The Best Road Trips in America: Native American Culture: Across the Indigenous Lands of the Southwest
From New Mexico’s 19 Pueblos to the land of Navajo, the American Southwest is a patchwork of Native Nations.
Road Trip Itinerary: Across the Indigenous Lands of the Southwest
For thousands of years, these Indigenous communities have called the high desert home and remnants of early cities and ceremonial centers that once drew thousands to their cliff-houses and kivas sites still exist at sites like New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park. Despite the hardships of desert life and the tragedies of conquest and colonization, the Native American people of the Southwest haven’t disappeared, though–far from it. From Albuquerque to Tuba City, Native people carry on the traditions of their ancestors and forge new paths of self-expression and self-determination. Winding through five states, this epic itinerary is a breathtaking trip through the natural splendor of the American Southwest and the cultural heritage of its resilient Native American communities.
At a Glance:
Starting Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Ending Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Miles Traveled: 1600
Suggested Duration: 9 nights
States Visited: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah
Stop 1: Las Vegas to Antelope Canyon, Arizona
Stop Locations: Las Vegas, NV to Antelope Canyon, AZ
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 280 miles
Recommended Route: The Las Vegas sprawl melts into an endless painted desert of towering cliffs and terraces on this drive towards Lake Powell and Page, Arizona.
Along the Way:
Town: The quirky town of Kanab on the outskirts of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was once a popular filming location for Western movies and television series featuring everyone from Clint Eastwood to the Rat Pack. See leftover sets from Kanab’s Hollywood heyday at The Little Hollywood Movie Museum.
Eat & Drink: While in Kanab, grab a bite at the eclectic restaurant and art gallery, the Rocking V Cafe. They’ve got a huge menu of sandwiches, salads, steaks, and more, all made with organic and natural ingredients.
Nature: At Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a million acres of colorful cliffs and paper-thin slot canyons are waiting to be explored.
Detour: About an hour-and-a-half north of Kanab, the hoodoos grow in dense stands that fill the natural amphitheater at Bryce Canyon National Park, part of the traditional tribal territory of the Paiute. The effect is other-worldly, a landscape not found anywhere else on the planet. During long winters, Bryce Canyon’s views are at their most spectacular and some of its snow-covered trails can be traversed via snowshoe. Summer-time hikes will get you up-close to the massive stone formations.
Do: Possibly the world’s most spectacular geological slots, the Navajo have long cherished Antelope Canyon. The tribe runs popular 90-min tours through its rocky twists and turns several times a day for $44-69/person. Advanced reservations recommended.
Stay: The recently renovated Lake Powell Motel has both budget rooms ($119/night) and fully-equipped apartments (starting at $139/night) for a quiet night of rest. Get a few more amenities, including a pool, hotel bar, and a view of beautiful Lake Powell at the Lake Powell Resort starting at $214/night.
Breakfast: Order up a hearty homestyle breakfast at local favorite the Ranch House Grille.
Stop 2: Antelope Canyon to Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado
Stop Locations: Antelope Canyon, AZ to Hovenweep National Monument, CO
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Total Miles: 199 miles
Recommended Route: Green returns to the landscape as you travel over a rocky desert plateau and into the outskirts of southwestern Colorado’s pinon forests where the skies are some of the darkest in the world.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: The hip little adobe eatery, the Amigo Cafe, in Kayenta, specializes in Native American and Southwestern favorites like Navajo tacos and green chile cheeseburgers.
Photo Op: The only place in the US where you can stand in four states at the same time, Four Corners Monument isn’t thrilling but you can’t beat the photo op.
Detour: Just 20 minutes north of Kayenta, Monument Valley’s iconic rock formations at Monument Valley Tribal Park rise like spires from the hallowed ground on the Navajo Nation.
Do: Archaeologists are still working to explain the exact use of the unusual 800-year-old stone towers and “castles” at Hovenweep National Monument. Walk among them then settle in for an evening of stargazing at this certified International Dark Sky Park.
Eat & Drink: There are no stores or restaurants for miles. Come prepared with your own food and drink.
Stay: Hovenweep’s 31-site year-round campground is first-come, first-served and costs just $15/site.
Breakfast: Break your fast at the campsite or make a beeline for Silver Bean an hour’s drive towards your next destination in Cortez, Colorado. This adorable coffee shop in a retro airstream has hot and cold drinks, pastries, and burritos to eat on the artificial “lawn” or take away.
Stop 3: Hovenweep National Monument to Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Stop Locations: Hovenweep National Monument, CO to Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Total Miles: 76 miles
Recommended Route: It’s about an hour through bucolic ranchlands and vineyards to Cortez, Colorado before the climb to Mesa Verde begins. Even though the park’s entrance is just ten miles from town, the drive up to the cliff dwellings is long, isolated, and quite beautiful.
