Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, New Mexico. Editorial credit: Joseph Sohm /

6 Underappreciated Towns To Visit In the Colorado Plateau

From Colorado to New Mexico and Utah, the Colorado Plateau is strewn with natural landmarks and tribal secrets that are national treasures. Home to big cities and even more small towns, the region is viciously underappreciated in the face of popular towns and sites that have solidified themselves as tourist attractions. Not counting the Colorado River, it could be the lack of water bodies, but the vast blue skies and unique scenery make each town and landmark shine.

Lupton, flaunting the moniker "Painted Cliffs," nodding at its most fantastic surroundings, the cliffs dating from 60 to 200 million years ago, is a splash of color next door to Mexico and the otherwise rather dark and lonely region just to the north. From the historic Route 66 in Gallup to the Lower Calf Creek Falls near Escalante or the 1950s Chapel of the Holy Cross crowning ancient buttes in Oak Creek, there is so much scenery to unveil and appreciate.

Cortez, Colorado

Mesa Verde National Park is a major attraction from Cortez, Colorado.
Mesa Verde National Park is a major attraction from Cortez, Colorado.

This southwestern town in the state, at the center of the Old Spanish Trail, saw travelers between northern New Mexico, California, and southern Colorado in the 16th century. Today, Cortez is the epicenter of culture and rich agricultural tradition, amid ancient dwellings, ranches, and farms on the outskirts that suit every type of interest. Only eight miles southeast, the fascinating Mesa Verde National Park, breaching every perception of reality, encompasses some of the world's most revered treasures. Just further southwest, Ute Mountain Tribal Park is one of the US's richest archaeological sites in the shadow of the dominating Chimney Rock. The mountain views are an eyesore for adventurers, while south of 7th Street, Hawkins Preserve is a hiking area for every level, overlooking those snowcapped peaks.

Visitors can enjoy simple strolls along high desert valley streets in fresh mountain air and a family-friendly atmosphere with many outfitters for adventures and notable attractions. Cortez Cultural Centre is a good introduction to the experiences along the 114-mile Trail of the Ancients' scenic byway, featuring intricate artwork, artifacts, and regional customs. Largely unchanged, the natural wonders and archaeological points offer firsthand experience from the eyes of those who left them behind, thus closing the gap between the past and the present. From farm-to-table cuisine to craft breweries and the finest Colorado wines back in town, don't miss the notable Notah Dineh Trading Co., an art gallery.

Escalante, Utah

Historical Brick House on Main Street of Escalante, Utah.
Historical Brick House on Main Street of Escalante, Utah. Image credit: Brian W. Schaller, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Nestled at the feet of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this little town is a treasure trove for sightseers after unique sites along the Colorado Plateau. Surrounded by a largely untouched area, visitors can enjoy minute access to a real geographical patchwork of geological formations, from the vast, flat-topped mesas to deep canyons that are so much fun to clamber around and photograph, or simply soak in the views from a cozy spot in the scenically charged atmosphere. The Slot Canyons exude mystic vibes from the gaping earth with undulating walls of Navajo sandstone, like the appropriately named Peek-a-Boo and the Spooky Gulch slits, which are narrow and winding.

The thrill seekers who navigate the tightest spaces of this otherworldly landscape are rewarded with bragging rights and unique photos from the nooks and crannies to share memories of the secrets from below. Back in town, from the Escalante Interagency Visitor Centre to Escalante Outfitters, a destination in itself, Escalante clearly encourages visitors to spend every waking minute enjoying the outdoors and non-waking too, at the most popular canyons of Escalante RV Park. Just to the northeast, Lower Calf Creek Falls may be the most pristine sight you will lay your eyes on this year, comprising a shimmering waterfall into a green-hued pool amid polished sandstone walls.

Gallup, New Mexico

Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial, New Mexico
Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial in Gallup, New Mexico. Editorial credit: Joseph Sohm /

Gallup, the epicenter of fun family discoveries in the Colorado Plateau region of New Mexico, has thrills for every age, as well as culture and unique history, like tribal-style gatherings complete with Native American foods. This little town produces 70% of the world's authentic Native American art and offers a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience to visit, browse, and buy first-hand art from several tribes, a feat worth celebrating. And so it does; from the Gallup Inter-tribal Indian Ceremonial to the Second Street Arts Festival to stock up on unique handcraft, the infectious Indian dances welcome the culture vultures to observe and pick up a few moves on Memorial Day through Labour Day.

For the outdoorsy, the 30 miles of hiking and biking trails put up a wilderness front right against the downtown to easily hop on and off to recharge on Gallup's fusion cuisine in between exploring spectacular red rock beauty. Nestled along the famed Route 66, Gallup is a seamless blend of awe-inspiring outdoors, enticing traditions, and modern attractions like free concerts in the heart of Gallup Downtown. For adventurous couples, there's nothing like a hot-air balloon ride over the Crimdon landscape, followed by some authentic Mexican cuisine and fine dining. This summer, don't miss Gallup Native Arts Market when you come to climb the red rocks for scenic shots, while New Mexican chili-based dishes pair well with the colder days.

