How do you take the sixth largest state in the U.S. – 400 miles long and 300 miles wide – and condense it to be more tourist friendly? You don’t. Arizona’s 114,000 square miles are meant to be enjoyed trip by trip, section by section, mile by mile, and if that calls for more than one visit, welcome back!
It’s easy to think of the Grand Canyon State as basically desert topography because of its many miles of sand and cactus, but at least half the state consists of mountain and plateau areas – including the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the country. Not only is the diversity of geography surprising; so too, is the range of climate. Despite its plethora of sunshine, Arizona can get very cold – like the record 40 degrees below zero at Hawley Lake in the White Mountains (in contrast with a recorded high of 128 degrees at Lake Havasu).
Mixed in among the many miles, the gradations of geology and the temperature extremes is a disparate Native American population. There are 21 federally-recognized tribes in Arizona, well in excess of a quarter of a million citizens, and, according to the University of Arizona Economic Development Research Program: “Reservations and tribal communities comprise over a quarter of all Arizona lands.”
Recreation of an Apache Village next to the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center and Museum.
From the Kaibab Paiute and Navajo or Hopi Nations in the northern part of the state to the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui in the south, there’s lots to see and do. One common starting point is the Navajo Nation, home to many of the most recognizable landscapes of the Southwest: Monument Valley, Canyon De Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell, Grand Canyon, Rainbow Bridge and the Navajo National Monument.
Navajos call themselves Diné or “the People,” and there are a lot of them – the largest Indian tribe in the United States – stretching across both high desert and forestland in the Four Corners region. Because of the many scenic wonders found over more than 25,000 square miles of reservation land, tourism plays a significant role in the Navajo economy.
Monument Valley is located in the heart of Navajo Land, “Land of Room Enough and Time Enough,” according to visitor brochures. Known also as the “Land of Long Shadows,” Monument Valley has been inhabited for more than 1,500, years starting with the Anasazi or “Ancient Ones,” who constructed cliff dwellings. More modern structures appeared last year during the 50th anniversary of the founding of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park outside Kayenta with the arrival of The VIEW Hotel adjacent to the park visitor center. Four states are visible there – Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. From the visitor center, a 17-mile unpaved loop road winds through the park. Bring a map, some drinking water and fresh camera batteries to record more than 100 ancient Anasazi sites, wind-sculpted sandstone formations and breathtaking scenic views.
Navajo Reservation road side craft stand.
Within easy traveling distance, you’ll find many other natural wonders, from Canyon de Chelly to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell. In the 27-mile-long Canyon de Chelly, you’ll experience a trip back in time, traveling through one of the longest continuously-inhabited landscapes in North America. The subtle, spiritual, sheer red canyon walls border 80,000 acres of canyon floor, where sheepherders still watch their flocks while authorized tour guides in four-wheel-drive vehicles share tribal history with visitors.
Heading south via Route 63 to Ganado brings travelers to a must-see stop, the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, where Navajos have been trading in sheep wool, blankets and jewelry since the late 1800s.
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Navajo Tribal Park
Farther west, through Keams Canyon, you’ll find Hopi reservation sites. While the welcome mat is out and hospitality abounds when outsiders visit villages on First (Walpi), Second and Third (Old Oraibi, the oldest continuously-inhabited village in North America) Mesas, cameras must stay in vehicles; images may be captured in minds only.
A cultural center for the entire 1.5 million acres is located on Second Mesa, with tribal headquarters at Kykotsmovi, just below Third Mesa. The Tuuvi Travel Center recently opened in the village of Upper Moenkopi, close to Tuba City (where the century-old trading center houses both an Explore Navajo Interactive Museum and a Navajo Code Talker Museum). And the Moenkopi Legacy Inn, trumpeted as, “A place of welcome and gathering for visitors,” is scheduled to open in August 2009.
Hopi people consider the nearby pre-Columbian Homolovi Ruins site to be part of their homeland; tribal members still make pilgrimages to the area to renew ties with the land that contains numerous ancient pottery shards.
A short drive south leads to Petrified Forest National Park, and the 200-million-year-old Painted Desert, where fossils and petrified wood offer a mosaic of the former ecosystem. The Petrified Forest still gleams with amethyst and quartz particles embedded in fossilized wood remnants, around since the days of dinosaurs.
Roads leading south from the Holbrook region bring travelers through cool pines in White Mountain towns like Pinetop and McNary and into White River and Fort Apache for a traditional “Hon-Dah” (welcome to my home) greeting awaits.
Visitors can stroll through a cluster of historic structures leading to Nohwike’ Bagowa (House of Our Footprints), the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center and Museum, and the nearby re-creation of an authentic Apache village. A four-mile hike on recreational trails offers views of ancient petroglyphs and the Kinishba Ruins – village remains once occupied by ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni people dating back to 1400 A.D.
Lake Powell - Antelope Canyon
The Fort Apache Reservation appeals to outdoor adventurers, with more than two dozen lakes and 400 miles of trout streams. Some 12,000 White Mountain Apaches live on 1.6 million acres of ancestral homeland, where topography ranges from 3,000 to 11,000 feet at the Salt River Canyon, filled with pre-Cambrian history.
South and west of pine-tree country are the San Carlos Apaches and several tribal settlements in the Phoenix area – Fort McDowell, a small land parcel formerly the ancestral home of the Yavapai; Ak-Chin, 34 square miles that are home to a small number of Tohono O’odham and Pima Indians, and the Salt and Gila River communities that trace roots back to prehistoric tribal farming by Pima and Maricopa Native Americans.
In the southern part of the state near Tucson, travelers will find a small Pascua Yaqui community, descendants of ancient Toltecs from Mexico, as well as the second-largest Native American nation in the U.S., the Tohono O’odham Nation, who have lived in Arizona/Mexico for hundreds of years.
The Tohono Nation is comprised of four non-contiguous segments, the largest of which is found west of Tucson, with the community of Sells functioning as the Nation’s capital. Tourism is an important part of the tribal economic plan, most notably the famed Mission San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert), housed on 70,000 acres immediately south of Tucson. The area maintains an Indian arts and crafts market, and nearby Baboquivari Mountain Park has picnic facilities to take advantage of year-round mild weather.
In Tucson are two large artistically creative pedestrian bridges, the Rattlesnake and the Basket bridges, so named because of their unique construction. South of town is the restored historical Mission San Jose de Tumacacori, an adobe structure built in 1691 at the request of Pima and Papago (now Tohono O’odham) Indians.
Depending on tourist time and itinerary inclination, there are many more sites and attractions to visit. Arizona has its share of gaming action, from the popular Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino just outside of Phoenix (or the Gila River’s Vee Quiva and Wild Horse Pass in Chandler and the Fort McDowell Gaming Center in Fountain Hills), to the clink and whir of slot machines at the Colorado River reservation’s Blue Water Resort & Casino in Parker, or the dual option of the Pascua Yaqui Casino of the Sun/Casino del Sol west of Tucson and the Tohono casino, Desert Diamond, south of town.
For the adventurous, consider visiting Havasupai tribal members at the bottom of Grand Canyon National Park on a reservation created in 1882. A visit to “the people of the blue-green waters” is a quiet one, as only 12,000 guests show up each year. Another nature-based trip consideration is a drive to the grasslands and plateaus of northern Arizona in Kaibab-Pauite Reservation country. Here you’ll find three national parks, a national monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area within an hour’s drive of the reservation.