Although it’s located outside the reservation boundary, Gallup is the most important commercial center of the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reservation in the continental U.S. Covering 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Utah, “the rez” has over 250,000 inhabitants. Once an important timber and coal-mining hub, Gallup has rebranded itself as Indian Capital of the World, and boasts more than 100 trading posts, pawnshops, and art galleries specializing in crafts made by the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo Indian tribes.
A classic neon-lit stretch of Main Street was once part of the legendary Route 66. The downtown area near the Santa Fe Train Depot is full of venerable stores such as Richardson’s Trading Company, open since 1913. Browse Navajo turquoise jewelry, hand-woven sheep wool rugs, Hopi kachina figures, intricately painted pottery, and thousands of other items, then stop by the nearby Gallup Cultural Center for the best overview of the area’s Native American heritage. Continue your education about the area’s early inhabitants and their heritage, with a visit to the ruins of nearby Chaco Canyon.
You can complete the frontier experience by joining yesterday’s stars of the silver screen and booking a room at the El Rancho Hotel on Route 66. Built in 1937, it is a shrine to Hollywood’s golden age of Westerns, when it served as a home away from home for stars such as Kirk Douglas (here to film Ace in the Hole in 1951) and Ronald Reagan and Lionel Barrymore (The Bad Man in 1940), as well as Gene Autry and Mae West, to name but a few. Signed photos line the hallways of this National Historical Site, and Native crafts, mounted deer heads, and a gigantic geode fill the lobby. Rooms are Western-rustic, with names that recall their former guests.
None other than Will Rogers called the Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, held since 1922, the “Greatest American Show.” Every July, members of more than 30 tribes come together to compete in parades, rodeos, and art displays. The ceremonial dance costumes alone are worth the trip. Many balloonists prefer Gallup’s Red Rock Balloon Rally in December to the more crowded Albuquerque event; the scenery is prettier and the winds easier to navigate.