Living History

By: Elizabeth Exline

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June 27, 2012

Travel to cliff dwellings, pioneer forts and one of the country's oldest living communities - all on Arizona's tribal lands - for insight into the state's fascinating past.

About the author

Elizabeth Exline

Elizabeth Exline

Elizabeth Exline is a freelance writer and editor whose articles have appeared in Sunset, Robb Report, LUXE and various other local, regional and national media.

Just because Arizona was one of the last states to join the Union doesn’t mean its history is as freshly minted as its star on the flag.

A visit to these National Historic Sites on the state’s American Indian lands opens the door to cultures that have inhabited these lands for centuries.

Canyon de Chelly

Pronounced Canyon de Shay, this landmark sits on approximately 84,000 acres of Navajo land east of Flagstaff, and its intense, dramatic scenery has attracted inhabitants for the past 4,000 years.

“It’s like putting the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde all in one place,” explains Canyon de Chelly’s Deputy Superintendent Wilson Hunter.

Visitors can hike the 1 1/4-mile White House Trail to see the early Ancient Puebloan cave and floor dwellings, take in the nearly 800-foot Spider Rock or simply drive along the rims for the view.

Although guides are not required to explore the White House Trail or for the rim drives, be sure to hire a guide to expand your experience by taking hiking, horseback or vehicle tours into the canyon.

While there is no entrance fee, campsite fees were recently introduced.

Visit or for more information.

Fort Apache and Kinishba Ruins

Once home to the Ancient Puebloan and, subsequently, the White Mountain Apache tribes, Fort Apache also served as a military base and a boarding school for Navajo and Apache children.

Today, 27 historic buildings – including a log cabin from 1871 – still stand, but it’s the garden that best evokes Fort Apache’s layers of history.

Here people have, “grown crops successively over the last 10 centuries,” explains director of the Fort Apache Heritage Foundation, Inc., Karl Hoerig, Ph.D.

Four miles west of the park, visitors can step further back in time with a visit to Kinishba Ruins, the site of a 14th-century Puebloan village.

A 1/3-mile trail meanders through portions of the ruins, as well as the attempts at reconstruction dating from the 1930s.

Visitors must register at the Nohwike’ Bágowa Museum before touring Fort Apache or Kinishba Ruins. Guides can be arranged for a fee through the museum with at least 24 hours’ notice.

Visit for details.

Navajo National Monument

“Navajo National Monument is located in the Shonto Plateau, geologically speaking,” says Navajo National Monument’s Chief of Interpretation Lola Henio.

Accordingly, these majestic grounds are defined by canyons, rims and cliffs, and they have been settled by Hopi, Zuni and Ancient Puebloan communities, as well as Navajos.

Today, the site welcomes tourists who are eager to see both the natural scenery and two historic cliff dwellings, Betatakin and Keet Seel. (A third structure, Inscription House, is too fragile for visitation.)

Everything is free of charge, including the two campgrounds, three trails and a small museum inside the visitor center.

Guided tours (required if you want to see the ruins; make arrangement in advance) are available during the summer; hiking permits are required and available at the visitor center.

Visit for additional information.

Old Oraibi

Situated on the third of three mesas, Old Oraibi (or Orayvi in the Hopi language) dates back to at least 1150 AD and is one of the oldest surviving communities in the country.

“Oraibi is a living community, yet 1,000 years old,” explains Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office.

Not surprisingly then, there are ruins aplenty to see, as well as petroglyphs in the surrounding area.

Visitors can also browse through arts and crafts, but the real takeaway is witnessing a traditional Hopi way of life that remains practically untouched by time.

Although visitors need permission to enter Old Oraibi, guides are not required; however, a guide can enhance your experience considerably. (Visit for details.) Photography, recording and even sketching is strictly prohibited in all Hopi villages.

For more information, visit

Pipe Spring National Monument

With vestiges of Kaibab-Paiute civilization, cattle farmers and Mormon settlers, Pipe Spring National Monument on the Arizona Strip, along the state’s northern border, embodies many sides of the Western experience.

Visitors can still see buildings from Pipe Spring’s ranching heyday – including the fort and Winsor Castle (an 1870 ranch house built by Mormon settlers) – along with a garden and orchard that grow the same crops American Indians and pioneers once grew.

Animals, from cattle and chickens to birds and lizards, roam the 40-acre site, while a museum recounts the American Indian history of the place.

The $5 entrance fee includes daily guided tours by park rangers of Winsor Castle, as well as talks and demonstrations of pioneer and American Indian crafts.

Campsites are available on the Kaibab-Paiute reservation, or you can stay in nearby Fredonia, Arizona.

Visit for details.

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