The Extraordinary Experience of the Navajo Nation

By Admin | April 11, 2022 | Southwest | 0 Comments

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Encompassing three states – Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah – and 27,000 square miles (17,544,500 acres), the Navajo Nation is the single largest Native American reservation in the United States. Yet, despite extraordinary natural beauty, breathtaking landscapes, and unique culture and traditions – Diné Bikéyah, or “Navajoland” – is often overlooked as one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Southwest.

Don’t make the same mistake. While it is impossible to experience everything the Navajo Nation has to offer in just one (or two) days, there is always something to do and somewhere to explore for those that love adventure, the outdoors and Native American culture.

The Story of the Navajo

Like many tribes of the Southwest, Navajos are believed to have migrated to the high Colorado plateau roughly 900 years ago, eventually settling in most of what is now northern Arizona, western New Mexico, southern Colorado and Utah. They gave their land the name of Diné tah, and called themselves Dine’, literally translated in their native Navajo language as “The People.”

The Navajo people have a long history of having to fight for their land and way of life since arriving in what is now known as the Four Corners. In the 19th century, they often fought the Spaniards from Mexico as well as the Pueblos. With the end of the Mexican-American War in February 1848, the United States annexed the territories where the Navajo lived.

Unfortunately, what followed was a terrible chapter in both Navajo and American history. Led by Col. Kit Carson, Navajo land was burned and animals were slaughtered, starving the Navajo people into submission. In the Spring of 1864, of the nearly 8,000 that were left, Navajo prisoners were forced to walk 300 miles to Bosque Redondo near Fort Sumner, New Mexico – what is now known as “The Long Walk.”

Many Navajos did not survive the journey, including women and children. Many more died during their imprisonment. Only four years later were the Navajo allowed to return to their homeland with the signing of the Treaty of 1868. At the time, the Navajo reservation recognized by the United States government was limited to Fort Defiance, Chinle, Many Farms and Shiprock. However it has since expanded to what is now the largest Tribal reservation in the country.

Today, the capital of the Navajo Nation is Window Rock, Arizona, located about 25 miles northwest of Gallup, New Mexico. With much of the Navajo reservation considered a desert landscape, temperatures tend to be very high in the summer months, with monsoons sometimes bringing flash floods and dust storms. However, the weather during the rest of the year is mostly sunny – which makes most of the tourists planning trips to the Navajo Nation quite happy.

Who are the Dine`?

The Navajo people are a very spiritual people, many of whom still live by the traditions and customs that the Dine’ have practiced on their land for centuries. They have a deep connection to the land, which is considered sacred, and believe that the universe and all within it are harmonious with one another.

The Navajo believe that there exists the Holy People and the Earth People. The Earth People – such as the Dine – care for the land and seek to maintain balance and harmony, expressed by the word “hozho,” while the Holy People watch over them. The Dine’ elders believe their arrival on the earth is a part of the story of creation, passing through three different worlds before emerging into this world, The Fourth World, or Glittering World.

It is believed that centuries ago the Holy People taught the Diné the proper way to live, to treat one another, and treat Mother Earth as well as every living thing on it. The number four has been held sacred by the Holy People, as the number exists throughout Navajo culture. There were the first four clans. There are four sacred mountains in four different directions, Mt. Blanca to the east, Mt. Taylor to the south, San Francisco Peak to the west and Mt Hesperus to the north. The four directions are represented by four colors: White Shell represents the east, Turquoise the south, Yellow Abalone the west, and Jet Black the north.

Navajo religion emphasizes rituals to restore the harmony, balance and beauty of the universe when it is disrupted by death, tragedy (such as natural disasters), or other unnatural forces. Each ritual is inspired by the legends of the Dine and the Holy People, traveling through different worlds, the mountains, the sun and the moon.

The Natural Wonders of the Navajo Nation

Monument Valley

If you appreciate awe-inspiring natural landmarks and breathtaking views in every direction, it’s hard to go wrong once you set foot on the Navajo Nation.

