Published March/April 2012

Paths of the Past

A drive through northern Arizona reveals abandoned cliff dwellings, ancient forests, and geologic wonders

BYJoAnna Haugen
Life has flourished in Northern Arizona for thousands of years. Formerly thriving communities left behind artifacts at several ancient sites and colorful, petrified pieces of wood bespeak an ancient forest. Indeed, this was a different place many centuries ago, and since the National Park Service has protected it, we can walk in the footsteps of history.
Begin your road trip at Navajo National Monument, located at the end of State Highway 564 off of U.S. Highway 160. Established in 1909, the monument protects three cliff dwellings — Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House — all built in the 13th century. Betatakin can be visited with a guide and hiking to Keet Seel requires a backcountry permit, but Inscription House has been closed to the public since 1968. Unless you’d like to make arrangements to see one of these dwellings up close, plan to spend a couple hours visiting the information center, enjoying one of three shorter trails, and checking out the abandoned lodgings through a pair of binoculars.
Back on U.S. Highway 160, head northeast past Kayenta. Make a right onto U.S. Highway 191 and continue onto Indian Route 12. Enjoy the view out the car window of wide open spaces and horizon lines that have likely changed little since people first stepped foot here. Eventually you’ll arrive at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where you’ll find one of the longest continuously inhabited places in North America.
The National Park Service works in partnership with the Navajo Nation to manage and protect the canyon. Spend at least half a day enjoying the rim drives and peeking over the edge at the dwellings built into cliff walls. To stretch your legs, hike the White House Trail, which leads into the canyon.
Camp at Canyon de Chelly or spend the night in Chinle before heading back to U.S. Highway 191 and driving south. Make a right on Interstate 40 west, and take Exit 311 toward Petrified Forest National Park, home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of petrified wood. While our previous stops highlighted the history and culture of Arizona’s early people, none comes close to predating the 200-million-year-old fossils found here.
Spend a few hours driving through the park, pulling off for short walks through the Painted Desert with its eerily colored landscape and checking out the archeological sites. Just fight the temptation to take any of the rainbow-hued fossils home. It’s illegal to remove them, and violators are heavily fined.
Exit Petrified Forest on I-40 and continue to head west. Take Exit 204 toward Walnut Canyon Road heading south, and within minutes you’ll be at Walnut Canyon National Monument, where people lived more than 700 years ago in homes built deep into the surprisingly lush canyon walls. Spend at least an hour walking along the Island Trail, where you’ll be within close proximity to 25 such dwellings.
Hop back on I-40, heading west, and then take U.S. 89 north for 12 miles before turning right on the Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop road, where you’ll find the final two stops of your road trip. Sunset Crater Volcano is a rugged geological wonder formed from several eruptions between 1040 and 1100 A.D. Ash and lava remains still blanket the ground, but flowers, trees, and critters abound. The one-mile Lava Flow Trail offers a self-guided walk with information about the volcano and the life that’s sprung from the ash. A few other trails lead up the sides of cinder cones, but be forewarned: Lava is sharp and slippery, so proceed with caution.
Continue north up the loop road about 20 miles to Wupatki National Monument, which, in many ways, brings your trip full circle. This is the site of Wupatki Pueblo, a meeting place in ancient times. There are five prehistoric pueblos here, but the highlight is Wupatki Pueblo, which can be visited via a half-mile round-trip trail. With 100 smaller rooms, a community room, and a ballcourt, this site illustrates the importance of community for the survival of those living almost a thousand years ago.
JOANNA HAUGEN is a freelance writer based out of Las Vegas, when she isn’t road tripping around the world.
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Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
If You Go
Reminder: The Navajo Nation follows Mountain Standard Time when applicable, so you may change time zones depending on the time of year you travel.
Navajo National Monument
End of State Highway 564
Shonto, Ariz.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Three miles from Route 191
Chinle, Ariz.
Petrified Forest National Park
1 Park Road
Petrified Forest, Ariz.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon Road (Exit 204 from I-40)
Flagstaff, Ariz.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Sunset Crater-Wupatki Loop (off U.S. 89)
Flagstaff, Ariz.
Wupatki National Monument
Sunset Crater-Wuptaki Loop (off U.S. 89)
Flagstaff, Ariz.
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