Much more for families in Southwest than Grand Canyon

Monument Valley on Navajo land in Utah is an amazing site for families. But you do need a 4 by 4 vehicle to get through the dirt road in the valley. Our minivan didn't cut it.

Monument Valley on Navajo land in Utah is an amazing site for families. But you do need a 4-by-4 vehicle to get through the dirt road in the valley. Our minivan didn't cut it.

When you think about the Southwest and family travel, you immediately think of the Grand Canyon. While it is truly breathtaking, there is so much more for families to see and experience in Arizona and the Southwest.

I know times are tough for many families and some may not be taking trips this year but I just wanted to plant some seeds of amazing places your family could visit in 2012 and beyond.

I am constantly amazed by two things in Arizona.

1. There is a tremendous number of national and state parks for families to explore with truly unique environments and history.  Arizona has 22 National Parks (by comparison California has 25 and Georgia has 11).  Arizona also has 31 state parks, which are equally impressive. The $80 yearly National Park pass is an economic way for families to hit a bunch of parks even if they are just visiting the area for a week or two. (Many of the parks are within two hours of the Grand Canyon.)

2. You don’t have to go to Europe to see ruins and artifacts of ancient people. Growing up on the East Coast, we think of New England as old. In Georgia, we’re amazed by any building that dates back to the early 1800s, but out West, the history and artifacts can date back 4,000 years, such as at the Canyon de Chelly. (pronounced Shay)

Our whole family marvels at ancient cliff dwellings, giant pueblos, and ancient cliff drawings. Lava flows from 1000 AD can still be seen near Flagstaff and the dramatic mineral creations of Kartchner Caverns have been forming for the last 200,000 years. There is lots of ancient history to explore right here in America.

Exploring the Navajo Nation

We spent much of our fall break visiting canyons, valleys and rock formations on the Navajo Nation reservation. The reservation stretches more than 27,000 square miles between Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The land is beautiful. The houses are few and far between. The towns are small. Many of the Navajo people are still living the way they have for centuries – many don’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. Most of the businesses – hotels, restaurants, gas stations – are run by the Navajo people. Just being on the reservation is amazing experience for any family.

While on the Jeep tour, we were allowed to walk around and explore the base of the Canyon de Chelly.

While on the Jeep tour, we were allowed to walk around and explore the base of the Canyon de Chelly.

Canyon de Chelly is a National Park on the Navajo reservation. The Navajos and the U.S. government run the 84,000-acre park together. You can look around on the top part of the canyon alone but to hike into the canyon you must have an official Navajo tour guide. Visitors can hike and camp in the canyon, see it by horseback or Jeep.

Canyon de Chelly is unique because the Navajo people still live inside the canyon as they have for thousands of years.  There are still houses, crops and animals in the canyon. Horses, sheep, cows and dogs still meander and graze the land.

We chose a Jeep tour of the canyon from De Chelly Tours out of the local town Chinle. While the SUV was pretty beat up, our tour guide Daniel was excellent. He was an older man who had lived in the area most of his life. He took us to his sister’s house in the canyon. He showed us how she took care of her sheep there and how she trucked in her water by the barrel. He played a Native American flute-type instrument, sung Navajo songs and showed us how the echo worked in the canyon.

The private Navajo guides are often less expensive than the National Park guides. (The tour ran us about $160, which was the priciest thing we did on our trip.) Hotels will often make recommendations and you can read reviews online. I was able to put my car seat and boosters in the Jeep to keep the kids safe. (The terrain was very rugged and bumpy!) I’m not sure on a bigger tour that the guides or people would have been patient about that.

White House cave dwelling in the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation.

White House cliff dwelling in the Canyon de Chelly in the Navajo Nation.

There were only a few local hotels in the closest town of Chinle so you do need to book early. Although the National Park website doesn’t mention it, our guide told us that the Canyon does close down seasonally due to flooding. So be sure to ask about that before you plan your trip.

On that trip we also drove to Utah to see Monument Valley. You have probably seen Monument Valley in movies or commercials. More than 16 major movies (many Westerns) have been shot there and scores of commercials. A 14-mile graded dirt road weaves through the most well-known mountains, such as The Mittens, Three Sisters and John Ford’s Point.

When they say you need a four-wheel drive vehicle or need to take a guided tour to go down through Monument Valley, they are not kidding! We thought our minivan could handle the dirt road but it couldn’t. We only did the first part of the park and had a few close calls trying to get back out of the park. So if you rent a car for the trip make sure you get a 4-by-4.

