Northeast Arizona is a vast and magnificent land of lofty buttes, towering cliffs, and turquoise skies. Most of the land in the area belongs to the Navajo and Hopi, who adhere to ancient traditions based on spiritual values, kinship, and an affinity for nature. Spend time at some of the region’s most spectacular sites, such as Canyon de Chelly, Lake Powell and surrounding Glen Canyon, and Monument Valley, and you’ll quickly come to appreciate why indigenous locals so revere the landscape.
Life here has changed little during the last two centuries, and visiting this land can feel like traveling to a foreign country or going back in time, although a handful of distinctive, inviting hotels have opened in the region in recent years, helping to entice overnight visitors aiming to venture off the beaten path without necessarily foregoing creature comforts.
In such towns as Tuba City and Window Rock it’s not uncommon to hear the gliding vowels and soft consonants of the Navajo language, a tongue as different from Hopi as English is from Japanese. As you drive in the vicinity, tune your radio to KTNN 660 AM (www.ktnnonline.com), the Voice of the Navajo Nation since 1985. You’ll quickly understand why the U.S. Marine Navajo "code talkers" communicating in their native tongue were able to devise a code within their language that was never broken by opposing forces.
In the Navajo Nation’s approximate center sits the nearly 2,350-square-mile Hopi Reservation, a series of adobe villages built on high mesas overlooking the cultivated land. On Arizona’s borders, where the Navajo Nation continues into Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo and Canyon de Chelly national monuments contain haunting cliff dwellings of ancient people who lived in the area some 1,500 years ago. Glen Canyon Dam, which abuts the northwestern corner of the reservation, holds back 185 miles of emerald waters known as Lake Powell.
Most of northeast Arizona is high desert, but it’s far from monochromatic: eerie and spectacular rock formations as colorful as desert sunsets highlight immense mesas, canyons, and cliffs; towering stands of ponderosa pine cover the Chuska Mountains to the north and east of Canyon de Chelly. Navajo Mountain to the north and west in Utah soars more than 10,000 feet, and the San Francisco Peaks climb to similar heights to the south and west by Flagstaff. According to the Navajo creation myth, these are two of the four mountainous boundaries of the sacred land where the Navajo first emerged from Earth’s interior.