Exploring Indigenous Heritage in the American Southwest
Adventurer & Photographer
Below we have created a guide to exploring Indigenous heritage in the American Southwest. It’s important to learn before you travel, participate respectfully and ask permission, support local Indigenous communities, and continue to educate yourself when traveling through Indigenous communities and landscapes. Remember that tribal nations are distinct sovereign governments, and they should not all be lumped together under one Native American umbrella. Every tribe is unique and has different stories, traditions, languages, and laws. For a more thorough prelude to traveling through Indigenous lands, check out our introduction article. Please make sure to travel using Leave No Trace practices in order to keep these sacred places safe and protected for future generations.
We realize that there are many National Monuments and State Parks which have significant Indigenous history and heritage. We have focused on the National Parks in this series for simplicity’s sake. Please check out our archaeology road trip itinerary specifically focused on the Four Corners area for an even more in-depth overview.
Colorado National Parks
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
The tallest sand dunes in North America surrounded by breathtaking snow covered peaks have been inspiring human inhabitants for over 11,000 years! The tribes that have deep connections to this land include the Southern Utes, Diné (Navajo), Jicarilla Apaches, and Puebloans. There are events each summer that celebrate the culture of the different tribes of this area at the Visitor Center or Amphitheater. It’s best to check with the park’s most current calendar for upcoming events. The Jicarilla Apaches often do informal storytelling, crafts, sharing, and traditional dance at least once per summer. Have time to spend here? Make sure to stay for at least an evening to enjoy the Milky Way in this International Dark Sky Park!
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
With its steep dark cliff walls, raging river and rugged surrounding wilderness, it’s no wonder that the Black Canyon holds a sacred place in Ute Indian history. Most of the artifacts, petroglyphs and pictographs from Ute Indians are found on or near the rim of the canyon. It is suspected that the inner depths of the canyon were avoided. To learn more about Ute culture and traditions, make sure to stop by the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose, CO. Its exhibits and events connect the past with contemporary Ute life and culture.
Mesa Verde National Park
For an intimate look into the past and the lives of America’s First Peoples, Mesa Verde National Park is an excellent starting point. This national park was established in 1906 to preserve and interpret the archaeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloan people. They called this area home for over 700 years from 600 to 1300 CE. The park protects nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde is a profound natural and historic site and example of Indigenous heritage in the American Southwest.
Today, there are 24 tribes that have a special relationship with this landscape and its long history; the 19 Pueblo Tribes of New Mexico: Taos, Picuris, Sandia, Isleta, Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Nambe, Tesuque, Jemez, Cochiti, Pojoaque, Santo Domingo, San Felipe, Santa Ana, Zia, Laguna, Acoma, and Zuni, the Hopi Tribe in Arizona, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Colorado, the Southern Ute in Colorado and Navajo Nation in Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
For an Indigenous perspective on the area, we recommend visiting the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park. Tours here are guided by Ute Indians with a broad knowledge of Ute and Ancestral Puebloan cultures. The tours include Ute history and rock art, surface sites, and cliff dwellings. Visit www.utemountaintribalpark.info or call (970) 565-9653 for tour information. The Four Corners area is rich with history, traditions, and living Indigenous culture – stay a while, explore and enjoy!
Utah National Parks
Arches National Park
Humans have been present in the Moab valley and Arches National Park for more than 10,000 years, beginning with migrating hunter-gatherers. Around 2,000 years ago, Ancestral Puebloans began to settle this area and grow crops like maize, beans, and squash. The tribes today that hold strong connections to this special place are the Hopi Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Paiute, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians of the Moapa River Reservation, Navajo Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Pueblo of Zuni, Rosebud Sioux, San Juan Southern Paiute, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. The landscape in Arches is considered a powerful and sacred space to all of these Indigenous people. Please remember to explore these wild landscapes with respect.
Looking to explore the surrounding area further? We recommend taking a hiking or river tour with Ancient Wayves River and Hiking Adventures. They are an Indigenous-owned guiding company whose Native interpretations of the landscapes will be educational, adventurous and exciting!
