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From the Grand Canyon to the Painted Desert of the Navajo Nation, this corner of the Colorado Plateau is chock-full of Native American history and culture. You could spend a lifetime exploring and learning about the region, and Flagstaff is the perfect place to start.
The Four Corners region is rich with Native American culture, and Flagstaff is the perfect place to start exploring. Ancient Ancestral Puebloan and Sinagua archeological sites dot the high desert, while the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, Havasupai, Kaibab-Paiute people, among others, still call the area home. Over 31,000 square miles (an area larger than Maine) of the Colorado Plateau are Native lands, with their ancestral territory extending well beyond that. Whether you’re looking for a historical perspective or wares from modern-day artisans, your adventure begins here.
This story was created in partnership with Visit USA Parks.
Start off at the Museum of Northern Arizona to get the lay of the land and a crash course on the region’s Indigenous peoples. Set at the foot of the San Francisco Peaks, this historic, 200-acre campus houses over 5 million artifacts, specimens and artworks. Staying true to its mission to respect Native cultures, the museum collaborated with 42 tribal consultants from 10 tribes around the region to open a new permanent exhibit in 2018, called “Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau.” Over 350 items are on display in the exhibit, which were carefully curated by the tribal consultants. Other exhibits include prehistoric archeological artifacts, jewelry, art, and even dinosaur footprints.
Around 900 years ago, Ancestral Puebloans returned to this area following the eruption of the Sunset Crater volcano. The volcanic soil proved beneficial for farming, and thus the construction of a multitude of pueblos began. Today, you can take a driving tour along a 34-mile scenic loop in Wupatki National Monument that provides easy access (many of the pueblos are wheelchair accessible) to a half-dozen of these ancient pueblos. Wupatki Pueblo is the largest, which could have housed up to 100 people divided between its 100 rooms and multiple stories, complete with an above-ground kiva and ballcourt. Nearby Wukoki Pueblo is one of the best-preserved structures, with a three-story tower that is still intact. Set atop a sandstone outcrop, it also offers sweeping views of the San Francisco Peaks. Each pueblo offers a different look into the lives of the people who lived here, and each is worth exploring on this easy day trip from Flagstaff.
Ten miles southeast of town you’ll find Walnut Canyon National Monument, a system of well-preserved cave dwellings built by the Sinagua, some of the region’s earliest inhabitants. Dozens of these 12th century structures can be viewed or visited via two hiking trails in the park. Start off on the 0.75 mile Rim Trail, which is mostly flat and offers great views of the dwellings tucked into the canyon cliffs, as well as a spur trail to a small pueblo. To get a closer look, take the Island Trail that descends into the canyon. Though this trail is short (and steep in places), it’s packed with features—in just under a mile you’ll get to visit 25 cliff dwellings.
Credit: Discover Flagstaff
If you plan your visit for mid-summer, don’t miss out on the Heritage Festival, hosted by the Museum of Northern Arizona. The festival’s roots date back to 1930, when it was originally an event promoting Hopi artisans. It’s grown to include tribes from across the Southwest, featuring performances, demonstrations, and presentations in addition to traditional arts and crafts. Dances, games, and speakers round out the program to provide an immersive, hands-on look into Native American culture in the Southwest.