The tourism industry in ARIZONA has, literally, one colossal advantage – the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, the single most awe-inspiring spectacle in a land of unforgettable geology. Several other Arizona destinations have a similarly abiding emotional impact, however, thanks to the sheer drama of human involvement in this forbidding but deeply resonant desert landscape.
Over a third of the state still belongs to Native Americans, who outside the cities form the majority of the population. In the so-called Indian Country of northeastern Arizona, the Navajo Nation holds the stupendous Canyon de Chelly and dozens of other Ancestral Puebloan ruins, as well as the stark rocks of Monument Valley. The Navajo surround the homeland of the stoutly traditional Hopi, who live in remote mesa-top villages. The third main group, the Apache, in the harshly beautiful southeastern mountains, were the last Native Americans to give in to the overwhelming power of the American invaders.
The southern half of the state holds ninety percent of its people and all its significant cities. State capital Phoenix, a five-hundred-square-mile morass of shopping malls and tract-house suburbs, is larger and duller than lively Tucson, while there’s some great frontier Americana in the southeast corner, especially in Tombstone.
A short distance east of Chinle, 87 miles southeast of Monument Valley and seventy miles north of I-40, twin sandstone walls emerge abruptly from the desert floor, climbing at a phenomenal rate to become the awesome 1000ft cliffs of CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT. Between these sheer sides, the meandering cottonwood-fringed Chinle Wash winds through grasslands and planted fields. Here and there a Navajo hogan stands in a grove of fruit trees, a straggle of sheep is penned in by a crude wooden fence or ponies drink at the water’s edge. And everywhere, perched on ledges in the canyon walls and dwarfed by the towering cliffs, are the long-abandoned adobe dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Two main canyons branch apart a few miles upstream: Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay) to the south and Canyon del Muerto to the north. Each twists and turns in all directions, scattered with vast rock monoliths, while several smaller canyons break away. The whole labyrinth threads its way northward for thirty miles into the Chuska Mountains.
Canyon de Chelly is a magnificent place, on a par with the best of the Southwest’s national parks. Its relative lack of fame owes much to the continuing presence of the Navajo, for whom the canyon retains enormous symbolic significance (although they did not build its cliff dwellings). Visitors are largely restricted to peering into the canyon from above, from overlooks along the two rim drives. There’s no road in and apart from one short trail you can only enter the canyons with a Navajo guide.
The largest Native American reservation in the US, popularly known as the NAVAJO NATION, covers much of northeastern Arizona and extends into both western New Mexico and Monument Valley in southernmost Utah. Everyone can speak English, but Navajo, a language so complex that it served as a secret code during World War II, is still the lingua franca. The reservation follows its own rules over Daylight Savings; in frontier-style towns like Tuba City, the time varies according to whether you’re in an American or a Navajo district.
When the Americans took over this region from the Mexicans in the mid-nineteenth century, the Navajo – who call themselves Dineh, “The People” – almost lost everything. In 1864, Kit Carson rounded up every Navajo he could find and packed them off to Fort Sumner in desolate eastern New Mexico. A few years later, however, the Navajo were allowed to return. Most of the 300,000-plus Navajo today work as shepherds and farmers on widely scattered smallholdings, though craftspeople also sell their wares from roadside stands and tourist stops.
As you travel in this region, respect its people and places. Though the Ancestral Puebloans are no longer present, many of the relics they left behind are on land that holds spiritual significance to their modern counterparts. Similarly, it is offensive to photograph or intrude upon people’s lives without permission.
On a practical note, don’t expect extensive tourist facilities. Most towns are bureaucratic outposts that only come alive for tribal fairs and rodeos and hold few places to eat and even fewer hotels and motels. For information online, visit discovernavajo.com and explorenavajo.com.
The legendary Wild West town of TOMBSTONE lies 22 miles south of I-10 on US-80, 67 miles southeast of Tucson. More than a century has passed since its mining heyday, but “The Town Too Tough to Die” clings to an afterlife as a tourist theme park. With its dusty streets, wooden sidewalks and swinging saloon doors, it’s barely changed. The moody gunslingers who stroll the streets these days are merely rounding up customers to watch them fight, but there’s enough genuine rivalry between groups to give the place an oddly appealing edge. The ideal time to visit is during Helldorado Days in late October, a bonanza of parades and shoot-outs, when the air is cooler and the sun less harsh.