From the gnarled desert canyons of the Southwest, to the windy sweep of the Great Plains, the USA's cinematic western landscapes are interwoven with Native American tribal lore and traditions. Learn more first-hand at these national parks and historic sites, which protect ancient cliff dwellings, ghost dance sites, Old West trading posts and much more, where you can explore the past (and present) of Native American culture.
Start in the Four Corners region, where the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet. More Native Americans live here today than anywhere else in the USA. It's also the historical homeland of Ancestral Puebloan people, who built elaborate cliff dwellings on the Colorado Plateau between 600 and 1300 CE. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mesa Verde National Park preserves over 5000 archaeological sites and scores of indigenous pueblos (villages) built into vertical cliff faces high atop the mesas, or 'islands in the sky'. Ranger-guided tours visit Cliff Palace, the park's largest and most impressively preserved cliff dwelling, and Balcony House, which you'll reach by climbing wooden ladders and twisting through narrow tunnels to glimpse 800-year-old kivas (underground ceremonial rooms).
Many Native American tribes were forced to relocate to the Four Corners region during the USA's 19th-century western expansion. But indigenous people had already been living here for almost a thousand years prior to the arrival of the US military and pioneer homesteaders. Across the Southwest, a vast network of roads built by Ancestral Puebloans all led to Chaco, the prehistoric city at the center of the complex Chaco Culture, which flourished between 800 and 1100 CE. You can drive the park's loop road in a day, stopping to walk through eerily deserted adobe houses and plazas and past ancient petroglyphs etched into rocky cliffs. Located in a remote area of New Mexico, Chaco is one of the Southwest's most isolated parks, its dark skies so far from any city lights that it's perfect for star-gazing, either from the park's astronomical observatory or your own campsite.
Generations of Native Americans have sought out hidden life-giving pockets of the Four Corners region. Canyon de Chelly is one such place, with natural springs that sustained ancient pueblos, fruit orchards and fields of corn, beans and squash. Later Hopi people settled the canyon, followed by the Navajo, who still reside here. Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is the place to slow down and dig deeply into Native American culture and history. Take a back country 4WD tour with a Navajo guide, or drive yourself to lookout points along the canyon's rim, then hike down into the secretive canyon on the White House Trail. Elsewhere in the Navajo Nation, don't miss the exquisitely preserved Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, with its prized Navajo rug room and daily demonstrations of traditional weaving techniques.
If you want to see how the American West looked to Native Americans for centuries before US military forces and settlers arrived, head for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here countless Hollywood Westerns including Dancing With Wolves have been filmed. For the most cinematic scenery, seek out the mesmerizing eroded pinnacles and buttes of Badlands National Park. Spy on bison, which once covered the plains in herds millions of animals strong, hunted by Native Americans as a source of food and raw materials for clothing, shelter and weapons. The park's southern section is on the Pine Ridge Reservation of the Ogala Sioux. Here the last ghost dances – in which Native Americans ritually danced and prayed for peace against the onslaught of the US government – took place in the late 19th century. It's also the site of the infamous Wounded Knee massacre, the final armed confrontation between US Cavalry troops and Native Americans, which closed the frontier forever in 1890. Stop by the park's White River Visitor Center and the Red Cloud Indian School's Heritage Center to learn more about the heartbreaking history of this land, recently proposed to become the USA's first tribal national park.
Traveller etiquette tips
- Ask first before taking photos of any people on tribal reservations or Native Americans working at national parks and historical sites.
- At archaeological sites and in the wilderness, practice 'leave no trace' principles. Do not touch, move or otherwise disturb any artifacts or existing structures. Report any new discoveries to park or tribal rangers.
- Always stay on paved walkways and signposted hiking trails unless accompanied by a park or tribal ranger or an officially licensed tour guide.
- Buying, selling, possessing, consuming or transporting alcohol is illegal on some Native American reservations, including the Navajo Nation.
Sara Benson is a travel writer, digital media creator, all-seasons outdoor enthusiast and former national park ranger. When she’s not roaming around Asia, the Pacific and the Americas, she makes her home in coastal California. Follow her on Twitter @indie_traveler.