Top 10 drives in Indian Country

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AUTHOR: Richard Nilsen, The Arizona Republic

If you’re like most people, chances are good that what you see in your mind
when you picture the West are the mesas and canyons of Arizona’s Indian
Country.

On the roads of the Hopi and Navajo reservations in the northeastern corner
of the state, you discover the rosy sandstone, mint-green sagebrush and the
turquoise skies of American dreams.

But the reservations are more than the scenery, however spectacular.

When you drive through Indian country, what you really find are the people
who live there.

1. U.S. 89 and 89A from Flagstaff to Marble Canyon

This route takes in a good chunk of the western Navajo Reservation, with
incredible views of the Painted Desert from the summit of the 7,282-foot
pass over the shoulder of the San Francisco Peaks. It crosses the Little
Colorado River at Cameron – take the old bridge, marked “truck route” – and
passes under the Echo Cliffs north of The Gap. At Marble Canyon, you can
cross the last bridge over the Colorado River before it cuts into the Grand
Canyon.

2. Indian 59 from U.S. 160 to Many Farms

The north side of Black Mesa is its most attractive, with tall cliffs
covered in dark pines. Along the way, make sure you take the loop road to
Rough Rock, one of the most beautiful of the Navajo communities.

3. New Mexico 134 over Narbona Pass

The pass used to be called Washington Pass but has been renamed in honor of
the Navajo Peace Chief Narbona, who was killed under orders of Col. John
Washington in 1849. The road passes the famous textile-design community of
Crystal and passes over the Chuska Mountains through cool pine forests.

4. Indian 7 from Fort Defiance to Chinle

The ideal way to discover Canyon de Chelly is to take this back road north
from Fort Defiance through pastoral ridges and into the woods near Sawmill,
where the pavement ends. The good-quality gravel road continues past Fluted
Rock and into the back entrance to Canyon de Chelly. Be sure to stop at
Wild Cherry Canyon overlook, just after the pavement picks up again, for a
quiet, non-tourist-clogged look at one of the side canyons of the system.
The road ends at the park road for the national monument.

5. Indian 13 from U.S. 666 to Lukachukai

The road leaves U.S. 666 just south of Shiprock, N.M., and heads west to
the Chuska Mountains. It passes close to the impressive volcanic plug named
Shiprock and drives through several magma dikes on the way to Red Rock. The
pavement ends, but take the rough gravel road over the mountains to
Lukachukai, looking out for children who may want to sell you peaches.

6. U.S. 163 from Kayenta to Mexican Hat, Utah

There is more than Monument Valley along the road north from Kayenta. Owl
Rock on one side and Agathla Needle on the other serve as gateways to the
valley. And just north of Mexican Hat, take the marked roads to Goosenecks
of the San Juan Overlook and Valley of the Gods.

7. Indian 27 from Ganado to Chinle

Paved for about half its length, this is the route through Beautiful Valley
and Nazlini. Stop at all the overlooks for views of the Defiance Plateau
and its colorful rocks and later for the colorful badlands north of
Nazlini.

8. Indian 30 from Narbona Pass to Mexican Springs, N.M.

This is the toughest road we’re recommending, and it should be taken only
by the adventurous. Finding it is only the first of its difficulties, but
it leaves New Mexico 134 near the crest of Narbona Pass. You will see a
radar dome on the hillside. After 15 miles of gravel and dust, passing
through several marshy places, you will come to Whiskey Lake, which is a
wonderful fishing spot.

Beyond the lake, there are several routes back down
the mountain. One goes to Red Lake, N.M., on the west side of the mountain
range, the other goes to Nakaibito, or Mexican Springs, N.M., on the east.
Your car will be red with road powder, but you will have seen some of the
best the reservation has.

9. Indian 12 from Round Rock to Window Rock

The highway cuts off U.S. 191 at Round Rock, in view of one of the more
spectacular buttes in Navajo country. You pass by the Lukachukai Mountains,
a side range of the Chuskas, and head up into the high country at the head
of Canyon de Chelly. Wheatfield Lake along the way is great for fishing and
noted for ice-fishing in the winter.

10. Indian 65 from Whippoorwill Springs to Keams Canyon

This road only looks scary. Any decent passenger car can make it, although
I wouldn’t suggest those driving an RV try it. It is paved into the
community of Low Mountain, but then it is gravel up the steep side of the
mesa south of town.

At the top, the view is grand, but there is no “other
side” to the hill. It is flat on top until it descends into the draw
leading to Keams Canyon on the Hopi Reservation. There are some ponds and a
nice stream along the way.

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© The Arizona Republic

Richard Nilsen writes for the The Arizona Republic