Along the Way:
Town: Colorado’s gateway to the Southwest, the small town of Cortez has wineries, breweries, and a kick-ass Cultural Center with exhibits on Ancestral Puebloan history and art by local and Native artisans. In the summer, Native American dance performances take place nightly, Monday through Saturday, in their outdoor amphitheater.
Do: Take a self-guided tour of Mesa Verde National Park along the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road which offers views of 12 of Mesa Verde’s most famous cliff dwellings, including the Spruce Tree House. Take a look inside the precarious Balcony House, Cliff Palace, or Long House on regular guided tours. Advanced recommendations recommended.
Eat & Drink: Wild game, fresh fish and organic produce are on the menu at the nationally recognized Metate Room. After your meal, sip cocktails under the stars at the Far View Lounge located on the roof of the Far View Lodge.
Stay: Perched on a shoulder of the Mesa Verde, from the Far View Lodge the Four Corners panorama stretches as far as the eye can see. There are no TVs in the rooms, just private balconies and unbeatable views. Open May through October, rooms start at $136/night.
Breakfast: Take coffee to go or sit down for a full breakfast at the Far View Terrace Cafe on the lodge’s first floor.
Stop 4: Mesa Verde National Park to Albuquerque, New Mexico
Stop Locations: Mesa Verde National Park, CO to Albuquerque, NM
Total Travel Time: 4 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 266 miles
Recommended Route: A southerly drive through the Pueblo-lands of New Mexico to the state capital, Albuquerque.
Along the Way:
Town: The small town of Aztec is home to Aztec Ruins National Monument, a massive Pueblo Great House and UNESCO World Heritage Site over 900 years old. Explore the three-story structure built by the ancestors of New Mexico’s 19 living pueblo communities then walk the Old Spanish Trail into town.
Eat & Drink: For lunch in Aztec, pair a wood-fired pie or calzone with a frosty pint at 550 Brewing & Pizza Parlor.
Detour: For more of the Southwest’s ancient splendor, take a 30 min detour (25 miles each way) to Bandelier National Monument where an Ancestral Puebloan community lived, worked and worshipped for around 350 years. Their descendants still remain, relocated to the banks of the Rio Grande in the 16th century following a long period of intense drought and social unrest.
Do: Stroll through the streets of Albuquerque’s charming Old Town or get a birds-eye view of the city on the Sandia Peak Tramway. In October, keep your eyes trained on the skies above. More than 500 colorful hot air balloons take flight during the city’s week-long International Balloon Fiesta. In Isleta Pueblo on the northern edge of town, see one of the country’s oldest churches, a gorgeous adobe mission parish established in 1622.
Eat & Drink: Tucked inside the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Pueblo Harvest, a fine-dining restaurant operated by the state’s 19 Pueblos, serves sophisticated pre- and post-contact Native- and Southwestern-inspired dishes. Afterward, grab a Southwestern-inspired pint at the rustic-modern Bow & Arrow Brewing Company.
Stay: One of Route 66’s first motels, the restored El Vado Motel has a charming take on classic American road trip culture complete with mid-century furnishings, local artwork, and a pool. Rates start at $137/night. On the northern edge of Albuquerque, the Sandia Pueblo operates the slick Sandia Resort and Casino with a golf course, spa, and a gorgeous view of the mountains for around $200/night.
Breakfast: Pull up a chair at The Farmacy, a chic modern cafe with high octane coffee and breakfast favorites like waffles and biscuits and gravy.
Stop 5: Albuquerque to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Stop Locations: Albuquerque, NM to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM
Total Travel Time: 3 hours
Total Miles: 161 miles
Recommended Route: Head out of the city to Acoma, the oldest continuously occupied community in the United States, then back into the high desert for a visit to thousand-year-old Chaco, once the Southwest’s largest city.
Along the Way:
Town: The stunning mesa-top village of Acoma Pueblo has survived drought, conquest, and colonization to earn the title of the oldest in the United States. Members of the Acoma Pueblo still live here, thousands of feet in the sky, with no running water. The community’s church and cemetery are its crowning jewels, especially at Christmas when the paths are lit with candles for a midnight ceremony. The village can only be entered on guided tours, which leave from the Sky City Cultural Center multiple times daily.
Eat & Drink: Don’t be fooled by its location across from a truck stop. The no-frills Spicy Bite restaurant in Milan serves up Indian food so fresh and authentic that Yelp selected it as one of the top 100 places to eat in the United States in 2019.
