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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)