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A tour through time: a sampling of the historical parks along the 900-mile Grand Circle Tour provides an excellent introduction to the history of American Indian cultures. (Excursions).

In an area of the United States famous for its geological and biological diversity, another tale of diversity is told--the multifaceted history of American Indians in the Southwest. Indeed, there are as many stories about the early inhabitants of this country as there are colors in the sheer rock walls of the Grand Canyon.

The history of American Indians has often fallen prey to oversimplification. Representations of American Indians as scalp hunters or "noble savages" have dominated and hidden the multihued history of native people. The Park Service is attempting to debunk the mythology surrounding American Indians and show, first-hand, the variegated and wondrous cultures that existed and still exist in the Southwest and elsewhere.

The historical parks along the 900-mile Grand Circle Tour provide an excellent jumping-off point for the serious or casual student of history. This tour, reported to include the highest concentration of national parks anywhere in the world, includes 14 managed by the National Park Service. Those featured here provide a taste of the riches to be found.

Navajo National Monument

According to the Park Service, Navajo National Monument is one of the best understood of the American Indian sites, which makes it a great place to begin your historical journey. It is also a good place to learn about the diverse and complicated past of native habitation in the region. Although the park is named after the Navajo, they are not the direct descendants of the ancient people who built the park's well-preserved cliff dwellings. The Navajo are descendants of the ancient Athabaskan people and moved into the area after emigrating from northern Canada in the late 1500s.

The monument sits in red rock canyon country, and its cliff dwellings and the scenery surrounding them are astonishing. More than 700 years ago, ancient farmers moved from flatlands in the area into the canyons. As with much of the story of American Indians in the region, the exact motivation remains a mystery. It may have been a combination of the depletion of natural resources, the search for protection from the elements, and war-fare with other cultures.

The visitor center for the park sits near the Betatakin (Navajo meaning "ledge house") site, which can be viewed by taking a one-mile round-trip trail to an overlook. Tours to the ruin are offered from May through September. A second cliff dwelling, Keet Seel (from an altered Navajo word meaning "many broken pieces of pottery shard"), is accessible via a strenuous 8.5-mile trail that takes a full day to hike. To hike here, visitors must make reservations at least two months in advance. Tours are available from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends.

The park has a campground available on a first-come, first-served basis. Additional accommodations can be found in nearby Kayenta. For more information about the park, call 928-672-2700, or go to www.nps.gov/nava.

Mesa Verde National Park

Perhaps the most famous of all the historical sites on the Grand Circle, Mesa Verde National Park is named for the beautiful green mesa that rises above the surrounding high desert. The Park Service has done an excellent job of charting the long history of habitation at Mesa Verde. On the Mesa Top Loop Drive, visitors can learn about the progression of ancient Puebloan architecture from the pithouses and above-ground dwellings of the Basket-maker Period--named for the ancient settlers who first moved from hunting and gathering to farming and learned the craft of basketmaking--to the cliff dwellings and advanced architecture and artistry of the Pueblo Period.

Through Park Service excavations, visitors can trace the development of the religious kivas. The most important site for religious observations, kivas developed into round structures built deep below the courtyards. The sites include a fire pit, ventilator shaft with an air deflector for fresh air, benches for sitting, and a sipapu, a small hole dug into the middle. Ancient Puebloans believed that their ancestors had come from another world, and the sipapu represents the original hole through which they entered.

The loop drive provides views of the iconic Cliff Palace dwelling. During the spring, summer, and fall, visitors can also travel the Cliff Palace Loop, which provides access via a .75-mile hike to an overlook of the impressive Balcony House site. Also available in those seasons is the Wetherill Mesa road, from which visitors can view the Step House and Long House dwellings and other sites.

Services and accommodations are available in nearby Cortez. Inside the park, a campground is available from mid-April to mid-October on a first-come, first-served basis, and a lodge is also available seasonally. Call 800-449-2288 for more information about the campground and the lodge. For more information about the park, call 970-529-4465, or go to www.nps.gov/meve.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Evidence of continual habitation for thousands of years makes Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY) National Monument a great place to learn about the ancestral Puebloan sites. The park's dwellings rest within a backdrop of astonishing red rock canyon walls that range from 30 feet at the park entrance to more than 1,000 feet elsewhere.

