You begin to get a sense of just how large the Navajo Nation is when you drive from Flagstaff to Monument Valley. Covering more than 27,000 square miles of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the reservation extends north 70 miles on US 89 to Page while roughly following I-40 to the south. It includes Canyon de Chelly, Chaco Canyon, Lake Powell, and Monument Valley. And, near Tuba City, it surrounds another reservation: Hopiland.
As you turn onto US 160 from US 89, you cross into the Painted Desert, a multi-hued ribbon of sandstone, clay and volcanic soils that extends from Marble Canyon south to I-40 near Winslow. This area was once the site of an ancient lake during the Jurassic period, and fossilized dinosaur bones, eggs, and tracks can be found in the area. Watch to the left for signs directing you to the dinosaur tracks viewing area.
Tuba City, named for the Hopi leader Tuvi, butts up against the Hopi community of Moenkopi. Anything on the right side of the road will be Hopi; everything on the left side of the road will be Navajo-owned. The Hopi originally invited Mormon settlers to live next to them in a community platted by Erastus Snow in 1878. However, the Mormons were pressured by the federal government to sell their homes and farms to the Navajo in 1903 after Tuba City became part of the Navajo Reservation.
While in Tuba City, consider checking out a few Navajo attractions. Explore Navajo Interactive Museum is an exhibit that was created for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City that today calls the 7,000-square-foot, hogan-shaped building behind the Tuba Trading Post home. Admission to the museum allows you free admission to the Navajo Code Talkers Museum located in the back of the trading post, which was opened by Charles Algert in 1870 and sold to the Babbitt Brothers 32 years later.
From Tuba City, you’ll head north towards Kayenta, passing the former Rare Metals Uranium Mill on the right. Twenty minutes later, you enter the small communities of Tonalea and adjoining Red Lake. The latter is home to the Red Lake Trading Post another Babbitt-owned entity.
In Kayenta, stop at the Burger King, where you’ll find an impressive Navajo Code Talkers display tucked among the booths, before heading to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
Monument Valley contains some of the most recognizable natural geological formations in the world, thanks in large part to Hollywood. Legendary director John Ford partnered with John Wayne to film Stagecoach, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers here. Forest Gump ends his cross-country run (Forest Gump), the Griswold’s station wagon falls apart (National Lampoon’s Vacation), and Marty McFly time travels to 1885 from a drive-in theater (Back to the Future III), all in Monument Valley.
You can take a self-guided, 17-mile scenic drive through what was once the floor of a vast inland sea during the Cenozoic era. When the waters receded, they left behind beds of compacted sand, some hundreds of feet thick. Over time, wind sculpted these sandstones, creating the incredible landscape you see. The self-guided drive winds through several of the park’s highlights, but to get the most out of your visit, hire a guide. Tour guides can provide geological information, cultural insight, and historical perspective. Plus, they can take you to areas few people see.
A trip to the area wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Goulding’s Lodge, located across from the tribal park entrance. Goulding’s maintains an interesting museum in what used to be Goulding’s original trading post.
(This post is adapted from my book, Backroads & Byways of Indian Country, released in Spring 2012 by Countryman Press.)
Image Credit: Photos.com