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park spans 337,598 acres of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires in the heart of southeast Utah’s high desert. This majestic park offers solitude and an intimate look at the rich living human history of the area. The Hopi Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Kewa Pueblo, Navajo Nation, Ohkay Owingeh, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Pueblo of Acoma, Pueblo of Isleta, Pueblo of Jemez, Pueblo of Laguna, Pueblo of Nambé, Pueblo of Picuris, Pueblo of Pojoaque, Pueblo of San Felipe, Pueblo of Sandia, Pueblo of Santa Ana, Pueblo of Santa Clara, Pueblo of Taos, Pueblo of Tesuque, Pueblo of Zia, Pueblo of Zuni, San Juan Southern Paiute, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe all have special relationships with this landscape. Many of these descendants of Indigenous heritage in the American southwest still live in and around this captivating and rugged park.
To experience some of the incredible rock art found in the park, we recommend visiting Horseshoe Canyon. This site contains some of the most significant rock art in North America. The Great Gallery includes well-preserved, life-sized figures with intricate designs. These sites are extremely fragile and deserve the care and respect of a sacred space. Please tread lightly and never touch any of the rock art or artifacts. If you are visiting Canyonlands in the fall, try to time your trip with the Red Canyon Powwow, taking place in Moab, UT, in October. At this festive event, Indigenous dancers, singers and drummers demonstrate their skills and share their heritage.
Capitol Reef National Park
Tucked in the vast desert landscape of southern Utah, Capitol Reef is home to colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, imposing monoliths, winding canyons, and graceful arches. It is also home to the “Waterpocket Fold”, a nearly 100-mile long warp or wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. Along with the amazing views and geologic features of this park, this landscape has an ancient human history dating back more than 10,000 years. It began with hunter-gatherers and then Fremont and Ancestral Puebloan cultures, to the Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Paiute, Pueblo and Diné tribes of today.
Visit the Fremont Culture Petroglyphs and bring binoculars to spot anthropomorphic (human-like) petroglyphs. You can also see bighorn sheep, petroglyphs, and other animals and geometric designs.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The largest concentration of hoodoos found on planet Earth, clear, starry night skies and a long legacy of Indigenous heritage make Bryce Canyon an incredible place to visit. The tribes that share connections to this otherworldly landscape include the Southern Paiute, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, and Navajo peoples. The Paiute called the hoodoo rock formations Anka-ku-was-a-wits, meaning the “red painted faces.” Their legend of the rock formation is still shared in the park today. To experience Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah traditions and culture, we recommend attending the annual Pow Wow which occurs every June in Cedar City, Utah.
Zion National Park
Long before tourists came to brave the Angels Landing hike or wade through the Narrows, the wild slot canyons, colossal sandstone cliffs, and wide variety of incredible plants and animals in Zion National Park left their impression on many groups of Indigenous peoples. This began with the Fremont and Ancestral Puebloans and includes the Pueblo and Paiute tribes of today. The landscape was originally called Mukuntuweap by the Southern Paiute and is believed to mean “straight river” or “straight canyon”. In 1909, the area was designated Mukuntuweap National Monument. In 1919, it was decided that the original name was too difficult to pronounce for tourists. It then became Zion National Park, named after the local Mormon’s nickname for the canyon.
After a day (or several) spent exploring the park, we recommend relaxing in Cedar City. Make sure to take the time to visit the Indigenous-owned winery, Twisted Cedar Wines, for some delicious refreshments. The Twisted Cedar wine brand is wholly owned by the Cedar Band of Paiute Indians, one of five constituent Bands of the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
Nevada National Parks
Great Basin National Park
Wandering among ancient bristlecone pines and rugged and remote topography and enjoying sparklingly clear night skies make reflection feel easy in Great Basin National Park. Humans have been living in the Great Basin region for more than 12,000 years. It began with the Paleo-Indian group who were big game hunters whose prey included mammoth and ground sloth, followed by the Great Basin Desert Archaic group (hunter-gatherers). Next came the Fremont people who were more agriculturally-focused, and the early Shoshone people who were hunter-gatherers as well. The modern descendents of these groups include the Western Shoshone (a subgroup of the Shoshone), the Goshute, the Ute, the Northern and Southern Paiute, and the Washoe tribes.
Head to Ely, Nevada after the park to explore the local art scene and some amazing Indigenous-inspired murals. If you’d like to experience an Indigenous celebration, check out nearby Duckwater, Nevada, for the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe’s annual powwow.
