Off the Beaten Path: Arizona’s Four Corners

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BY THE TIME Joseph Day finishes marking up our map of the Four Corners, it’s covered with squiggles of highlighter yellow. And very few of the routes he’s marked are part of the usual guidebook circuit. Joe Day works outside the box.

By Josephine Matyas & Craig Jones   

Arizona Highways once called us the unofficial cultural centre of Hopi because we are good at what we do,” explains Joe who calls himself a closet anthropologist and provides much of the backbone for Tsakurshovi, his wife Janice’s traditional shop in the village of Shungopavi on Hopi Second Mesa.

“You are not the first person I’ve redesigned a trip for. I have a whole file cabinet full of letters from people saying I saved their vacation.”

The dozen Hopi villages – perched on First, Second and Third Mesas in Arizona’s northeast Four Corners (the one spot in the U.S. where four states intersect) – get about 90,000 visitors a year, a fraction of those that flock to the cities of Phoenix and the cities south of Interstate 40.

“For 40 per cent of those people, this is a destination. In other words they’re not coming here just cause they broke down and had to spend the night because they’re half way to the Grand Canyon. They’re interested in culture, they’re interested in history, they’re interested in archaeology. So, we have pretty good tourists. Being 65 miles from the interstate screens out some of the riff-raff; no rubber tomahawk customers.”

Joe has seen many changes over the three decades he’s lived atop the mesas. “Back when I first came out here as a slack-jawed tourist myself, you could wander around the Indian villages. Everyone was wandering around Walpi, carrying the village away a rock at a time.”

The Hopi are an Ancestral Puebloan people who can trace their heritage to the great cultures that once inhabited the dwellings at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. They have carefully guarded their beliefs and heritage and now offer small, organized tours, welcoming visitors to their traditional, mesa-top villages.

“We get all our information from signs: where are we now, how far is it to the next attraction, which way to here – but none of that exists out here. There’s no tourist infrastructure except for the Hopi Cultural Center. But that’s kind of cool in a way. The Hopis are kind of ambivalent about tourism, which means it’s a real place where real people live.”

WE DIDN’T HAPPEN UPON JOE DAY purely by accident. The day before we spent several hours touring the excellent Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff and the museum’s director, Dr. Robert Breunig, called ahead to let Joe know were headed for Second Mesa.

“This museum is special because it’s a place/space museum,” explained Robert who is a retired professor of anthropology and past director of the Phoenix’s acclaimed Heard Museum of American Indian Art and History. “It’s about a place, the Colorado Plateau and the geological and biological forces that shaped this place over time as well as the more recent human cultural evolution. We try to be a place where history is held.”

The displays at the museum are a snapshot of life on the Colorado Plateau – from the rugs woven by Navajo women to the way the biodiversity of the region is changing due to the forces of climate change. The best time to visit is during one of the regular Hopi, Zuni or Navajo festivals when traditional food, music and dance are on display. Nestled in a stand of fragrant ponderosa pine, the museum is the very best way to be introduced to this special part of the state.

And once that introduction is complete, the best approach is to just get out and experience. Stop by to visit Janice and Joe Day on Second Mesa . . . and be prepared to have your travel reorganized and improved.


  • Tune in to KUYI 88.1, the local Hopi radio station. Kuyi means water in Hopi.
  • Some of the Southwest’s finest petroglyphs are at little-known Taawa Canyon. The canyon’s 12,000 petroglyphs span 6,000 years and include about 20 sun dagger petroglyphs that interact with sunlight and shadow to mark the equinox, solstice and solar calendars. You’ll need a Hopi guide to access the sites. Day recommends Gary Tso (928-206-7928) whom Arizona Highways ranked number three on the Top 50 Cool Things to Do in Arizona; or Marlinda Kooyaquaptewa (928-401-1368).
  • Best meals on Second Mesa are found across from the medical centre (at about 11:30 a.m. several dozen women show up with home made food to feed the hospital staff – there is no on site cafeteria) and at the Spider Grill, a small tarp-covered shack where the food is “fast, fresh, hot and friendly.” It’s a great spot to interact with the locals who will be curious to learn where you’re from.
  • If the rooms at the Hopi Cultural Center are full, it’s a 100-km drive to the historic La Posada Hotel in Winslow (yes, the Eagles sang: I’m a standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona). La Posada is the beautifully refurbished last of the Fred Harvey houses built by the Santa Fe Railroad.
  • Check the National Geographic Four Corners Geotourism site.


  • Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory – the observatory where Pluto was discovered in 1930 – still displays the original photographic telescope. On clear evenings they bring out the portable telescopes for public viewings.
  • Flagstaff is also home to The Museum Club, an original Route 66 cry-in-your-beer roadhouse where Willie Nelson and Tanya Tucker played. Willie’s original 1968 band contract hangs on the wall: $700 for four hours.
  • Walnut Canyon National Monument (just off the interstate, east of Flagstaff) has spectacular hiking trails to well-preserved cliff dwellings that were once home to the pre-Columbian Sinagua people.
  • About 50,000 years ago an asteroid travelling at 40,000 mph collided with the Earth, creating hurricane force winds at impact. The result is Meteor Crater, the best-preserved and first proven meteor crater in the world. It would be possible to fit downtown San Francisco across the bottom of the 168-metre deep crater.
  • Some of the Four Corners most recognizable landmarks are the red rock formations at Monument Valley. They’ve been the site for countless TV commercials, classic westerns and more contemporary films like Forrest Gump.

Who’s writing

Our journey continues. Travel and exploration have become a lifestyle. Taking her expertise (travel writing) and his experience (as a professional musician, teacher and freelance writer), stirring it together and seeing what happens. Add a camper van (a 20-foot Leisure Travel Class B, for those who need the specs), an easy going Border Collie (Eleanor Rigby) and a chance to escape the never-ending winter of 2013/14. We’ve got a file full of maps and a GPS nicknamed “Hal” that sometimes toys with us (we prefer the maps).