Do: Explore the ruins of the once-great city of Chaco Canyon which dominated the Southwest between around 850-1250 C.E. Walk or drive the canyon loop, take a guided tour of Pueblo Bonito or lace up your boots for a backcountry hike to some of Chaco’s more remote sites.
Eat & Drink: There is no food in the park but you can snag a cold drink and firewood in the visitor’s center.
Stay: The Gallo Campground ($15/night, reservations available) is open year-round and after dark, the night skies put on a spectacular display in this International Dark Sky Park.
Breakfast: This one’s on you. Be sure to bring enough food and water for morning breakfast and coffee.
Stop 6: Chaco Culture National Historical Park to Chinle, Arizona
Stop Locations: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM to Chinle, AZ
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 15 minutes
Total Miles: 170 miles
Recommended Route: Travel through the Navajo Nation, stopping at the government seat at Window Rock, then on to the small town of Chinle, Arizona which abuts the rugged, rocky Canyon de Chelly.
Along the Way:
Town: Named for the near-perfect circle shaped by snow and rain in the red cliff behind the Navajo Nation’s tribal headquarters, Window Rock has both an interesting museum and a moving memorial to World War II’s Navajo Code Talkers. At the Ch’ihootso Indian Market Place vendors sell everything from utilitarian goods to rugs and jewelry.
Eat & Drink: At the down-home roadside diner Jerry’s Cafe in Gallup, dive into steaming plates of stuffed sopapillas and chile relleno.
Detour: The bizarre rock formations of the Bisti Badlands form an otherworldly landscape of desolation and solitude. Find them northwest of Chaco Canyon, a 40-mile drive into the desert (1 hr 12 mins each way).
Shop: In operation for over 140 years, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site is a working trading post with exquisite hand-crafted goods from local Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo artisans. Stop by the visitor center to learn more about Hubbell’s history and take a walk around the grounds to visit its heritage Ganado sheep and Navajo hogans.
Do: With its painted rock formations and endless views, the Canyon de Chelly National Monument next door to Chinle is a geological wonder punctuated with ancient ruins. Take a self-guided or ranger-led hike or a scenic drive to the canyon’s 10 overlooks.
Eat & Drink: The Junction Restaurant, adjacent to Chinle’s Best Western, serves up some of this small town’s best food with a menu that includes Navajo tacos and posole. By Navajo law, alcohol cannot be bought, sold, or transported onto tribal lands.
Stay: The Thunderbird Lodge ($100/night), owned and operated by the Navajo Nation, is a charming historic hotel with dependably clean and comfortable accommodations.
Breakfast: The Thunderbird Lodge Cafeteria next door to the lodge inside a trading post more than a century old has a wide selection of breakfast dishes, including super-tasty blue corn pancakes.
Stop 7: Chinle to Tuba City, Arizona
Stop Locations: Chinle, AZ to Tuba City, AZ
Total Travel Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Total Miles: 132 miles
Recommended Route: Cross the Navajo border and enter the heart of the Hopi Nation where a drive along the Hopi Arts Trail offers a glimpse of the artistic heritage and craftsmanship of a legendary Native community.
Along the Way:
Eat & Drink: Get a taste of tribal specialties like Hopi hot beef and lamb stew at the Hopi Cultural Center Restaurant located in the Hopi Cultural Center in Second Mesa
Shop: Hopi artists are famed for their elaborately woven baskets, pottery, and silver-work, but these are just some of the gorgeous pieces you’ll find for sale along the Hopi Arts Trail stretching between First Mesa and Tuba City. Download a map of the best galleries before hitting the road.
Do: Several museums in Tuba City illuminate the Navajo experience, from stories of creation at the Navajo Interactive Museum to the role of the Navajo language in the allied victory in World War II at the Navajo Code Talkers Museum. Take home a piece of Native artistry from the Tuba City Trading Post, which has been a working hub of commerce since 1870.
Eat & Drink: Tuba City doesn’t have much in the way of food outside of fast-food restaurants. Pizza Edge, a regional pizza chain with pizza, calzones, wings, and subs, is arguably the best of the bunch.
Stay: The Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites operated by the Hopi Nation is a pleasant lodge accented with Native artwork and craftsmanship on the western edge of Hopi land. Amenities include a fitness center, pool, and a kiva garden and rates start around $180/night.
Breakfast: At Hogan Espresso, a cute little coffee shop with both indoor and outdoor seating, the coffee, pastries, and other fare are well worth a morning stop.
