Northeastern Arizona’s Indian Country—30,000 square miles of Hopi and Navajo reservation land—sits atop the Colorado Plateau, with wide mesas and endless vistas that beckon the traveler with a wide-open sky and a culture as old as the hills. It’s the perfect desert road trip waiting to happen.
This adventure begins in Tuba City, a small town located right at the junction of State Highway 264 and U.S. 160, about 80 miles northeast of Flagstaff, and ends in the striking Canyon de Chelly (pronounced du-shay) about 200 miles away, a national monument where you’ll be able to see the ruins of ancient Anasazi dwellings tucked into the sides of the cliffs.
The largest settlement on the Arizona side of the Navajo Nation, Tuba City is a good fuel stop to top off your tank before heading out. If you have a chance, stop in at the Tuba Trading Post, where you’ll find authentic Indian crafts. The terrain around town includes sediments deposited 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period; to see them, head west 5.5 miles on US 160 to milepost 316, and look for the Dinosaur Tracks sign.
As the drive heads towards the southeast on Route 264, you’ll soon reach Moenkopi, a Hopi community surrounded by the Navajo Indian Reservation. The landscape soon changes from its green fields and fruit trees (watered by the local year-round springs) to the dry vistas of the Painted Desert. So-called because of the vivid reds and pinks of the exposed sandstone and shale, it’s quite beautiful in its starkness.
The desert soon gives way to the Black Mesa, an enormous tableland that eventually tapers out into three extensions, appropriately named First, Second and Third mesas. This is Hopi land, where they have lived for centuries by irrigating the land below and planting corn, beans, and squash.
Route 264 climbs up from the desert floor to the top of Third Mesa, home to Old Oraibi. This village dates back to 1150 and is considered America’s oldest continuously inhabited village. As you cross the cottonwood-lined Oraibi Wash the road ascends to the Second Mesa. Home to several villages and some killer views of the distant buttes and peaks, you’ll want to stop in at the Hopi Cultural Center. Located on the eastern edge of the mesa, you’ll find tribal artifacts along with a restaurant serving traditional Hopi fare. Isolated as it is, the top of Second Mesa has incredible significance in Hopi legend: this is the Sacred Circle, nothing less than the center of the universe.
The road to First Mesa skirts around its base to the town of Polacca, where a paved side road makes a steep ascent 600 feet up to the top of the mesa. Two villages sit atop the mesa, both of them hundreds of years old. Near the tip is Walpi, one of the most dramatic of all the Hopi villages. It was built from the pale sandstone of the mesa, and the century-old dwellings seem to sprout from the earth itself. The Ponsi Hall Visitors Center offers hour-long guided tours beginning at 9:30 AM through 4:30 PM.
Back on Route 264 there really isn’t much to break up the desert views until you reach Keams Canyon. Though it has a center for traditional native crafts, it’s actually a government outpost, not a Hopi village. Continue eastward as Route 264 climbs another mesa and into the Navajo Indian Reservation. Here the landscape is dotted with hogans, octagonal traditional homes made with logs, and dried mud. More mesas rise to the south, and the drive will eventually take you through Steamboat Canyon, named for a giant rock that seems to steam through a sea of boulders and sand.
Past the junction of the 191, you’ll reach the Hubbell Trading Post, a national historic site. Active since 1878 when it was established by John Lorenzo Hubbell, the post is a throwback with dim lighting and scuffed, creaky floorboards. Among the highlights are the beautifully woven Navajo rugs; you can see the women at work creating them in the visitor center next door.
For the next leg of this Indian Country tour de force, you’ll need to head north on Route 191, which will take you past red rock mesas and to Route 64 and the famed Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Covering over 130 square miles, it includes the floors and rims of three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. Access to the canyon floors is restricted (about 40 Navajo families still call it home), and visitors are only allowed to travel in the company of a park ranger or an authorized Navajo Guide.
You can view the Canyon de Chelly from the rim, following both the North Rim Drive and the South Rim Drive. You can see ancient ruins and geological structures in the distance, especially from the Junction Overlook, but we recommend a stop at the visitor center to set up a tour of the floor. The walls of the canyon are brilliantly colored—especially at sunset—and you’ll be able to see two Anasazi cliff dwellings, some more than 800 years old, not to mention ancient wall drawings and petroglyphs. Private jeep tours of the entire canyon can take all day. (Note: there is one trail where visitors are allowed without a Navajo guide off of the South Rim Drive. The two-hour hike down from the White House overlook descends about 600 feet to ancient ruins.) The road ends fifteen miles out with an overlook of Spider Rock, a sandstone spire that rises 750 feet from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon.
Where to stay
You might want to spend the night in the vicinity of the Canyon de Chelly after the long drive from Tuba City.
Over 30 RV and tent camping sites within driving distance of Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, and other must-see destinations.
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