Arizona National Parks
Grand Canyon National Park
The Colorado River has shaped one of the most incredible landscapes on our planet. The Grand Canyon, with its expansive views, imposing, deep canyon walls, rich geology and ecology, and extensive Indigenous heritage makes it a bucket-list destination. The first voices echoed off the Grand Canyon walls more than 10,000 years ago. Today, the tribes with deep connections to this landscape are the Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Band of Paiute Indians, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians, Navajo Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
The first stewards of the Grand Canyon are still here today. Because of this, there are plenty of incredible opportunities to learn and interact with their history, traditions and cultures. Make sure to visit the Desert View Inter-Tribal Cultural Heritage Site when exploring the south rim of the Canyon. This site will give an introduction to the 11 tribes traditionally associated with the region, the historic inequities they have faced, and their pathways for cultural and economic opportunities toward a better future.
Interested in getting involved with the Indigenous communities in other ways? The Grand Canyon Trust is an excellent resource for a more comprehensive list of Indigenous-owned small businesses and opportunities for volunteer work.
To experience even more of the Indigenous heritage of the Grand Canyon area, stay at the Shash Dine Eco Retreat where you can enjoy glamping. Or, spend a couple of nights in a traditional Diné earth and log hoghaan complete with Navajo storytelling, meals and a photo tour.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is named for the majestic, towering cacti that are a defining feature of the American Southwest. This unique and inspiring landscape features the most biodiverse desert in North America, and humans have been surviving this harsh climate for more than 12,000 years. The first people to inhabit this area were the Hohokam people. The tribes of today who share heritage and connection with Saguaro National Park include the Akimel O’odham (also known as Pima), Apache, Hopi, Maricopa, Yaqui, Tohono O’odham (“Desert People”), Yavapai, and Zuni.
To experience the thriving Tohono O’odham culture, be sure to make a stop at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum to see their rotating exhibitions and permanent ethnographic and archaeological collections.
Petrified Forest National Park
Large deposits of petrified wood and other fossils along with the unusual landscape of the Painted Desert make this National Park a unique destination in the American Southwest. Along with an interesting geologic record, Petrified Forest National Park has had human inhabitants for more than 13,000 years and many different ancient cultures, ranging from Paleoindian, Archaic, Basketmaker, and Pueblo I – IV. The contemporary tribes that share ties with this region include the Zuni, Pueblo, Hopi Tutskwa, and Diné Bikéyah peoples. Make sure to stop by Newspaper Rock in the park, an archaeological site with more than 650 petroglyphs and Puerco Pueblo, an Ancestral Puebloan site with an ancient village and more stunning pictographs.
For a more in-depth cultural experience, the National Park Service puts on Cultural Demonstration programs which allow local artisans to share their cultural and historic connections to the park with visitors. We recommend calling the Visitor Center for the most up-to-date information on these events at (928) 524-6228.
New Mexico National Parks
White Sands National Park
Startlingly white sand dunes stretch across a dream-like 275 square miles of the Tularosa Basin in southern New Mexico. White Sands National Park, while seemingly stark and desolate, actually has a complex and thriving ecosystem. Hundreds of different plant and animal species call the dunes and surrounding areas their home. Along with the distinct and captivating landscape, this National Park has the longest human record in North America, with fossilized footprints dating back more than 23,000 years. Such significant history makes White Sands a cant-miss place of Indigenous heritage in the American Southwest. The tribes of today that hold connections with this otherworldly landscape include the Mescalero Apache, Lipan Apache, Tampachoa (Mansos) and Piro people.
For an incredible cultural event, plan your trip around the Annual Ceremonial and Rodeo held by the Mescalero Apache Tribe during July in Mescalero, NM. To support the local Mescalero Apache community and explore the surrounding Sierra Blanca mountains, hit the slopes at the Indigenous-owned Ski Apache ski resort for winter fun or mountain biking and ziplining in the summer.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
Hidden deep below the biologically-diverse surface of the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico are the limestone caves which give Carlsbad Caverns National Park its name. Whether you choose to explore above ground with flowering cacti, javelinas and hummingbirds or deep in the limestone caves full of hidden springs, rock formations and bats, this National Park has plenty to do and experience.
Pictographs and cook rings left by ancient people can be found here, and the tribes associated with the region today include the Mescalero, Lipan, Chiricahua, San Carlos, and Jicarilla Apache, the Comanche, Kiowa, Piro-Manso-Tiwa, Ysleta del Sur, Zuni, and Zia. The Mescalero Reservation is the closest large Indigenous community to this National Park. We recommend visiting the Mescalero Apache Cultural Center and Museum to learn more about this tribe’s colorful heritage.