Stop 8: Tuba City to Supai, Arizona
Stop Locations: Tuba City, AZ to Supai, AZ
Total Travel Time: 4 hours + 5-hour hike to Supai
Total Miles: 245 miles + 8-mile hike to Supai
Recommended Route: Those headed to Supai travel into the aspen groves of the Coconino National Forest south of the Grand Canyon before heading north to the trailhead at Hualapai Hilltop and the start of an eight-mile hike to the village. If you'd prefer not to head to Supai, head to Grand Canyon-Parashant via a northern route through the painted cliffs and high-elevation deserts of northern Arizona.
Along the Way:
Town: If you’re headed to Supai, a stop mid-way to the trailhead in Flagstaff, Arizona, has plenty of outdoor activities for warm or cold weather, including skiing or snowboarding at Arizona Snowbowl, hiking through aspen groves, or grabbing a cold beer at the town’s many breweries.
If instead, you’re headed to Grand Canyon-Parashant, the tiny town of Fredonia is worth a quick stop before heading into the rugged wilderness. On North Main Street, check out the small but well-curated Red Pueblo Museum which features everything from ancient Pueblo artifacts to an authentic pioneer-era log cabin.
Eat & Drink: Flagstaff has plenty of tasty eats but you’ll find the best brunch in town at MartAnne’s. Get your green chile fix with Southwestern-inspired dishes like chilaquiles, posole, and enchiladas.
Nature: The route to Grand Canyon-Parashant passes right through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, home of The Wave, a stunning geological formation of crimson-and-gold that ripples across the Arizona desert. Enter the park’s lottery to score a permit to the site.
Do: Advanced reservations are required to enter the Havasupai Indian Reservation oasis of Supai, the most remote community in the lower 48 states. But while the hike into the canyon is a grueling eight miles, the payoff is epic: a paradise of waterfalls and travertine pools that sparkle all year round.
If you aren’t able to get a reservation for Supai, head to Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument instead. Less crowded than its national park counterpart, the views, hiking trails and scenic drives here in the traditional tribal lands of the Hualapai are no less spectacular.
Eat & Drink: While it’s essential to pack plenty of water and snacks for the trail to and from Supai, once you get to the village the Supai Cafe and Store, open roughly from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., serves fries, burgers and Indian specialties, along with drinks, canned goods, and other staples. Just don’t be surprised by the prices. All goods have to be carried in by mule or on foot.
If you’re headed to Grand Canyon-Parashant, be sure to stock up on food and water in advance. There are no stores or potable water available within the monument.
Stay: In Supai, the Havasupai Tribe operates both a campground and a lodge for overnight stays. A night at the lodge costs a hefty $440 per room (each room accommodates up to four people) plus a $110 per person entrance fee but, for some, a hot shower and air conditioning will be worth every penny. A night at the campground, which is set up with drinking water and restrooms, costs $57/person per night.
Grand Canyon-Parashant has no developed campsites but free backcountry camping is permitted throughout the park, including on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Breakfast: Grab a can of beans or some fry bread at the Supai Cafe or have an al fresco meal of your own making at the campground.
At Grand Canyon-Parashant, the only breakfast for miles is the one you cook yourself.
Stop 9: Supai to Las Vegas, Nevada
Stop Locations: Supai, AZ to Las Vegas, NV
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes + 5-hour hike
Total Miles: 225 miles + 8-mile hike
Recommended Route: Get your last look at the desert as you roll into the mighty city of Las Vegas and the end of the road. The drive from Supai is nearly twice as long as from Grand Canyon-Parashant but takes you right over the Hoover Dam as Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, shimmers far below.
Along the Way:
Roadside Attraction: On the route from Supai, snap a photo of one of America’s most impressive early feats of engineering, the 726 foot-tall Hoover Dam.
Do: You won’t find much in the way of Indigenous culture in the City of Sin but you will find a whole lot of debauchery. Head to big-name casinos on the strip like the Bellagio, The Venetian , and Mandalay Bay or make your way downtown for a more vintage experience at The Neon Museum, a graveyard for the city’s retired neon signs.
Eat & Drink: Splurge on Cantonese delicacies at Mott 32 in the Venetian or keep things casual at the Park MGM’s Crack Shack, a fried-chicken and sandwich joint with a fine-dining pedigree. The truly hungry will find what they’re looking for at the Wynn and The Mirage, which have some of the best buffets in town. Off the strip, get a swanky drink at the Downtown Cocktail Room or a cold beer at Rat Pack hangout Atomic Liquors.
Stay: Get a resort experience at the Aria, which has a soaring modernist aesthetic, three outdoor pools, a spa, and the Jewel nightclub starting at around $120/night. Downtown, the classic Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino has 2,400 well-appointed guest rooms ($110/night) and a three-story water slide that twists and turns through a 200,000 gallon shark tank.