We hit Four Corners as well, where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all come together. The kids loved playing hide and seek and hiding in a different state than their pursuer. There’s not much else there but it is cool to think about the four states coming together.

The game was to try to be in all four states -- Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado -- at once.

The game was to try to be in all four states -- Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado -- at once.

There are many Navajo vendors selling jewelry and other items through all of the sites. They are reasonably priced and often handmade. Eat before your get to the Four Corners. There are some local vendors there for food but no running water that I could see.

(Stay tuned for Part II on Saturday, which features parks near Flagstaff and below Tucson.)

31 comments Add your comment

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]


December 30th, 2011
5:46 am

I do have to give you credit on this on TWG. I love the southeast and all the things that come with it, but the southwest is beautiful.

The things I love about the southwest is the natural beauty, the amazing food. The real authentic genuine southwestern flavors. They make our mexican junk here taste like crap. I once went on a 17 miles run in Arizone and it was he most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Enjoy your time there and keep up the great work.


December 30th, 2011
7:06 am

There are so many fascinating things to see in the USA. I think it is wonderful that you have been able to show your children interesting new things. Our family has taken trips all over the country and while we love our annual beach vacations, to the same place, I think it is wonderful to show your children other places too.

I grew up typically visiting the relatives and camping within perhaps 200 miles of home. My husband’s family was military and other than relocating, they did not take trips. Growing up, our family once we drove from Chicago to Los Angeles and that was fascinating. I did not do anything historical ( with my parents) in the East, except DC on a class trip. My daughter and I love Boston. We go every summer. I had to drag my daughter to Alaska but she loved it. A long trip but worth it! She was a freshman in HS and thought it would be dull. Not at all! We have been to Arizona several times but mine have not been to the Grand Canyon. We love Sedona. I also love New Mexico and will be back there in the fall. Montana and Idaho are amazing places too but my family has not been there with me. Husband and I loved Montreal, even though it was FREEZING in December. The locals thought it was mild : 15 degrees. We will go again, perhaps in the summer. I loved the culture and architecture.

@ Jeff…when we moved here from south TX, we had a hard time finding decent Mexican Food. it is much better after 22 years but still not as good as what we ate there. I get my fix when I go back to Texas!

[...] Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) [...]

Been there...

December 30th, 2011
9:46 am

…done that – NEXT…


December 30th, 2011
10:48 am

My goal this year is to take the kids to new places instead of the same vacation spots we frequent. You’ve sold me, Theresa, and I think heading west for some exploration might be on our list next summer–Thanks for the great info!


December 30th, 2011
12:20 pm

When my boys were little, we never went to the same places on vacation; we always took them somewhere different (except two trips to DC because there is soooo much to see there). My boys have been up and down the east coast from Boston down, Colorado, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cancun, and Spain. They got to see and do lots of different things and have great memories of awesome vacations:)


December 30th, 2011
12:22 pm

How right you are. The Grand Canyon is amazing and beautiful, but a trip up into southern Utah also offers some stunning parks. Zion, Canyonlands, Bryce, Arches, Valley of the Gods, Natural Bridges.
Just thinking about them makes me want to book a flight.

Can't wait to take the kids

December 30th, 2011
12:39 pm

How old is your youngest child that you took with you? How did he fare? We went before the kids and loved that area and so we can’t wait to take them back with us but we were sure the best age. Seems like a great trip for kids since it is hands on and they can stretch their legs and explore.


December 30th, 2011
1:46 pm

Such beautiful scenery & landscape. Thanks for sharing!


December 30th, 2011
2:07 pm

There are so many beautiful places to see in the United States. That’s why I can’t imagine why anyone would want to first go overseas to visit, unless they have family over there. It could almost take a child’s lifetime to age 18, to see everything we have to offer here, even if you visit a different place every year. We tried to cover as much as we could, until they no longer wanted to travel with us, and still did not see every beautiful place. Some people never leave the state they have lived in all their lives, and I feel sorry for them because they don’t realize what they are missing.


December 30th, 2011
2:18 pm

@ Mitzymy…you are so right! My daughter has friends whose family goes to nearly the same place every year for vacation. Their girls have tagged along with us and loved seeing new things. I remember when they took their first camel ride and snapped a picture with the camel. The camel’s teeth were yellow and gooey like cheese…grossed everyone out but we will not forget it! We even went to Minneapolis in January, one year, to visit the Mall of America. It was 15 degrees outside but they got to feel a REAL winter!