One of the most famous of these landmarks is Monument Valley, widely considered the most photographed place on the face of the Earth.

Monument Valley Tribal Park, known by the Navajo as Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii or “Valley of the Rocks,” was created by the Navajo Tribal Council in 1958 and encompasses nearly 92,000 acres. No matter where you stand in the park, the view has to be seen to be believed. Sandstone towers spread out as far as the eye can see, reaching heights as high as 1,000 feet and surrounded by naturally eroded rocks, mesas, buttes and other structures carved out over the millennia.

Geologists say that the plateau that is Monument Valley was once a ravine. Over the course of millions of years, layers of sediment that eroded from the mountains settled and cemented in the basin while pressure from beneath the surface created the towers you see today. Natural erosion of the surfaces of plateau over that time, flash foods and wind erosion mostly, also created the unique natural colors and layers that make the park a must-add to any photographer’s or nature lover’s bucket list.

Unsurprisingly, this incredible natural wonder has served as a backdrop for several movies, including the John Wayne classics Stagecoach and The Searchers. Fans of the world famous photographer Ansel Adams will recognize Monument Valley in his work as well.

Antelope Canyon

We’ve written extensively about the world famous canyon known as Antelope Canyon – otherwise known as the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon, approximately 7.5 miles in length, with two points of entry – known as Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. Slot canyons are canyons that are significantly deeper than they are wide, formed from the erosion of water flowing vertically through the sandstone with tremendous force – usually the result of flash flooding.

To most English-speaking tourists, Upper Antelope Canyon is simply called “The Crack” but the Navajo know it as Tsé bighánílíní or “the place where water runs through rocks.” Upper Antelope Canyon is a narrow slot canyon entrance with approximately 120-foot-high walls and a quarter of a mile long. Of the two slot canyon entryways, it is the more popular tourist attraction simply because there are no steep ladders to climb (the entrance is above ground) or narrow passageways to navigate. Upper Antelope Canyon is most famous for the beams of sunlight that cascade down into the canyon when the sun is at its highest point.

Lower Antelope Canyon has been given the English nickname “The Corkscrew” while the Navajo term referencing it is “Hazdistazí” for “spiral rock arches.” It is a shallower V-shaped canyon that is so narrow along the surface that it is actually barely visible until the visitor is practically standing on top of the entrance.

Lower Antelope Canyon is more difficult to access, as one has to climb down ladders to get to the bottom. However, once the visitor reaches the bottom, the views in every direction are simply extraordinary, and have provided the inspiration for countless photos and screensavers for decades. The sweeping, sprawling carvings throughout the ancient Navajo sandstone, which get their signature fiery color from iron oxide, reflect from the sunlight at almost any angle, at any time of day.

Today, both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are two of the most recognizable tourist attractions in the Southwest, with over a million visitors every year.

Canyon de Chelly

One of the most culturally significant national parks in the United States, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is considered to be the longest continually inhabited land by Native people in North America. Puebloans (Anasazi) have farmed and hunted these sacred lands dating as far back as 5,000 years ago, as well as the Hopi who grew peach orchards near the cliffs. Navajo have inhabited the area for an estimated 400 years and around 40 Navajo families still do to this day.

Canyon de Chelly can easily become an all-day adventure for tourists. It is 26 miles of cliffs – (ranging between 30 and 1200 feet) – monuments, Anasazi ruins as well as modern Navajo homes. There are countless geologic formations with tremendous cultural and spiritual significance, along with the breathtaking mountain and desert landscapes that stretch as far as the eye can see. For those who love to explore history and culture, the canyon contains extraordinary ancient architecture and artifacts, and is home to one of the largest concentrations of pictographs and petroglyphs in North America.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established as a national park in 1931 by President Herbert Hoobver to preserve its rich archaeological heritage, built over the course of thousands of years of human habitation. The National Park Service, Navajo Nation, and canyon community work together to manage park resources and preserve the sacred land and archaeological treasures. The name Chelly is a Spanish take on the Navajo word Tséyi’, which means “canyon.” It is one of the most visited national parks in America.