The Navajo arrived in the area about 300 years ago after the Hopi, the modern-day ancestors of the ancient Puebloans, had mostly migrated from the area because of drought, disease, conflict, and possibly the allure of religious ideas from the southern Puebloans.

Early conflicts between the Navajo and nonnative settlers continued after the United States took control of the Southwest from Mexico in the middle 1800s. In 1863, Colonel Kit Carson began a "scorched earth campaign," destroying livestock, homes, and crops. The Navajo retreated into Canyon de Chelly, but were eventually defeated and forced to travel 300 miles to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. More than 9,000 Navajos surrendered, but only 4,000 survived the journey and internment at Bosque Redondo before the last peace treaty between the Navajo and the United States was signed on June 1, 1868, allowing them to return to their homeland.

Today, park visitors can join tours led by direct descendants of the ancient Navajo. Those unable to take a guided tour are permitted to hike the fairly arduous 2.5-mile round-trip trail to the White House, a spectacular example of an early ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling named for a long wall covered in white plaster. Visitors can also take the north and south rim drives to view the scenery and cliff dwellings in the canyon.

Services and accommodations can be found in nearby Chinle, Arizona. Both the Thunderbird Lodge (800-679-2473, www.tbirdlodge.com, located within the park) and a Holiday Inn (800-HOLIDAY, www.holiday-inn.com, on the park's border) incorporate remnants of historic trading posts from the early 1900s. A first-come, first-served campground within the park is available free of charge. For more information about the park, call 928-674-5500, or go to www.nps.gov/cach.

Grand Canyon National Park

No visit to the area would be complete without a stop at the Grand Canyon. The park's famous multicolored towering cliffs and deep canyons retain the power to amaze even the most jaded traveler.

As with other parks along the Grand Circle Tour, extensive evidence of American Indian habitation exists in and near the Grand Canyon, dating back at least 8,000 to 10,000 years. Archaeologists have found pictographs in the canyon as well as animal effigies made from willow or cottonwood twigs that date from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.

The Grand Canyon is an important site to many American Indian tribes.

Most tribes of the Puebloan culture, including the Hopi and Zuni, believe they lived in three previous worlds before emerging into this one at a point within the Grand Canyon. Other nations, including the Hualapai, Havasupai, Southern Paiute, and Navajo, live on reservations that either border or are very near to the national park and consider the canyon a sacred place.

Opportunities for recreation in the park are nearly limitless. To avoid crowds, the best times to visit are in the fall or spring, although some weeks in spring, when schools are on break, can be just as busy as the summer months. If you don't mind colder temperatures, the winter is also a good time, although the North Rim is closed.

On the South Rim, visitors can hike the Rim Trail from Kaibab Trailhead west to Hermits Rest, a distance of 13 to 14 miles. Many portions of the trail are near park roads and can be reached by private vehicle or free shuttle bus. Explore the Tusayan site located near Desert View Drive near the East Entrance. The Bright Angel Trail, 9.3 miles one way, leads visitors to Phantom Ranch in the bottom of the canyon. Nearby is the Bright Angel site, which should not be missed. Most hikers take at least two days to go to Phantom Ranch and return. A backcountry permit is required for all overnight stays away from developed areas.

On the North Rim, generally the less crowded of the two rims, consider the following trails: Widforss, 9.8 miles round-trip; the Ken Patrick, ten miles one way to Point Imperial; and the Uncle Jim, five miles round-trip. The Walhalla Glades site is located along the road to Cape Royal. Backpacking adventures into the core of the park are plentiful and varied; ask a park ranger at one of the visitor centers for suggestions.

Reservations for camping are required from April through November (800-365-2267, www.reservations.nps.gov). Contact the Chambers of Commerce for accommodations and services in nearby Williams (www.thegrandcanyon.com, 928-635-4061) and Flagstaff (www. flagstaff chamber.com, 928-774-4505). For information on lodging in Tusayan near the South Rim, Jacob Lake near the North Rim, and other lodging options, go to www.kaibab.org.

In addition, the Grand Canyon has a number of beautiful historic lodges (www.grandcanyonlodges.com, 303-297-2757) which range from the rustic to the luxurious. For more information about the park, call 928-638-7888, or go to www.nps.gov/grca.

William Updike is a former staff member of National Parks and is currently traveling to visit national parks throughout the country.
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Author:Updike, William A.
Publication:National Parks
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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