December 30th, 2011
2:22 pm

@Mitzymy..I so agree with you on that..My sister (61) has a friend that lives in Buchanan, GA. (very small town) and she has never been anywhere further than the county line..I could not imagine that..I will never see all of the beauty of the US, but I sure try to see as much of it and GA that I can..

Hope that everyone has a very safe and Happy New Year..


December 30th, 2011
2:26 pm

My parents and I are putting the children in the motor home this summer and driving to Alaska. Along the way we are going to the Grand Canyon and several of the places on your list we are adding Yellowstone and Mt. Rushmore along with the Badlands. We plan on being gone for at least a month. My little one is disappointed that we can’t do all of it during Christmas vacation so he is super psyched about spending the summer with his grandparents traveling North America.


December 30th, 2011
3:02 pm

@cobb…not sure if you can work this in but Western Montana and Coeur d-alene (sp?) Idaho are AMAZING! You would then enter Washington in Spokane or maybe you can catch it on the way back! Hope you have a great time! If I had to take a month long camping trip in a camper with my parents and my kids, I would rather clean dorm bathrooms once a week at UGA for the next year! Being cooped up in a camper for a month, with others, would DO ME IN! Put me on the plane and at the Hampton Inn and I am wonderful! To each their own!

K's mom

December 30th, 2011
3:17 pm

Jeff and MJG, the best mexican food in the city is Nuevo Laredo on the western side of the city off of Chatahoochee. My very good friend from Texas will only eat there. They have “real” mole’ sauce and their food is just delicious. Worth the drive if you want good mexican food. You have to get there early because it is always crowded and they serve Pepsi products instead of Coke if that is an issue (The Pepsi plant across the street allows patrons to park there.

Now on topic…the Grand Canyon is breath taking and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring Arizona with my best friend years ago. I cannot wait to go with the family when the little guys are old enough. I traveled extensively for work during my single years and there is so much I want to go back and explore again. I do want to go to London and explore most of Italy, but other than that, I am content to see the wonderful things here. Boston, DC, Chicago, San Antonio, San Diego and San Francisco were my favorite client cities!


December 30th, 2011
3:23 pm

If you are going to go visit, I suggest you read some Edward Abbey first. Start with Desert Solitaire.


December 30th, 2011
4:10 pm

@ K’s…my my good memory of Mexican good was in Nuevo Laredo…the actual city, also Matamoras! Perhaps I can try your version thought…thanks! We were big Pepsi drinkers until we moved here from Texas. Now, I drink Sweet Tea but my husband loves Coke Zero.


December 30th, 2011
5:34 pm

Theresa, this is great! I am glad you are getting the chance to do this.

One of my fondest memories is a trip my folks and I made the summer after 6th grade. My dad worked for the government (he was a rocket engineer) and had business to do in LA and Salt Lake City. We took the old route 66 through Arkansas, Ok, TX, NM, AZ, to California, then went to NV, Utah, South Dakota, Illinois, Tennessee and back to Huntsville. (I am sure I left a state or two out) We were gone about 3 weeks and saw most of the important sites. It was truly a trip of a lifetime for us.

My Two Cents

December 30th, 2011
7:20 pm

My favorite place to travel. We took our boys when they were 5 and 7 and they had a blast. Nothing compares to the beauty of the Southwest and there is so much to see and do.


December 30th, 2011
7:45 pm

MJG, I’m fortunate that my parents are still young and fun. My dad owned a trucking company before he retired so we spent our summers in an 18 wheeler traveling the nation, a camper has much more room and we are making frequent stops. We are going to visit family in Anchorage and are going to see family in Michigan on the way back so our going and coming routes will be different. My husband is jealous but he can’t take off work for a month, hopefully he can fly out to join us in Alaska.


December 31st, 2011
1:54 am

@cobbmom: If you go to Yellowstone, consider heading north to Glacier National Park, and hit the Going-To-The-Sun Road. Absolutely breathtaking. Then, as you head over Idaho, try to stop by Craters of the Moon, a truly bizarre volcanic park where you can still find snow in July! The Snake River Canyon, on the border between Idaho and Washington, is also lovely.

The huge variety of scenic and historical landmarks in this country are truly astonishing. I feel so sorry when I talk to people who have never left their city or state, and are convinced they live on God’s Acre.

