Destination: Navajo Land, New Mexico
At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation stretches across three states and includes dozens of travel destinations. With a little bit of road savvy and cultural know-how, anyone can visit Navajo land, the country’s largest American Indian reservation.
Whether you’re a history aficionado or an outdoor enthusiast, there’s lots to do in the New Mexico portion of the reservation. Here’s a sampling of what to do and how to get there.
Getting Around Navajo Land
The entire northwest corner of New Mexico comprises Navajo land. The reservation is framed on the north by the Colorado border and on the south by I-40. The eastern-most communities comprise a checkerboard area, or a mixture of private, state and tribal land.
In most circumstances, ownership of the land won’t matter. Keep in mind, however, that many of the dirt roads are unmarked and often lead to private property. Stay on clearly marked roads and remember you are a visitor on Navajo land.
Archaeological Wonders of Navajo Land
If history or archaeology pique your interest, head first to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. More commonly known as Chaco Canyon, this 53-square-mile archaeological site operated by the National Park Service boasts the densest concentration of pueblo ruins in the Southwest, dating from the year 850.
Chaco Canyon is located in the community of Nageezi and is accessible via a series of roads accessible from either state highway 371 or 550. Prepare to drive several miles on dirt roads to reach the park, but keep in mind that roads can be impassable during inclement weather.
The park is very remote and amenities are limited, but camping is available. A visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the park is $10 per person.
For more of the same Anasazi ruins, head north to Aztec Ruins National Monument, located off the reservation in the small town of Aztec. While not as immense as Chaco, Aztec Ruins offers an intimate look at the pueblo cultures from nearly 1,000 years ago. Admission is $5 per person.
A Photographer’s Dream
If photography is your thing, pull on some hiking boots and head to the Shiprock pinnacle, one of New Mexico’s most iconic landmarks. Located near the community of Shiprock, this towering monolith is known as Tse’ Bit’ A’i, or “rock with wings.”
White settlers renamed it Shiprock because of the peak’s resemblance to a 19th-century clipper ship. Visitors can drive all the way to the foot of the pinnacle, though hiking or rock-climbing are prohibited.
“It’s an open area with no entrance fees,” said Corrine Jymm, a spokeswoman for the Navajo Nation Tourism Department. “All we ask is that you don’t take rocks, don’t climb the pinnacle and don’t spread graffiti.”
For more hiking and photography, head south to the Bisti Wilderness Area, located off state highway 371. Here, roughly 60 square miles of remote badlands are open for hiking, exploring and spectacular photography. The badlands are on Navajo land but overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
For more strenuous hiking, don’t forget the Church Rock Pinnacle, located just off I-40 east of Gallup. Called nature’s church steeple, the rock was carved by wind to form a towering pillar of sandstone.
To get there, leave the interstate at exit 26 and follow signs for Red Rock State Park. The Church Rock trail begins at the post office and the trailhead is well marked.
No trip to the Navajo Nation is complete without stopping at one of the three casinos in the New Mexico portion of the reservation. Fire Rock is accessible from I-40; Northern Edge is just south of the city of Farmington; and Flowing Water is in the small community of Hogback, just east of Shiprock.
If you’re traveling with family, check out Bowl Canyon Recreation Area for camping, picnicking, hiking or canoeing on the lake. Located near the community of Crystal, this site offers a lush retreat in the high mountains.
The nearby Camp Asááyi is available to accommodate large groups in furnished cabins. Two hiking trails promise stunning panoramic views of pine trees and rippling streams.
Navajo Land Culture
For visitors with an eye for culture, the Toadlena Trading Post offers a comprehensive history of Navajo rug weaving. Located way off the beaten path, the trading post and rug museum are nestled in the Chuska Mountains near the Arizona border.
To get there, take U.S. 491 to Indian Service Route 19. Be prepared for dirt roads before you reach the destination.
Directions to additional trading posts can be found here.
Finally, for an authentic and truly unique Navajo experience, head to the Crownpoint Rug Auction, a live auction founded more than 50 years ago in the small community of Crownpoint, located about 30 miles north of I-40, on state highway 371.
The auction takes place once a month (usually the second Friday) at Crownpoint Elementary School and showcases contemporary, handmade, wool Navajo rugs and the weavers who make them. Rugs sell from less than $50 to more than $1,000.