except on one trail, which is presently closed due to law enforcement concerns.

We encountered private vendors at several of the overlooks in Canyon de Chelly NM. While that was not an issue, we were actually surprised by one who popped out of a nook in the rocks on the brief trail to Spider Rock Overlook. Reviews of the Park Service campground include tales of both panhandlers and thieves in the campground. We did not stay at the campground so we cannot attest to the reviews ourselves.

We did, however, encounter panhandlers while stopping for a drink at a gas station in town. While we did not have any problems with panhandlers or private vendors, it is a different experience than at most National Park sites.

Where to Stay When Visiting Northern Arizona

Simply put, northern Arizona is extremely remote with limited dining and lodging options. We visited these parks while staying near Monument Valley at the Goulding’s Resort campground. We found this was a convenient spot to stay for touring Monument Valley and some of the surrounding attractions in southern Utah. Honestly, we ended up going to these three sites in northern Arizona because we had an extra day in the area. Monument Valley is not the most central location but it works if you’re willing to do some driving.

Read more about our visit to Monument Valley.

Goulding's RV Park
Our campsite at Goulding’s

Read our full campground review on RV Life here.

If I were staying in a hotel and focusing on these three sites, I would hit up the Hampton Inn in Kayenta. While we have not stayed here, we have always had good luck with Hampton Inns and the TripAdvisor rating bears this out.

Read TripAdvisor Reviews | Book the Hotel

Final Thoughts on Northern Arizona National Park Sites

These three park sites in northern Arizona offer a distinct look into the history of this area, particularly of the Ancestral Puebloans, as well as the Hopi and the Navajo tribes. Since all of these sites lay on the Navajo Reservation, the impact on that tribe is palpable. 

We particularly enjoyed learning about how trading posts, like Hubbell (and Goulding’s) played a huge role in Navajo life following their return from Bosque Redondo following the Long Walk, when the Navajo were pushed off their land and into a forced march to eastern New Mexico. 

Betatakin Cliff Dwellings at Navajo National Monument in northern Arizona
Betatakin Cliff Dwellings at Navajo National Monument

While our ability to fully explore Navajo NM and Canyon de Chelly NM was curtailed by time and COVID-19 restrictions, we still enjoyed the parks. The canyons are simply breathtaking and would certainly be worth exploring more. We would especially like to take a tour of the interior of Canyon de Chelly since it really was truly a magnificent canyon.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

Leave a Comment

I accept the Privacy Policy