Kayenta, Arizona

Navajo Shadehouse Museum replica Fork Stick Hogan in Kayenta, Arizona.
Navajo Shadehouse Museum replica Fork Stick Hogan in Kayenta, Arizona.

Kayenta, the American Southwest desert town, is a vibrant mix of spectacular outdoors and cultural discoveries under expansive blue skies. Just 30 miles north, the sacred Monument Valley, with vibes from Mars, was "the Lay of the Land" Navajo tribes' home. Synonymous with the red buttes of the region, it is part of the Navajo Tribal Park for hikes through wild, wind-swept swellings of the earth, like stumps and spires along an otherwise barren landscape. A photographer's dream, visitors can take an unforgettable narrated Jeep cruise through the mystic structures and stop at the 134-foot-tall Ear of the Wind, an arch outside of the self-guided loop, so a Navajo guide is required.

All this inspires Kayenta's creative flow, including the must-visit Navajo Arts and Crafts Enterprise, offering firsthand crafts by tribes and authentic creation in the process. Don't miss the Amigo Cafe in town and the Trading Post at the View Hotel in the park for a great gift, like traditional and contemporary jewelry or decor, as well as an opportunity to spend the night and step out in the morning to the iconic red buttes. The 17-mile dirt loop, Valley Drive, offers the opportunity to experience the scenery from the comfort of your own vehicle, while the easy hike to Mitten Butte via a three-mile loop trail is the valley's only publicly accessible.

Lupton, Arizona

Murals of Indians village in Lupton, Arizona.
Murals of Indians village in Lupton, Arizona. Editorial credit: Kirkam /

High amid the beautiful sandstone bluffs, this little borderline town next to Mexico, Lupton, is a splash of color in the otherwise rather dark region just to the north. Flaunting the moniker "Painted Cliffs," nodding at its most fantastic surroundings, the cliffs dating from 60 to 200 million years ago are beautiful and unique, drawing scores of tourists to the typically lonely area. Every nature lover's dream, even the wildlife, loves the region, with encounters like deer, bears, and eagles on a hike through a habitat. Lupton, an outdoorsy paradise, is a happy host with a vibrant atmosphere, a spirit for celebrating blessed nature, and its own deep history of settlement and name change over two centuries.

Established as a trading post stop along Route 66 as well as a departure point for military expeditions before Fort Sumner, it flaunts the "Welcome to New Mexico" sign and the Painted Cliffs Welcome Centre, right at the state's entrance. Visitors can enjoy the spectacular in-town scenery on a stroll among cultural attractions, like the Murals of Indian Village and several modern-day trading establishments reminiscent of its past role. Don't miss the Tee-Pee Trading Post for eclectic Indian treasures while browsing through beautiful sights, local handmade jewelry, and other crafts along the Bluffs' base. The Chief Yellowhorse (Hole in the Wall) and the Cecilia Cavazos Red Rock Monument offer insta-worthy mementos, as well as the Tea Cattle landmark just north.

Oak Creek, Arizona

Red Rock Scenic Byway in Oak Creek, Arizona.
Red Rock Scenic Byway in Oak Creek, Arizona.

Nestled along the Red Rock Scenic Byway, this tiny, scenic village along the south-central border of the Colorado Plateau offers the first-hand taste of the more famous Sedona without the touristy vibe to beat the morning traffic and still enjoy breakfast before easy access to the adventures. Discoveries start along the rolling drive-in, down I-17 along Highway 179, historically significant as the first All-American Road in Arizona. Oak Creek welcomes visitors after the last gentle curve against the breathtaking backdrop of Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock, a photo-worthy opportunity to capture the charming village, exuding a homey vibe.

It's easy to fall into the local pace along the aesthetic, walkable streets, with easy-on-the-eye views and a laidback feel without crowds. From charming bed and breakfasts to hotels and quality cafes, the outdoorsy can enjoy three golf courses and hikes to the red rocks, including the Courthouse Butte Loop Trail. Minutes north, the modern 1950s Chapel of the Holy Cross in the shade of the surrounding rock stands out with its smooth walls of a Romanesque church, like a striking crown atop the ancient buttes, with wide observation views of the Sedona area. Don't miss the signature Oak Creek Factory Outlet Stores and the TeQua Marketplace, while for the evening, there are great fine dining restaurants and a theater, or it is just five miles from Uptown Sedona's businesses due north.

In Oak Creek, visitors can browse a modern trading post center along the Bluffs base, whereas, in Kayenta, a photographer's dream, visitors have access to the otherwise restricted 134-foot-tall Ear of the Wind via a jeep with a Navajo guide. While in Gallup, catch a "lift" on a hot-air balloon ride and watch Indian dances. Bursting with cultural discoveries under expansive blue skies, the Colorado Plateau only takes a visit to astound you, like the most pristine waterfall near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, shimmering into a jaded pool amid polished sands.

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