Photograph by Dirk Kiprick, My Shot
For more of the world's greatest driving tours, get National Geographic's new book Drives of a Lifetime.
The past is the present in northeastern Arizona's Indian country, where Hopi families still carry water to pueblo villages perched atop high mesas. Granaries at Keet Seel ruins in Navajo National Monument hold corncobs stored seven centuries ago. Navajo families farm centuries-old fields in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, site of prehistoric cliff dwellings inherited from the Anasazi, ancestors of today's Pueblo tribes. And Hopi and Navajo artisans still sell their trademark rugs and jewelry at the old Hubbell Trading Post.
This 425-mile (684-kilometer) loop route runs from Tuba City northeast to Kayenta, southeast to Canyon de Chelly, south to Ganado, then west back to Tuba City. Highlights include various Native American attractions and national park sites.
Start in Tuba City
In 1878 a Mormon named Erastus Snow established Tuba City, naming it Tuve in honor of a Hopi headman. Tuve was mispronounced by so many newcomers, the reason why travelers roll into town expecting to hear some anecdote about a horn instrument. Snow's flock moved when the Navajo Indian Reservation was enlarged to include Tuba City and established its western headquarters here. The terrain around town includes sediments deposited 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period. One early dinosaur stalked across a nearby mudflat over 70 billion days ago, leaving tracks preserved in Moenave Formation sandstone. For a look, drive west 5.5 miles (8.9 kilometers) on US 160 to milepost 316 and watch for the sign to Dinosaur Tracks. Their shape and stride length suggest those of a Dilophosaurus, a toothy biped.
Navajo National Monument
From Tuba City, proceed northeast on US 160 to Klethla Valley, then veer north on Ariz. 564 to Navajo National Monument. Here, in two serene canyons, are two of the largest and best preserved cliff dwellings in the Southwest, Keet Seel and Betatakin, occupied by the ancient Pueblo people (also known as Anasazi) between A.D. 1250 and 1300. Exhibits at the visitors center trace the ruins' human history and include a display of archaeological finds. A video tells what is known about the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo peoples. For a good view of 135-room Betatakin (Navajo for "ledge house"), walk the half-mile trail from the Visitor Center to the Betatakin Overlook. The stone and mortar enclave, visible across the valley, perches on a shelf inside a 452-foot (138-meter)-high sandstone alcove. Viewing Betatakin and its mysterious rock paintings requires a strenuous five-mile round-trip hike at an altitude of 7,000-plus feet (2,134-plus meters)—a trek only for those in good shape. The same caveat applies to Keet Seel, the larger and more remote ruin. An 8.5-mile (13.7-kilometer) path switchbacks down a thousand-foot cliff, ending beneath a soaring overhang of sandstone. Walkways lead past Keet Seel's 150 rooms: ceremonial chambers, clustered apartments, storage areas. Some granaries hold corncobs abandoned seven centuries ago.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Backtrack to US 160 and continue 8 miles (13 kilometers) east past Kayenta to Reservation Route 59. Thus begins a scenic meander southeast through mesa country and the Chinle Valley to Round Rock and toward Chinle and the north rim of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Pronounced Canyon deh-SHAY, the 130-square-mile (337-square-kilometer) monument is one of the largest archaeological preserves in the U.S. Its ruddy sandstone cliff walls, wooded canyon floors, and sandy washes enclose thousands of Indian ruins and sites representing five periods of Native American culture dating from 2500 B.C. Reservation Route 64 becomes North Rim Drive as it reaches the edge of the caprock mesa overlooking Canyon del Muerto. The monument actually includes three converging canyons: The heel is the canyon mouth near Chinle; the middle toe is Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto splays northeast, and Monument Canyon points southeast. Westbound on Reservation Route 64 watch for the turnoff to Massacre Cave Overlook. In 1805 Navajo braves and their families retreating from Mexican dragoons took refuge in this cave high above the canyon floor. The militiamen aimed their muskets at the roof of the cave, bouncing slugs down and killing more than 100. As you return from the overlook, bear left onto the fork leading back to the canyon rim and an overlook of Mummy Cave Ruin, a handsome prehistoric village with a tower rising three stories. In 1882, archaeologists searching here found mummified bodies, for which the cave is named. The canyon's abundance of pictographs rivals any site of Indian rock art in the Southwest. The Park Service Visitors Center is on the Navajo reservation; offerings include detailed park brochures. It is the starting point for the South Rim Drive (Reservation Rte. 7), a 36-mile (58-kilometer) round-trip southeast to Spider Rock Overlook. The road winds past Tsegi and Junction Overlooks to White House Overlook, site of the only unguided trail to the canyon floor; plan on at least two hours for this arduous 1.25-mile (2.01-kilometer) path dropping 660 vertical feet (201 vertical meters) to the 60-room White House ruin. The South Rim Drive ends at the convergence of Canyon de Chelly, Bat Canyon, and Monument Canyon. The fractured twin spires of Spider Rock rise 832 feet (254 meters) above bottomland.
Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site
Proceed south from Chinle on U.S. 191 to Ariz. 264 and head east to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, about a mile west of Ganado. In 1878 24-year-old John Lorenzo Hubbell bought the establishment where Navajo and Hopi traded wool and blankets for brass and tin tokens that they redeemed for store goods. Hubbell's carries on, little changed since its construction in 1883. This is an excellent place to shop for Navajo rugs and Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni jewelry, baskets, and kachinas. Weavers work in the visitors center here, on wooden handlooms. Hubbell himself, who learned to speak Navajo and Hopi and championed Indian causes as a territorial legislator and state senator, lived at what is now the Lorenzo Hubbell House. The trader's extraordinary personal collection of paintings and Native American rugs, baskets and other handicrafts remains on view inside.
End at the Hopi Indian Reservation Villages
Continue on Ariz. 264 west to the Hopi Indian reservation and past Keams Canyon. The Hopi can trace their presence in country back at least a thousand years. A pueblo people, they live in centuries-old villages grouped around three caprock plateaus called First, Second, and Third Mesa, adjoining one another along a 37-mile (60-kilometer) stretch of Ariz. 264. The First Mesa villages cluster atop the plateau, but before entering stop at the First Mesa Visitor Center at Ponsi Hall to obtain permission. The Hopi offer free guided walking tours. Follow signs from the village of Polacca to Sichomovi, built circa 1600 but, like all pueblos, appearing ancient. A Hopi guide is mandatory to visit tiny Walpi, the quintessential pueblo stronghold. Its stone houses, grouped on a finger of the mesa's broken edge, have looked out across the plain for more than five centuries. Fewer than ten families live here, without electricity or running water. Second Mesa hosts the Hopi Cultural Center, with a museum that traces the Hopi's often lonely course in the Southwest's history. Farther west is the foot of Third Mesa and Kykotsmovi, a village nestled between canyon walls and among peach orchards. Check notices posted at Hopi Tribal headquarters here for information on kachina dances open to the public. They are worth the time.
Allow three to four days for this 400-mile (644-kilometer) drive, which can be done year-round. Peak tourist season is during the summer, which can be hot; spring and fall are cooler (70s and 80s F/20s C) and less crowded. For information, visit discovernavajo.com, www.nps.gov/nava, www.nps.gov/hutr, www.nps.gov/cach, www.hopiculturalcenter.com.
—Text by Mark Miller, adapted from National Geographic Traveler
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!