There are several ways to visit the park. Official Navajo guides offer hiking or horseback tours, while some even offer four wheeling excursions. It simply depends on the amount of time you wish to spend in the canyon. There is also a “shake and bake” tour offered by Thunderbird Lodge where visitors tour the canyon on a flatbed truck with a Navajo guide explaining the meaning and history behind the cliff art and ruins.

You don’t have to plan too far ahead for one of these options. Some Navajo guides will be available in the visitors center or in the parking lot, waiting to be hired.

There are also a number of free ranger-led programs, which includes guided hikes into the canyons. These are available between Memorial Day and Labor Day every year, and are increasingly popular among tourists.

However, one of the best ways to experience Canyon de Chelly is from one of two scenic rim drives, the North Rim Drive and the South Rim Drive, each involving a 30 mile round trip from the visitor center. It won’t feel like 30 miles, simply because the scenery is so incredible, especially in the mornings as the sun rises, and there are several overlooks where you can park and take it all in. Some overlooks have official trails you can hike – accompanied by a guide of course – to explore the natural and historic wonders up close.

The 10 overlooks of Canyon de Chelly

For those that love to take a scenic drive, there are (officially) ten overlooks for visitors to stop and enjoy along the way. Seven are along the South Rim Drive while the other three are along the North Rim. All overlooks are either right next to the road or not far from it, and stopping at all ten shouldn’t take more than four hours without feeling rushed.

All the overlooks are worth your time, but some stand out more than others. The South Rim Drive is more popular among tourists simply because of the incredible natural beauty and scenic views. However, the North Rim Drive is better suited for those that have an interest in Navajo history and ancient structures or ruins.

For example, on the North Rim there is the Ledge Ruin Overlook, which as the name implies, features the Ledge Ruin – a remnant of the Pueblos that lived there nearly 1,000 years ago.

There is also the Antelope House Overlook, which features ancient ruins and wall art after a quarter mile hike over rimrock. The antelope paintings along the cliffs, which gives the ruins their name, are truly fascinating and well preserved.

On the South Rim, there is Junction Overlook, where Canyon del Muerto joins Canyon de Chelly. There are two sets of ruins visible, near the foot of the north rim walls – Junction Ruin, and First Ruin. Also two Anasazi villages are visible from the overlook.

The next stop from Junction Overlook is White House Overlook, which – again as you might have guessed – allows you to see the White House Ruin, the largest ruin in the canyon. What makes this overlook special is it is the only opportunity to hike into Canyon de Chelly without hiring a guide – a 600 foot journey right to the White House Ruins which – again – date back nearly a 1000 years. Outside of this one trail, access to the floor of Canyon de Chelly is prohibited unless accompanied by an official guide or tour.

And of course there is the Spider Rock Overlook — which at an elevation of 7,000 feet – offers the most breathtaking view of all the overlooks. From here, you look out over the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. An 800 foot monument known as Spider Rock can also be seen with two free-standing towers forming a natural monument. Spider Rock is the spiritual and geographic center of the Navajo. It is where Navajo tradition says is the home of the Spider Woman, the constant helper and protector of humans. And who legend says taught the Dine the arts of weaving and agriculture.

Legend also says that Spider Woman would let down her web- ladder and capture misbehaving Navajo children, and carry up to her home to eat them. The Dine children often were told stories about how the top of Spider Rock was white from the sun-bleached bones of those children, which not surprisingly stopped many Dine children from misbehaving.

Other attractions within the Navajo Nation

If breathtaking slot canyons, soaring cliffs and amazing ancient ruins aren’t enough for you, there’s always more traditional tourist attractions that are increasingly more popular among visitors.

