Grand Canyon National Park draws 4.7 million visitors a year to the northwest corner of Arizona to hike, camp, or watch wildlife. But most of them don’t realize that the lands within and surrounding the park are sacred to the region’s 12 Indigenous tribes, which include the Havasupai, Hopi, Navajo, and several bands of Paiute.
That changed on August 8 when President Joseph Biden signed a decree creating the Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni—Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. Sprawling across more than 960,000 acres directly north and south of the national park, the new monument offers more rugged, less crowded recreation than its neighbor. It also provides a view of the landscape through Indigenous eyes.
“Baaj nwaavjo in Havasupai means ‘where the ancient people roamed,’” says Carletta Tilousi, coordinator of the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition. “I’tah kukveni is the Hopi translation of ‘ancestral footsteps’. This reaffirms their creation stories.”
Here’s how the monument came to be, and how to explore it.
It took two million years for the Grand Canyon itself to form and around 40 years for Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni to become reality. “The protection for these lands is something the tribes have focused on since as far back as the 1980s,” says Amber Reimondo of the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit devoted to preserving the region.
Many of these Indigenous people were expelled from their territory when Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919. They campaigned for decades to receive stronger protection for their lands around the park, overcoming entities that wanted fewer legal obstacles to development and mining. After President Biden’s election in 2020, the 12 tribes formed a coalition which led to the lands receiving federal status.
Though the National Park Service oversees Grand Canyon National Park, monuments such as Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni are run by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Monuments generally have fewer restrictions regarding their use (e.g., sometimes hunting or logging is allowed), as well as fewer facilities for visitors.
Fewer amenities, fewer crowds
Like many national monuments, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni exudes raw nature. It has no bathrooms or visitor center; access is primarily via dirt roads or rough trails; you’ll need a four-wheel-drive to reach many sections of the park.
What it offers is solitude and peace amid the forests and grasslands of northern Arizona. You can gaze at the Grand Canyon without thousands of other people jostling for the same space, hike trails where yours are the only footsteps, and make camp at secluded spots. Plus you might encounter wildlife such as elk, black bear, mule deer, birds, or bison.
That solitude is also important to the Indigenous people. Tilousi says that when she visits the busy South Rim inside Grand Canyon National Park, “It’s very difficult for me to find a spot where I can offer prayers and offerings in a quiet way.” She feels that won’t be an issue in the off-the-beaten-track lands of the new monument.
Exploring the monument
The vast wilderness of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni is divided into three distinct sections or parcels, each with its own appeal.
The southernmost section, the Tusayan Ranger District/South Parcel, is the easiest to explore. Comprising 330,000 acres within the Kaibab National Forest, its pine woodlands and sagebrush prairie are accessible via Forest Service roads or Sections 35 through 37 of the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile hiking route stretching across the entire state.
The South Parcel also shows signs of human life, including the rusty hangar of the 1920s Red Butte Airfield and the 80-foot-tall Grandview Lookout Tower, which you can climb for views of the Colorado Plateau and the Grand Canyon.
The other sections of the monument, Kanab Plateau/Northwest Parcel and Rock House Valley/Northeast Parcel, are located beyond the North Rim section of Grand Canyon National Park.
“It’s a big, remote wilderness,” says Michael Cravens, advocacy and conservation director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation. “I’ve never in my life been somewhere with night skies that spectacular.” But he cautions visitors “to be careful and prepared” for the extreme weather and topography. You can reach the northern parcels on BLM roads south of U.S. Highway 89A.
Stretched across the Kanab Plateau and Antelope Valley, the Kanab Plateau section has hiking routes through spectacular side canyons and to panoramic views such as Gunsight Point.
The Hack Trail drops down into the Kanab Creek Wilderness with its enormous red-rock canyons, a landscape almost as impressive as the Grand Canyon itself. Experienced hikers can continue down Kanab Creek to the Colorado River or along other trails to vertiginous overlooks along the North Rim.
Set beneath the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, the Rock House Valley section of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni tumbles across sagebrush flats to the edge of Marble Canyon. Rugged hiking trails here include the Soap Creek Trail, which winds down from the Rapids/Badger Camp Overlook to a primitive campsite near the river.
Rough roads lead south to viewpoints for Rider Canyon, South Canyon, and other offshoots of the Grand Canyon. Here, you might even spot the North Rim’s resident bison herd, brought to the Arizona Strip in 1906 by Charles “Buffalo” Jones as part of efforts to save the species.
Joe Yogerst is a San Diego-based writer and photographer.