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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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