Exploring the Navajo National Lands and ‘Valley within the Rock’

My son and I went to visit his Navajo family in Arizona. Our flight landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico from there we drove through to Gallup along Route 40 which follows the old Route 66. After booking ourselves into a Quality Inn we visited the family who lived in Window Rock. They welcomed us warmly and treated us to a traditional Navajo meal of ‘fry bread’ with mutton and white corn stew.
The reservation is dry and arid and the houses sit in the open scrubland with little shade to protect them, img_2756 it is hard to see how people can exist in this harsh environment. We drove some way along a sometimes steep and winding road where the scenery changed from very dry arid low scrub to wooded areas of juniper and piñion trees. The piñion nuts are harvested by the Navajo and sold for a good price as they are extremely rich in protein and minerals and have a high calorific value.
We arrived at Canyon De Chelly img_2758 and decided do the “White House Trail” to view the ruins at the bottom of the canyon. We walked down the 600ft narrow trail path that wound its way down through arched rocks and narrow ledges. A dry river bed ran through the canyon floor. The Anasazi people ingeniously built houses of clay the same colour as the rock face so it was not easy to distinguish it from the rock at a distance. Some houses were built on a high ledge in the cliff face above the other houses. We then began the long, slow ascent up the same path img_2772.
We drove on to Monument Valley via Rough Rock, a town with its original Trading Post where the family had once lived. We arrived in Monument Valley and checked into Goulding’s Lodge, a place where actor John Wayne stayed when making movies in the area. Our suite was at the bottom of a large sandstone butte. img_2792
Our Navajo family explained a lot of their culture and customs as we explored the area. The traditional Navajo dwelling is called a Hogan, a rounded wooden hut. The Navajo belief system is to work in harmony with nature, so the entrance faces east; they say their prayers in the morning asking for help each day on all their activities and for protection. They walk from east to west inside a Hogan, the left hand side is for the women and the right hand side for the men, the back of the Hogan is the ceremonial area and the stove and the cooking area is in the middle. The framework of the Hogan is logs and the outside is packed with mud. If someone dies inside a Hogan they will remove the body through a hole cut in the north side signifying the end of life season. It will usually be razed to the ground, so no one will live in that Hogan again. img_2789
The sandstone buttes are all named, usually with Navajo spiritual significance. We then drove onto Mexican Hat which is a formation of balanced rocks which look like a Mexican Hat, img_2817 followed by Goosenecks with well developed horseshoe gorges of the San Juan River Canyon. We then went onto The Bluff in Utah; we looked at an Artist’s Fair at Bluff Cow Trader’s Post. The nearby Sand Island had petroglyphs , which are images chipped or scratched onto the surface of the rock, they hold the sacred messages and stories of an ancient people.img_2820
It was a long drive back to Gallup via Shiprock. That evening we ate at El Metate a Mexican food and tamale factory which Jamie Oliver featured in his programme ‘Jamie’s American Road Trip’. I had delicious vegetarian tamales, made from cornmeal with vegetables rolled up in a maize husk parcel and steamed, served with Mexican cheese on top.
The following day we drove to the Petrified Forest National Park. We stopped at the Painted Desert with its glowing earth colours and patterns in the valley below. Next stop was Agate Bridge, img_2839 a fallen petrified tree that the earth had slowly eroded from underneath. The colour of the earth gave names to places like Blue Tepees, where the earth was blue, purple and white. At Newspaper Rock there were more Petroglyphs. In Jasper Valley, petrified trees had fallen out of the sediments as they were eroded away and had landed on the valley floor. We had a close up view of the petrified trees at Crystal Forest. The Rainbow Forest Valley Museum had crocodile-like dinosaur skeletons and plant eater skeletons, giving an indication of the geological environment at the time.
We then proceeded to Meteor Crater where NASA had practiced moon landings. img_2851 We then drove on to Flagstaff, a large town in the lee of a mountain. The scenery changed from open plains to wooded areas at an altitude of 7000’. We took a side route to Sedona, this was a magnificent drive through the mountain pass. It was well wooded with deciduous trees changing into their fall foliage. About 30 miles out of Flagstaff we arrived in Sedona, a busy, small town with a Wayside Bible Chapel and lots of Arts and Crafts shops. We drove back to Flagstaff and on to Williams about 25 miles to the west, the gateway to the Grand Canyon.
Next day we set off to see the Grand Canyon, we started at the west side, Mather Point, on the South Rim, and looked down on to this amazing wonder of the world where the Colorado River deeply etched the canyon, showing the layers of sediments. img_2863 We stopped off at the Tusayan Ruins where Pueblos had lived and saw the types of plants they would have eaten. Next was the Desert View which had a Watchtower and Trading Post with a panoramic view across the canyon, we then exited at the Eastern Gate.
We drove to Cameron, a large Indian Trading Store selling local hand crafted goods. We returned to Gallup via Flagstaff, a very long drive of 180 miles. Dinner was at El Rancho, on the old Route 66, img_2885 it is an old western style hotel which sometimes served as headquarters for the movie stars and directors who worked on the cowboy films. Autographed photographs of all the stars that had stayed there decorated the walls. Our Navajo family told us when the movies needed Indian extras they asked the locals and they sometimes used to play a part. After dinner we drove another 198 miles through to Sante Fe. img_2889
The architecture in Sante Fe is Pueblo style. After admiring paintings, wind sculptures and rock quartz fountains at the galleries and artist’s mile of Canyon Road, we drove through to Albuquerque. We hiked for two and a half miles at the Petroglyph National Monument, a sacred site, to look at the rock ‘paintings’ with their strange symbols. It was very hot and heavy going through the sand, but worth the effort.

We learnt so much about the Native Indian culture and their deep spiritual attachment to their land. The expanse and the scale of these natural wonders made this an unforgettable trip.


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