The Explore Navajo Interactive Museum in Tuba City, AZ is a terrific way to gain a better understanding of the history of the Dine throughout the centuries. The Navajo Code Talkers Museum is also a fun, interactive way to learn about the Navajo code talkers who served with the U.S. Marines during World War II. The Code Talkers helped US forces communicate while protecting their operational plans from the enemy by creating a code based on the Navajo language. The Navajo Code Talkers participated in every major Marine operation in the Pacific theater, giving the Marines a critical advantage throughout the war. The museum displays photos, transcripts, gear and equipment used by the Code Talkers throughout WWII.

There are also great campsites in Navajo land, such as the Bowl Canyon Navajo Recreation Area, which includes Camp Asááyi. Camp Asááyi, pronounced (Ah-saa-yeh), provides outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, canoeing and camping. Asááyi Lake is a 36-acre Alpine lake located approximately 1/2 mile west of the camp.

Finally, there are countless other monuments, such as Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park & Veteran’s Memorial, a red sandstone arch in the Navajo capital of Window Rock. There’s also plenty of places to buy traditional Navajo crafts and art, such as the Hubbell Trading Post, a National Historic Site and the oldest operating Trading Post on the Navajo Nation. Hubbell Trading Post has been selling goods and Native American Art since 1878.

Things to remember before you visit

Every visitor to the Navajo Nation requires a permit to enter. Most tourists – who are simply hiking or camping – must purchase a Backcountry Permit before visiting the parks. Visitors who are planning on commercial filming and photography in Navajo Tribal Parks are required to request a commercial film or photography permit.

Many Navajo tour operators include the cost of the permit with their ticket, but be sure to check with the operator to make sure.

Visitors are allowed to bring their own cameras – including smartphones – but when photographing Navajo residents and their property their permission is required and a gratuity is expected. Again, commercial photography requires a permit and the use of any kind of drone is not allowed.

The Navajo people are some of the kindest, friendliest people you could meet. However, it is important to learn a little about Navajo culture and traditions before you visit. For example, Navajos traditionally believe in maintaining personal space, and therefore do not usually do not hug or embrace someone upon greeting them. They also largely prefer not to be touched, even if the touching is meant as a compliment, such as holding jewelry they are wearing or touching their hair. If you feel compelled to do anything that may impede on personal space, always ask permission first, and don’t be offended if permission is not given. It is simply not their way.

Above all, the Navajo Nation is considered a sovereign nation and their laws are to be respected as they are strictly enforced. Climbing on the rocks and monuments is prohibited, as are any alcohol or drug use on Navajo land. As with visiting any Tribal land, leave the land as you found it and refrain from any vandalism or theft of artifacts. If you come across an artifact, notify your Tribal guide immediately.

And one last thing to remember before you book your trip: The Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Time (DST-Mountain/Denver), even though the state of Arizona does not. Essentially what this means is that beginning in March and ending November, the Navajo Nation is one hour ahead of Arizona. In other words if you are staying in a hotel in Arizona off the Navajo reservation, you will gain an hour when you enter the Navajo Nation. So plan accordingly.

When is the best time to come to the Navajo Nation?

Visitors come to the Navajo Nation year round, and more and more tourists are discovering all the Navajo offers. As tourism has increased – except for the Covid-19 years of 2020 and 2021 – so has the Navajo tourism economy. As such, you should be able to visit any time of year and still enjoy the services of professional and knowledgeable tour guides, and great accommodations.

Peak season lasts from May 1 until September 30, which is when the weather is sunniest.If you plan on arriving during the summer, it’s best to do most of the physical exertions (hiking, biking etc) in the morning before it gets too hot in the afternoon, when temperatures can often reach the triple digits. Autumn weather is considered more ideal, with sunny days in the 90’s and cool nights. If you want to arrive early and stay late, peak season might be the time for you.

However, the off-season is actually a great time to visit the Navajo Nation as well, as there are fewer crowds. The views in the canyon are genuinely surreal when dusted with a layer of snow, or when the sun reflects off of frost. You can also take advantage of lower hotel rates and airfare during the off season.

In other words, you can’t really go wrong planning a trip to the Diné Bikéyah. And once you visit, you’ll certainly never forget it.

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