TWG, I hope you get a chance to take the kids to Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam, which is absolutely astonishing. Also, I was charmed by the number of parks that surround Las Vegas — not being big casino folk, we enjoyed driving out to Death Valley, Lake Mead and especially our tour through Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. And yeah, they’d probably be bug-eyed at the Strip if you drove down it one evening :-)


December 31st, 2011
9:25 am

Hoover Dam at Lake Mead (as DB said) IS spectacular! Be sure to do the tour inside the dam. We were there a couple of years ago before they finished the new bridge span that goes over the river, built to take the place of the road the goes over the dam – I need to go back to see it as completed since it, like the dam itself, is one of the “new” wonders of the world.

Nueva Laredo Cantina is way over-rated – IMHO…but it is crowded, so they must be doing something right!

Montana and South Dakota are also beautiful spots – be sure to check our “Wall Drugs” if anybody goes there (it’s about 1-2 hours outside Rapid City) – really an old western town turned commercial tourist trap!!!!


December 31st, 2011
10:11 am

I was not that impressed with Hoover Dam. We went about a dozen years ago and maybe it is better now? I did enjoy it but it is not on my top 10 list. Everyone does likes different things as is evident by Nuevo Laredo Cantina…I will certainly give it a shot if I am in the area. We lived 2 hours from Mexico, in Texas, and ate some pretty awesome food there. Most of our friends at church were Hispanic and they were wonderful about inviting us over for dinner and authentic Mexican Food. I remember Wall Drugs…saw that years ago The best prime rib I have ever eaten is at Minerva’s in Sioux Falls SD and my first time there was a memorable event, I dined with Tomie De Paolo the famous children’s author of Strega Nona and other wonderful books! It was amazing! Another great place for prime rib is East 40 Chophouse in Bismarck ND. The know how to do beef out there!

Theresa Walsh Giarrusso

December 31st, 2011
2:44 pm

ssidawg — our youngest is 4 and she is a very good traveler. I was actually more scared at the Grand Canyon with her because a lot of the rims are not fenced off. She doesn’t mind being in the car for the drives and is willing to look at things. She’s not great in a museum setting so the outdoor exploration is good for the young kids. I will be publishing in a few minutes another installment featuring live caves. That was a little stressful because it was darkish (which did bother her some) and they really couldn’t touch any thing. I was nervous about her reaching out but she did great.

DB — I think we may do some Nevada this summer. We want to hit a bunch of border areas that are in MG’s work territory and then cross into Nevada. We’ll see though. We also want to hit Yosemite and the Redwood Forest in California and San Francisco. So we’re still thinking on the best plan.


December 31st, 2011
4:10 pm

@TWG: Yosemite will take your breath away. One of these days I’ll tell you about my husband and son being six hours over due from a hike — in the dark — in Yosemite :-) Kings Canyon adjoins it, and we love Sequoia National Forest, too. When in San Francisco, the kids will enjoy Muir Woods (redwoods, anyone?) and take time for Golden Gate Park, not just a quick breeze-by on the way over the bridge. :-)


December 31st, 2011
7:24 pm

DB…I will go ahead and tell you about the time my husband and son went to meet his brother and son for a camping trip near Lake Texoma. My crew flew out and they rented a car with a GPS. They were driving in the pitch black night and nearly drove into the lake ….WHOA…the GPS was not right!


January 1st, 2012
2:38 pm

I have been to MV twice and the road through the valley is a must-do! You don’t need a 4×4 though, just something with good clearance. Though I wouldn’t recommend it, I did see some cars take the trek. A truck or SUV would be best. And go slow!

I also highly recommend one of the horseback tours given by the local Native Americans. We took one through the valley and got pretty close to the mittens. Stunning!

Bob G

January 1st, 2012
2:58 pm

I took my twin grandchildren to all lower 48 states over a period of 7 Summers. The West, particularly the Southwest, ranked at the top of my must-see list. I love the West, primarily because it offers such a contrast to our tall Georgia pines. Open space can be beautiful.


January 1st, 2012
5:29 pm

Leave the jeep, get your family on bicycles or stap on some backpacks. I promise you will see 10 times more and feel 100 times better.


January 2nd, 2012
4:58 pm

Very good, descriptivtive article. A lot can be learned from out Native American lands, and the southwest in particular — we’d all be better off if more people learned about and paid tribute to what is right in our own backyard; instead of taking U.S. dollars elsewhere.

One thing to remember, folks: be respectful of the land and the people. The southwestern way of life was around long before us and will be sound and sturdy long after we depart.