Our drive today would take us through Northeast Arizona across the Navajo Nation. There are several ways to get to Canyon de Chelly from Flagstaff with the most popular being I-40 to Indian Route 191. I like to choose 2-lane highways whenever possible so we took Indian Route 15 out of Flagstaff instead. Did you know Navajo Nation covers 27,425 square miles within the boundaries of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico? I didn’t either!
The landscape along the way north was beautiful, but stark. This low desert region is peppered with scrub brush and prairie grass. The sky seems endless here with countless clouds lazily drifting by. Undulating hills brought us ever closer to majestic mesas and mountains. Small towns/villages dot the landscape, all boasting at least one church if not more. Hogans, the primary, traditional dwelling of the Navajo people, were plentiful.
The most exciting moment of our journey occurred when we saw a horse running full speed across the road in front of us! Just behind the horse was a young Navajo cowboy in hot pursuit; lasso in hand. The horse ran down the side of the road before jumping the low fence out into the desert. The cowboy had to jump the fence as well. Kids loved the show!
When we reached Indian Route 191, the main highway to Canyon de Chelly, we took a quick detour to visit Hubbell Trading Post, a National Historic Site. This trading post, established by John Lorenzo Hubbell in 1876, is the oldest continuously operating trading post on the Navajo reservation and in the United States. For over 50 years, John Hubbell was a merchant and liaison to the outside world for the Navajo. His honest business dealings with them made him more than just a trader, he was a also a friend.
After passing through the iron gate bearing John Lorenzo Hubbell’s initials, we arrived at the Visitor Center. We picked up a map and Junior Ranger books, then checked out the exhibits. The highlight was watching an artist weave a Navajo rug in a historic pattern. The kids were really excited when, after a brief lesson, they got to try their hand at weaving on the visitor’s loom. Not as easy as it looks!
Next, we took a journey back in time. We explored the barn, blacksmith shop, bread oven, bunkhouse and guest hogan. Out by the work shed, the yard was littered with old farm equipment, jumbled between weeds, rusted and forlorn.
We had saved the Trading Post for last. We entered the “bullpen,” through an old screen door where we were greeted by the creak of the original wood floor. It is a cozy room, smelling of wood with tall counters, high shelves and an iron stove. Not much has changed since 1876 here and it is still the place the community shops for food and dry goods like coffee, cloth and utensils. We purchased a homegrown zucchini and some fry bread mix. Can’t wait to try it!
In the Jewelry room, visitors can shop for authentic pottery, jewelry, carvings and baskets from the Colorado Plateau region. Artists travel from all over to trade their art with Edison, the trader. He explained that the artisans tell stories through their art forms and every piece is special and unique. The adjacent rug room offers exquisitely woven new and historic Navajo rugs. The prices are steep but after understanding the immense amount of time it takes to make just a small rug, it is a bargain.
Note: Tours of the Hubbell home are available for a modest $2/pp but is not really suitable for young children.
Back on the road it was a quick 45-minutes to Chinle, gateway to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This is the place to gas up or grab some last minute groceries before heading into the park. You will notice there is no alcohol in stores or bars in town. Alcoholic beverages are illegal on the Navajo reservation.
Canyon de Chelly has no entrance fee so we drove right in and stopped at the Visitors Center where we watched a short orientation video, gathered maps and Junior Ranger books before heading to Cottonwood Campground, one of the two campgrounds within Canyon de Chelly. This campground is located right inside the park and has 93 developed sites, We had the pick of the park as there was only a few campers there.
We chose shady site number 53 which was a pull-through. We dropped off the trailer and headed out on South Rim Drive (its best to take this drive in the afternoon for better photos) to see the canyon.
The kids decided they wanted to see Spider Rock first so we headed to that overlook first. Here we marveled at the 800-foot freestanding spire and the sheer red sandstone walls of the canyon. So quiet you could hear the flies buzzing and the calls of the ravens. Raptors rode air currents over the vast wide canyon. After some time soaking in the beauty, we made a few other overlook stops including the White House Overlook. The White House trail is the only way to get to the bottom of the canyon without a guide. We will be hiking this trail tomorrow!
When we got back to camp, we got out the grill, then realized our site was overrun with ants!! This didn’t deter the kids who were eager to work on some rock art and create their own petroglyphs. They just moved to a picnic table at a different site to do their art. Dinner was served inside as I wanted to avoid the creepy crawlies!
Notes: No reservations excepted at Cottonwood and no ground fires. There is also a private campground within the park but it looked a little rundown with little to no shade.
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