Scenic Highway 89 ~ Gateway to North Arizona and the Navaho Nation!
Taking a scenic drive in the Southwest is entertainment in itself. The panoramic landscape in the wide open spaces can change dramatically every few dozen miles. Views of rolling grassy hills with snow capped mountains mesmerize travelers, then red desert sands with towering sandstone cliffs appear like magic. All along the way there are interesting roadside sights that pass by so quickly that they are easy to miss. Catching a glimpse of an eagle fighting its prey in the sagebrush or briefly seeing a work of native art painted on an old fence post that passes by in a blur is part of the open road experience. Catching a fleeting glimpse of something that one does not see everyday back home is enough to make one wonder if the sight was real or just a figment of the imagination.
There is a little bit of magic involved when traveling north from Flagstaff, Arizona, through the Navaho Nation on U.S. Highway 89. This area has been occupied by native tribes for thousands of years and there are plenty of good signs that welcome interested visitors along the way. This section of Highway 89 offers plenty of natural history to experience, unique geology and opportunities to learn from cultural exchange.
The trek north on Highway 89 from Flagstaff begins with climb over a high mountain pass. Sunset Volcano Crater National Monument is located in this area. The Sunset Volcano Crater is the result of a violent eruption that occurred less than 1,000 years ago. This sky high volcanic cinder cone is in pristine condition and the jagged black lava flows that stretch into Ponderosa Pine forests create a surreal landscape that is like no other place on earth. Plenty of information can be found at the visitors center and Junior Ranger activities are available for children. This is a daytime use area and there are hiking restrictions. Campsites are available just outside of the National Monument boundary, so spending a few days exploring the volcano is an option.
On the other side of the mountain range, the landscape changes from high altitude forests to rolling grassy hills that seem to stretch out forever. This is a good area to spot wild horses and antelope. A few miles further down the highway is where the entrance to Wupatki National Monument can be found. The Wupatki access road actually loops all the way around to the back entrance of Sunset Volcano Crater National Monument, so this is an alternative route from Flagstaff to this stretch of Highway 89.
Wupatki National Monument is located where the grassy plains drift off into the rugged multi color sandstone landscape of the Painted Desert in the distance. This area looks inhospitable, yet there are several ancient pueblos located in this area. Three ancient pueblo building sites are located just a few miles past the National Monument entrance. The Citadel Pueblo towers over the serene desert landscape and this ancient archeological site offers a glimpse into the lifestyle that the native culture lived long ago.
The Wupatki Pueblo Buildings are located next to the visitors center, which is a museum that provides a glimpse into the history of this sacred site. Wupatki is the largest of the ancient stone block pueblos and it is well preserved. Thousands of people lived in the towering Wupatki stone buildings, so this ancient cultural center actually was a civilized city. The spirit of the people that built Wupatki was strong enough to do far more than just merely survive in this desert climate. A stone circle amphitheater and a ball court are located on the grounds that surround Wupatki. Wupati is the farthest point north where the ancient game of Mayan Hip Ball (ōllamaliztli) is thought to have been played.
The Wukoki Pueblo is located just east of Wupatki and this is another ancient archeological site that must be seen to be believed. When visiting these ancient native pueblos, it is best to do so with great respect. These sites are sacred and many people from many tribes visit these old pueblos for spiritual reasons and chanting often takes place. The wisdom of the forefathers provides cultural insight to all who visit this place.
While driving toward Cameron on Highway 89, a few old remnants of tourist traps from back in the golden age of Route 66 tourism can still be seen. A shuttered 1950's style resort motel, old RV campgrounds and abandoned trading posts provide a view of the past that once prospered on station wagons full of tourists so long ago. Many of the old trading posts are boarded up, but occasionally they reopen, just like magic. Even if an old trading post building is abandoned it is still worth stopping to check these places out. Many Navaho artists use the old buildings and rusty water tanks as a canvas for painting unique works of art. Often the artwork is so intriguing, that one must simply admire the colorful message that is being communicated. There truly is plenty of spirit in the unexpected artwork that captivates passers by on this long road.
Cameron is where the east entrance to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon can be found. The Historic Cameron Trading Post Hotel Resort is located next to the Little Colorado River. Cameron is a great place to fuel up and grab a good bite to eat. The Cameron Trading Post offers Navaho and western cuisine specialties. Cameron is a great place to do some fine native silver and turquoise jewelry shopping too.
Just north of Cameron on Highway 89, the landscape changes to Painted Desert bad lands. The eroded sandstone and ancient clay deposits look like they belong on another planet. This part of the drive moves along fast, because there are few places to stop, so the signs for Tuba City soon appear. The road to Tuba City is the gateway for Navaho Tourism. This side road runs past the Tuba City Dinosaur Tracks archeological site all the way to Kayenta and beyond to the Four Corners Monument. Tuba City offers all amenities and there is a modern Southwestern style resort hotel. This town is where tourists can learn something about Navaho and Hopi cultures. Further east is the the Navaho Code Talkers Museum and the town of Kayenta. Kayenta is the gateway to Monument Valley, which is one of the most picturesque destinations in the west.
North of Tuba City there are a few small towns along the way to Marble Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. This entire region has magnificent red sandstone mesa cliffs that touch the cobalt blue sky. The side road that crosses Marble Canyon leads to the Vermillion Cliffs BLM Area and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It is well worth stopping to take a walk on the Navaho Bridge, which spans Marble Canyon. The views of the green Colorado River in Marble Canyon are simply spectacular, especially with the Vermillion Cliffs in the background. Visiting the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is only suggested for experienced desert survivalists, because many people get lost in this area where GPS navigation does not work and they never return.
From Marble Canyon it is a fairly easy drive to Page, Arizona, near the Utah border. Page is a large city that offers all amenities. Campgrounds, RV parks and plenty of motels can be found in this city. There is a great old fashioned BBQ restaurant and a few other interesting places to get a bite to eat in this town too.
Page is where Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are located. Lake Powell is so large that the shoreline actually is longer than the entire shoreline of California. Glen Canyon is a haven for campers and boaters year round. Horseback tours and boat tours are the best way to explore this place, because road access is very limited.
On the other side of Glen Canyon is where Highway 89 leads to nearly every National Park in Utah. Driving from Flagstaff to Page only takes a few hours, but with so many interesting sites to see and ventures to do along the way, it is best to plan on spending a day or two on this scenic drive just to get the most out of the experience. While working at the Grand Canyon for six months, I had plenty of time to explore this region. Many Navaho Nation Tourism destinations will be published in future articles. Till then, fill up the coffee mug, roll the car windows down, turn on the radio and enjoy the scenery along Highway 89 in beautiful Northern Arizona!