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The Little Colorado Gorge & Cameron Trading Post!
A scenic drive in the Southwest often turns into a mini vacation, because there is so much to experience. This is especially true in Northeastern Arizona, where several Navaho Tourism destinations, National Parks and National Monuments are all linked together by a few long roads. The travel distances are manageable by automobile and the panoramic open road scenery makes the drive well worth the time spent.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the main attraction in the Northeastern Arizona region and thousands of visitors venture into this National Park each day. For many tourists, the Grand Canyon is the only destination that is possible because of time constraints and crowded waiting lines. Those who book passage on a Grand Canyon tour bus from Las Vegas or Phoenix really have no other option than to stay within the bounds of the National Park. Since the majority of tourists never venture outside of the Grand Canyon, this means that nearby destinations are far less crowded. This is a sigh of relief for vacationers that seek a little bit of breathing room.
I recently worked in the Grand Canyon for six months, so I had plenty of time to explore the area. The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place, but after working there for a while, all that many workers want to do on days off is to escape from the crowded Grand Canyon Village routine. Many workers take a shuttle bus trip to Williams or Flagstaff to do some shopping, wining and dining. Those that have their own automobile venture as far as Colorado, Phoenix or Las Vegas, just to get some nightlife action. Since the majority of the Grand Canyon workforce are Native American, many of these employees travel back home to destinations in the nearby Navaho Nation, which extends well into New Mexico. The native employees always had good suggestions for sights to see on the reservation and I traveled to as many of these destinations as possible during my stint at the National Park.
From Grand Canyon Village, Desert View Drive (State Road 64) runs along the canyon rim to the eastern park exit gate. Just beyond the gate, travelers enter the Kaibab National Forest. The terrain is mountainous and views of the juniper and pine forest extend to the horizon. There are several scenic overlooks and hiking trails in this area. Wildlife is everywhere, so from dusk to dawn it is best to slow down and use caution to avoid hitting an elk or mule deer. During daytime hours, the big animals pretty much stay away from the road and the only way to do some wildlife photography is to take a little hike along a trail.
The Little Colorado River Gorge is one of the closest Navaho Tourism destinations and it is literally next to the Grand Canyon National Park and Kaibab Forest. The Little Colorado Tribal Park covers a vast area and there are four key points of interest. Viewpoint 1 and Viewpoint 2 are located along State Road 64 and these sites are accessible by car. The Eastern Grand Canyon viewpoints are located along Highway 89 from Cameron north to Page, Arizona. The Eastern Grand Canyon sites usually require hiking permits or Navaho tour guides. Marble Canyon is also in the Little Colorado Tribal Park and this destination is north on U.S. 89, where Route 89A runs west toward the Grand Canyon North Rim.
The Little Colorado River begins where rain drains off of the Painted Desert and this river meanders north to where it meets the mighty Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Much of the southern section of the Little Colorado is dry washes and barren canyon river basins that are only wet after a torrential rainfall. As the river passes near Winslow and Flagstaff, the snow melt from the high mountain peaks and ancient volcano cones feeds the river. Near the San Francisco Mountain, there are a few lush green oasis areas along the Little Colorado that have sustained life in this arid desert region for thousands of years. One of the most famous oasis to visit is Grand Falls, where the river has cut through layers of rock that are millions of years old.
Closer to the Grand Canyon, the Little Colorado River never runs dry, so the erosive forces of the water have had time to carve a deep gorge. The two Little Colorado Tribal Park Viewpoints along State Road 64 offer spectacular views of this magnificent landscape. The side road and parking areas are maintained and these destinations are usually not overcrowded, so there is plenty of elbow room.
Navaho artisans market their wares at the viewpoints, so there is an opportunity to shop for a hand crafted Navaho jewelry, pottery, clothing, rugs and blankets to take home after the venture. Navaho tour guides are available too and these people provide plenty of insight into the history and lore of the Little Colorado Gorge. The price of admission is usually free. Proceeds from souvenir sales and guided tour gratuities help to support the local community and viewpoint facilities, so it is customary to spend a few dollars when visiting such places.
The short trail that leads to the Little Colorado Gorge Viewpoint is easy to navigate. There are picnic tables and plenty of natural rock seating for those who wish to spend an afternoon taking in the peaceful surroundings. Safety rails along the rim help to prevent accidents, but it is best to keep small children nearby, because the cliffs surrounding the gorge drop nearly one half mile down.
The views of the Little Colorado Gorge are so mesmerizing, that it is easy to spend hours looking at this magnificent narrow canyon. The roaring river water rapids can be heard all the way at the top of the gorge and the mesmerizing sound of water in this desert environment has a way of creating a dreamlike state. Before long, the mind wanders into the realm of the spirit world and a little something is learned during the experience. The Little Colorado Gorge is a spiritual place that provides a chance to gain some serenity far away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world.
A little further on down the road, State Road 64 intersects with U.S. 89 in Cameron in the Navaho Nation. The little town of Cameron hosts a few gas stations, restaurants, native art galleries and one of the most famous trading posts in the west.
The historic Cameron Trading Post is located on the banks of the Little Colorado River on U.S. 89. The first bridge traversing the Little Colorado River was built in the early 1900's and the Cameron Trading Post was constructed shortly after. Travel was done by horseback or wagon back in those days, so the bridge opened the door for increased trade. Soon the Cameron Trading Post became a center for native commerce and the age of the automobile brought modern tourism dollars into the picture.
Over the years, the Cameron Trading Post has transformed into a modern hotel resort lodge with all amenities. The old early 1900's adobe buildings have been preserved and the modern hotel resort structure adapted this old west architectural style. Visiting the Cameron Trading Post is like stepping back in time to a simpler age. The trading post is stocked full of high quality native goods. Everything from Bison Jerky and Prickly Pear Cactus Licorice to unique works of native art and fine Navaho silver turquoise jewelry can be found in this place.
The Cameron Trading Post Hotel Lodge also hosts a great restaurant. Because this lodge is located in the Navaho Nation, the decor and atmosphere of the restaurants takes on a native theme, rather than an old west cowboy tone. The furnishings and decorations create a peaceful captivating dining environment that naturally inspires conversation amongst guests. Alcoholic beverages are banned in the Navaho Nation, so the atmosphere is perfect for visitors of all ages.
The Cameron Trading Post Restaurant food also has a native theme. The menu is printed in both Navaho and English languages, so guests can learn a little something while browsing for a bite to eat. I had the Yah-Ahtay Chile and Navaho Fry Bread for dinner and a Cactus Jack for dessert. The beef sirloin steak & bean chile with freshly made fry bread & honey really hit the spot after a long day of sightseeing. A Cactus Jack is a prickly pear cactus fruit milkshake, which is decadent, to say the least!
As one can see, there is far more to touring Northeastern Arizona than just visiting the Grand Canyon. All it takes is a little more travel time to visit great places in the Navaho Nation that many mainstream tourists never see. The Little Colorado Gorge and the Cameron Trading Post are a great place to start!