Arizona is home to 22 sovereign tribes spread across the state, each with their own governments, rules, cultures, histories, and customs. Some of Arizona’s most historic sites and prettiest landscapes lie on Tribal lands, and understanding and respecting these rules and traditions enrich a visitor’s experience and ensure a more enjoyable trip.
Many tribes restrict taking photos and videos, so visitors should ask before recording anything on the Tribal lands. In addition, dances and ceremonies open to the public have specific expectations from spectators, which may not be explained beforehand. Visitors can observe Tribal attendees and follow their lead.
Federal and some state laws prevent disturbing or removing artifacts, pot shards, plants, or rocks from Tribal lands. Most sacred sites are closed to non-tribal members. However, some tribes offer guided tours through them, offering an extraordinary glimpse into their traditions.
Visitors might also note that, when driving through tribal lands, sheep, goats, and cattle could be on the road. This is common, as some Tribes have an open range policy. Additionally, dirt roads might not be maintained, so it’s advised to stick to paved roads. Google maps might not be accurate, so plan accordingly, and expect cell service to be spotty or nonexistent in remote areas. Tribal lands can be vast, and gas stations might not always be available, so pack extra water and snacks, and top off your gas when you’re able. Also note that unpredictable weather can cause flash flooding, even in areas where it’s not raining.
With all this in mind, a road trip across the state is the best way to experience the beautiful landscapes and important sites on Tribal lands in Arizona.
Tohono O’Odham Nation
The Tohono O’odham Nation, also known as “the people of the desert,” is one of the largest in the state. Their Tribal land includes a large portion of Southern Arizona and part of the Mexican state of Sonora. Their Cultural Center and Museum in the town of Topawa,off Indian Route 19 several miles south of AZ-Route 86, offers visitors an opportunity to learn about the nation’s culture and history.
The best-known destination in the Tohono O’odham Nation is the San Xavier del Bac Mission, just south of Tucson. Built in 1797, it is the oldest European structure in Arizona. Part of the historic mission’s name, “del Bac,” means “place where water appears” in the Tohono O’odham language, referring to a natural spring and the Santa Cruz River.
Montezuma Castle & Montezuma Well
Montezuma Castle National Monument and Montezuma Well have long been popular stops on road trips across Arizona. However, few visitors realize the park lies on the Tribal land of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, comprising five communities in the beautiful Verde Valley.
On the way to the spectacular cliff dwelling, travelers pass the Cliff Castle Casino Hotel, the perfect opportunity to stop for a meal or an overnight stay while further exploring the surrounding area.
Grand Canyon West and Peach Springs
A side trip to Grand Canyon West is worth the drive, and it passes through the Tribal land of the Hualapai Nation. Grand Canyon West is home to the popular Skywalk, a cantilevered glass bridge that offers an unparalleled experience and stunning views of the Grand Canyon from above (without actually flying in a helicopter).
On the way, travelers can stop at Peach Springs and visit the Cultural Center for a glimpse into the lives of the Hualapai, the “people of the tall pines.” Or, take a one-of-a-kind rafting tour with the Hualapai River Runners.
Hopi Cultural Center
Head back towards the northeastern side of the state and visit the Tribal land of the Hopi Nation. Living in traditional homes on three mesas, the Hopi only allow visits to their villages via a guided tour. Travelers can visit the Hopi Cultural Center on the Second Mesa and book one there. The cultural center also offers guest rooms and a restaurant. Its museum and gallery are the best introductions to the Hopi culture.
The Navajo Nation
Arizona is also home to the Navajo Nation, the largest Tribal nation in the country. Members of the Navajo Nation call themselves Diné, meaning “the people,” and live in some of the most remote yet beautiful areas of the Southwest.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is the first stop in the land of the Diné on this Arizona road trip. Here, the visitor center offers an excellent introduction to Diné culture and guided tours into the canyon. There’s only one self-guided trail in the park, which leads to the cliff dwellings at White House Ruins. Along the rim, scenic stops offer views into the canyon. Of these stop-offs, Spider Rock Overlook provides the most spectacular views.
Gorgeous sandstone masterpieces towering above the high desert floor greet motorists driving along as they reach Monument Valley. The Navajo Tribal Park offers a closer look at this landscape, taking visitors on guided tours into the canyon. The visitor center and the View Hotel, overlooking the famous Mitten Buttes, showcase scenic panoramic views of the valley.
Navajo National Monument is also home to some of the most spectacular Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings in Arizona. The largest one, Betatakin, is visible from the easy and paved Rim Trail. For a closer look, visitors need to join a ranger-led tour to hike down to it. Besides Beatakin, there are also guided hikes to Keet Seel, another cliff dwelling on the canyon floor.
Antelope Canyon is one of the most popular destinations in Arizona. Part of Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park, the famous slot canyon is only accessible through guided tours that take visitors to the Upper or the Lower Antelope Canyon.
Pipe Spring National Monument
The last destination on this road trip, Pipe Spring National Monument, is on the Tribal land of the Kaibab Band of Paiute people. The park commemorates native and pioneer life on the southwestern frontier. Its visitor center and museum showcase exhibits about the people and cultures who lived and still live in the region.