When the Navajo Nation Reopens, Visitors Must Return Slowly—And Respectfully

I’m always moved by the way the landscape of the Southwest changes swiftly from red desert so barren it could be the surface of Mars to valleys lush with wildflowers. Maybe it has to do with the thousands of years my people have lived here. I do know that I am deeply connected to this place, rooted firmly in its soil like the juniper trees I love. It’s no surprise that people from all over come to my homeland, the Navajo Nation, the most populous tribal nation in the country, to experience the beauty of its roughly 27,000 square miles spread across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

What is puzzling is how many travel guides list the Four Corners Monument as the place to visit there. For some, this slab of concrete marking the tidy meeting up of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado may seem important. But to me it’s little more than a tribute to the arbitrary boundaries drawn by colonizers. In my opinion, the more interesting aspect of Four Corners is the Navajo vendors selling necklaces with little nuggets of turquoise or pottery painted with traditional designs. At every turn throughout the Navajo Nation, people are selling something worth buying or experiencing. Stop and support them.

As a lifelong resident of the Southwest, I feel confident saying that the Navajo Nation is home to some of the most majestic places in this region. The diversity of the landscape is dizzying—Monument Valley Tribal Park, the Navajo side of Lake Powell, and Canyon de Chelly, a place that I hold especially close. One of my favorite drives is from Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo capital, to the town of Chinle, the gateway to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The route cuts through acres of rabbitbrush and past forests thick with pines. Once you reach the canyon, its rust red cliffs descend into a valley where Navajo families still live, farming its rich soil and raising sheep. There are a handful of overlooks that rim the canyon, but it’s more rewarding to hike the 1.2 miles to the canyon floor and see the ruins of Anasazi cliff dwellings up close. Better yet, hire a Navajo guide to take you on a horseback tour of the canyon.

It’s human nature to want to see what’s hidden. Visitors long to explore off-trail, but many places in the Navajo Nation are not meant for outsiders. Most simply do not have the infrastructure to support tourism, not even the basics like a trash can or a parking lot. Other areas are sacred sites. There is little more crushing than seeing names carved into rocks on our land.

COVID-19 was the most recent blight on the Navajo Nation. At the beginning of the pandemic, I hoped that the land’s vastness would shield us. It didn’t. COVID-19 ravaged my community, and at one point we led the country in per capita cases. We closed our lands to visitors. We asked them not to come. They did anyway. As of early June, the Navajo Nation remains closed to visitors, with strict protocols in place. When right to do so, the Navajo Nation will carefully reopen. This time, wait for an invitation. It would be great to start again from a place of mutual respect. 

Navajonationparks.org; discovernavajo.com

Local leaders

Indigenous-driven companies offer an essential point of view for travelers to native lands.

How well any of us connects to a destination often comes down to having the right guide. And across the United States, the descendants of those who lived here first can explain the landscape and centuries of tradition like no one else. In Idaho, the Nimiipuu women-run outfitter Nez Perce Tourism contextualizes this part of its staffers’ ancestral homelands while digging into the tribe’s 16,000-year history. Appaloosa horseback rides and immersive two- and three-day adventure tours are also available. In Arizona’s Monument Valley, Navajo guides Harold and Deborah Simpson own and run Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours, taking guests through the natural arches and across the stunning plateaus. Up in the Last Frontier, the Huna Tlingit guides at Alaska Native Voices work closely with park rangers, lodges, and cruise ships to share their knowledge of Glacier Bay National Park through storytelling, singing, and crafts. And in Florida’s Everglades National Park, the Miccosukee-owned Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours operates within tribal wetlands about an hour west of Miami. —Ashlea Halpern

This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

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