The Sentinel Mesa Hogan in the Oljato-Monument Valley area is built with cedar posts, cedar bark and red clay. [Photo courtesy of Rosalena Black]

Staring upward from a comfortable queen bed placed on a red dirt floor, one can see the crisp blue sky and early morning glow peek through a small opening at the top of a hogan on the Navajo Nation.

The Sentinel Mesa Hogan is built with cedar posts, cedar bark and red clay, in a circular shape, with an east-facing entry. It is located on the Utah-Arizona border in the Oljato-Monument Valley, 1 mile north of Monument Valley Tribal Park and approximately 25 miles south of Mexican Hat. It is available to rent on Airbnb starting at $120 per night, plus applicable taxes and fees, and is equipped with two queen beds, a fireplace, electric or kerosene lamps, a shower and water, upon request.

“The hogan is the closest anyone will get to Mother Earth, as it is described in Navajo culture, as the womb of Mother Earth,” Navajo elder and Airbnb host Wilma Rose Black said.

Black explained that the hogan is a healing place, “spiritually and mentally.”

According to her co-host and daughter Rosalena Black, Wilma Rose opens her hogan, home and family to visitors from around the world.

“She enjoys sharing wonderful stories, songs, and meditation techniques in her native tongue, Diné language,” Rosalena Black said.

“My hogan is sentimental to my family and the community because of the teachings of love, humility and spiritual health, which was taught from within and around this hogan by my late paternal grandmother, Betty Black, (who) raised six sons and three daughters in this hogan,” Black said. “My parents raised 13 children in this hogan and to this day, it is the foundation of 42 grandchildren and 48 great-grandchildren.”

The Black family are known to accommodate special experiential requests such as Navajo tacos and frybread. Sometimes, visitors are invited to family functions.

“The most recent experience for our guests was sheep shearing,” Black said.

They also work with Mitten View Tours and offer short hikes up Centennial Mesa, which overlooks the tribal park.

Twenty-five miles to the north, you find yourself in Mexican Hat, which according to 2016 census data, has a population of 32 people. Mexican Hat sits on the San Juan River and borders the Navajo Nation and Bears Ears National Monument; Valley of the Gods is its backyard.

“We’re the only tourist-based ‘river town’ in San Juan County,” said Joy Howell, who owns the Hat Rock Inn with her husband Clint Howell and son Billy Howell.

The Howell family has lived in Mexican Hat since 1979 and took ownership of the Hat Rock Inn, formerly Burch’s, after it was abandoned in 2005.

“Our grown son came by for a visit and talked my husband and I into creating a family business and reopening it,” Joy Howell said. “We’ve done a lot of renovations as the property was very rundown and needed literally everything replaced, inside and out. (Currently), we are adding really nice (new) stairs and solar for hot water and lighting.”

The Hat Rock Inn offers comfortable hotel-resort style lodging with a pool, spa tub and palm trees that overlook the San Juan River. Rooms begin at $135 per night in high season and feature complimentary high-speed wi-fi, Keurig coffeemakers, microwaves and mini-refrigerators.

After a long day lounging poolside at the Hat Rock Inn’s resort-style spread, you can hike directly from hotel property down to the riverbanks and small sandy stretches of beach. Native plants and wildlife abound, river rushes as white noise, rafters glide by and a slight breeze edges the sun’s wrath.

Unfortunately, the hotel’s café, which normally offers Sonoran-style Mexican dishes, Navajo tacos and burgers, is currently – albeit temporarily – closed. Howell was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to put the restaurant on hold as she navigates treatment, but is hopeful to reopen sometime this season for her guests.

“Mexican Hat – there’s something pretty special about it, and I think our return visitors say it best. They speak often of the serenity, the vastness, the beauty – how it adds perspective and love for the down-home, non-commercialized feel they rarely get to experience in today’s runaway, competitive market race.” Howell said. “Mostly, they speak of the spiritual connection, which I find very uplifting, considering our current world affairs.”

As hunger dictates, visit the General Store at the San Juan Inn. Grab to-go items and navigate the 17-mile scenic wonder that is Valley of the Gods for a picturesque, sunset picnic.

Valley of the Gods, which lies on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, provides primitive camping among isolated red rock buttes and castle-like pinnacles separated by wide open spaces and sandy flats. As the sun sets, the red rocks deepen in color and the profound night sky emerges for superior dark-sky stargazing.

After the sun’s warmth awakes you, mark your map for Natural Bridges National Monument, 50 miles north of Valley of the Gods. The 1.5-hour drive takes you through only part of the wild, rugged 1.35-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument.

According to the Utah Office of Tourism, Bears Ears “covers a broad expanse of red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, cultural, historic, and prehistoric legacy that includes an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts left behind by early Clovis people, then later Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont culture and others. Just as important to the Bears Ears designation are the modern-day connections that the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation and other tribes have to this land.”

While there is not yet an official visitor center for Bears Ears, the park rangers at Natural Bridges National Monument are informative and helpful.

Natural Bridges was declared a national monument in 1908 and features three natural bridges: Kachina, Owachomo and Sipapu, named in honor of the Hopi Tribe.

Sipapu, the second-largest natural bridge in the United States, spans White Canyon and features a 45-minute round trip hike which gains 500 feet in elevation through three ladders, stairs, switchbacks and short, steep slickrock. Sipapu, along with the other natural bridges, can also be viewed from alternative hikes and roadside viewpoints.

Natural Bridges has a $10 per vehicle entry fee and offers 13 camping sites at $10 per night.

Free primitive camping is available outside park limits on BLM land, and within Bears Ears National Monument, but the terrain is often rugged and unpredictable, which many can agree is part of Utah’s wild, Western charm.

Stay in a Navajo hogan, explore surrounding public lands

Mexican Hat – there’s something pretty special about it, and I think our return visitors say it best. They speak often of the serenity, the vastness, the beauty – how it adds perspective and love for the down-home, non-commercialized feel they rarely get to experience in today’s runaway, competitive market race.