Northwest New Mexico
Northwest New Mexico is a region in the state of New Mexico in the United States. It is notable for desert scenery, Four Corners (the only point in the United States where four states meet), and a large part of Navajo Nation, the country's largest Indian reservation.
This region is bounded on the north by Colorado and the west by Arizona. Southern and eastern boundaries are indistinct. For purposes of this article, everything south of Interstate highway 40 (following historic Route 66) is considered to be in southwestern New Mexico, with the exceptions of El Malpais National Monument owing to its association with the definitely northwestern town of Grants, and Zuni Pueblo owing to its location amid outlying sections of Navajo Nation. The eastern boundary is taken to be the Continental Divide north of US highway 550 and the Nacimiento Mountains south of it; areas east of this boundary are covered in the article on north central New Mexico.
This is a rugged, dry area lacking the high mountains that give the north central region more rain, vegetation and scenery more commonly associated with Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. However, there is still spectacular scenery. Shiprock on the territory of Navajo Nation near the town of the same name is one of New Mexico's most cherished landmarks and appears on much of the state's tourist propaganda.
If you happen to speak Navajo, yah-te-hey, and you'll likely have a chance to practice it here. English is the more universal language of the region, however. A smaller fraction of the population speaks Spanish than in most other parts of New Mexico, and speakers of other languages (except Zuni) are rare.
Farmington is the home of Mesa Airlines, a commuter line that connects to majors in Albuquerque and Denver. However, Mesa recently announced they would be ceasing air service in the area. Great Lakes Airlines still offers flights to Denver and Phoenix, and a new carrier, New Mexico Airlines, is in negotiation to begin service to Albuquerque. Flights may be intermittent during this transition period. Amtrak's Southwest Chief  route follows I-40 through the region, stopping briefly in Gallup. Otherwise, access is mainly by road, with good highways on the south (Interstate 40, following the route of historic Route 66) and east (US 550).
Drive. Hitchhiking doesn't work well here owing to the sparse population and vast distances, and there is little if any bus service within the region.
Like too much of New Mexico, drunk driving is an issue here, but an additional, unexpected problem for the motorist is intoxicated pedestrians. The wise motorist is consequently advised to be on the lookout for pedestrians acting strangely, even on seemingly deserted roads.
- A good scenic drive that gives the traveler a sense of the rugged desolation of this region is US 491 between Gallup and the town of Shiprock. This road appears as US 666 on some maps and was long known as "The Devil's Highway." Take a few minutes at the northern end of the drive and get a photo or two of Shiprock, the amazing volcanic formation that gives the northern terminus of this road its name.
- Chaco Culture National Historical Park , far out in the boonies between Farmington and Grants, has an exceptionally large and interesting array of archaeological sites. Most can be seen from the main road or via short hikes, but if you have time and inclination, take the longer (half-day) trail to Peñasco Blanco, a more remote site that includes a pictograph considered by many to be one of the few Western Hemisphere accounts of the great supernova of 1054. Fee (the National Park system's "Park Pass" is applicable); car camping is possible, but if you're a non-camper, the nearest developed lodging is all the way back in Farmington.
- Aztec Ruins National Monument , north of the town of Aztec (near Farmington) on NM SR 516, is another significant archaeological site. Day use (8-5 in winter, 8-6 summer, closed major holidays) with the usual short trails to some of the major ruins. Fee; Park Pass applies.
- El Malpais National Monument, south of Grants, preserves a recent lava flow and a series of lava-tube caves that beckon the desert hiker. The smaller El Morro National Monument is nearby, with shorter trails to interesting archaeological sites, as are the privately-operated Bandera Crater and Ice Cave.
- Mount Taylor, northeast of Grants, is the highest mountain in this region (summit elevation about 11,300') and offers outdoor recreational opportunities more typical of the mountainous north central region. Hiking, fishing, and camping are all possible on its flanks, and during the winter, it is the scene of a highly regarded "quadrathlon" competition, in which competitors run, cycle, snowshoe and ski to the summit and back.
- Buy a Navajo rug. Sources of rugs within Navajo Nation are covered in that region's own article, but if you're less adventurous, there are dealers in Gallup and Farmington, with several on the road from the latter to Shiprock. Good rugs aren't cheap; expect to spend $500 or more for work of reasonable quality. If you're in the area on the second or third Friday of every month (2007 - July 13; August 17; September 14; October 12; November 16; December 14), Crownpoint hosts the Crownpoint Rug Auction. The Crownpoint Rug Auction gives buyers the unique opportunity to purchase Navajo rugs directly from the weavers themselves, at prices well below retail. Before the actual auction, you can hold rugs in your hands and appreciate them up close. Some sell for $50 or less, and some sell for thousands of dollars. Even if you don't buy anything, you are in for a treat. No two rugs are alike!!
- Visit the Gallup Flea Market on any given Saturday. You can try authentic native foods and buy art and jewelry directly from the artist at reasonable prices.
- For a different kind of American Indian artwork, visit the pueblos. Zuni Pueblo is located in the extreme southwest corner of the region. Zuni pottery, jewelry and fetishes are highly regarded and can be found in the shops along Highway 53 in the Pueblo. If there is a religious event during your visit, be mindful of the signs - be quiet, respectful, and leave your cameras and video recorders in your vehicle. Also see the Acoma Pueblo, off of I-40 east of Grants, which is a historic settlement perched high atop a mesa. Nearby is Laguna Pueblo. Both of these pueblos also operate casinos, the Dancing Eagle Casino of Laguna and the Sky City Casino near Acoma, both along I-40 a short distance from each other.
Don't, at least not within Navajo Nation; possession, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages are illegal within reservation boundaries. Farmington (population about 40,000) is outside the reservation and is large enough to have rudimentary night life (e.g. Sun Ray Park and Casino at the racetrack), but there is some hostility to bar-hopping because of the social problems that result from alcoholic members of Navajo Nation and redneck townsfolk within the border town. This concern may sound overblown to visitors from outside the region, but it is not. This simply is not a good place for drinking.
One crime-oriented warning if you're out prowling the boonies: on occasion when you're out in theoretically empty country, you will see a small plane drop below the local horizon and then climb back out. Do not investigate. The odds are quite good that this plane is departing minus a load of controlled substances that was delivered to someone waiting below who won't be glad to see you. Scary encounters have occurred under such conditions not only with the recipients of this contraband, but also with DEA agents waiting to apprehend them. If your going through the Zuni or Navajo Indian reservation make sure you ask for permission to take pictures. If caught taking pictures your camera would be taken away.
The usual safety concerns about rural areas apply here, with a little extra emphasis on getting help. The remote parts of northwest New Mexico are really out in the boonies, and help can be a very long time in arriving, particularly if you're hiking or river running. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that cellular phone coverage is spotty owing to distances and terrain. You may find it difficult to arrange rescue via cell phone if something does happen to you on a river or a trail. When venturing into the backcountry, it's thus a good idea to carry a little more in the line of emergency gear and supplies than might otherwise be your usual practice. Extra water is also important, as water sources are few and commonly contaminated.
It seems incongruous to raise safety issues involving flash floods in an area as dry as this one, but flash floods do claim lives here. The limited rainfall tends to come in brief but extremely violent thunderstorms that can drop a lot of water in a short time, onto a landscape that the water generally doesn't soak into, owing to desert varnish, caliche, etc. Use caution when entering gullies and washes, even if there don't seem to be any storms nearby; flash floods can occur far downstream of the storms that create them.