About twenty miles southeast of Tuba City, Arizona sits a remote canyon at the edge of the Painted Desert. The sprawling gorge is home to colorful badlands, painted rock spires and hoodoos. Spanning Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation land, it’s an isolated treasure where you can enjoy a small piece of the southwest desert in complete solitude. While its more famous neighbor to the west, the Grand Canyon, receives upwards of six million tourists a year, Coal Mine Canyon sees just a few hundred visitors. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track and explore a bit of secluded, undisturbed beauty, this is a pretty special little place.
There aren’t many hiking options without a native guide and permit, but the few backcountry roads that skirt the rim offer some lovely vistas. Our favorite spot was a viewpoint along the northern end of the canyon. We found some advice online that directed us to an unsigned dirt road off Highway 264 near mile post 337. The rough track lead us out to a lone windmill and water tank, the supposed endpoint. As we got out of the car and began to wonder where the heck we were, we spotted a few picnic tables perched beside the canyon’s rim. We walked over, lunch and cameras in hand, and soaked in the view. It was like a little gift for the rare rover who decides to venture out into the middle of nowhere. It really was the greatest little picnic spot.
About 3.5 miles further south on the rim (near mile post 340) we headed for a place called Blue Point. We again turned off onto a dirt road, driving about a half mile off the highway before stopping at the edge of a flat mesa. We noticed that the road dropped precipitously down the edge of a steep bluff, and got out to inspect the route. Recent rains had created about eighteen inches of thick mud on the hillside, and we knew there’d be no chance in hell of getting the Subie back up out of that mess if we tried to drive down. With that, we threw the car into park and decided to just hoof it down the road to check out the views.
We walked for about three miles down the road, intermittently wandering to the edge of the rim, before deciding to head back to the car. We were ankle deep in the most insane, cement-like sludge, and our hiking boots felt like they were carrying an extra five pounds on each foot. Although it was a scenic ravine, we weren’t really feeling it was worth the fourteen-ish miles round-trip. If conditions are dry and the road passable, you can supposedly drive for about seven miles from the top of the mesa (per Google Maps) until the road fades at the edge of the canyon. That said, you’ll probably still need an AWD vehicle with decent clearance, as that first descent is a doozy.
While our impromptu slog through the mud ate up most of our afternoon, it looks as if there are a couple spots to access the rim six to eight miles further south along Hwy 264 (near the southern tip of the canyon). It was a nice enough day that we’d definitely consider a return trip.
If you’re interested in getting out and exploring a more remote canyon that’s well off the beaten path, Coal Mine Canyon is a great place to enjoy some solitude and stunning scenery. The views along the rim are quite impressive, and roaming around the top of the canyon makes for a nice half-day of exploring in itself.
Coal Mine Canyon straddles the Navajo and Hopi Reservations in eastern Arizona. The rim is part of Navajo Nation while the interior is part of the Hopi Reservation. If you want to explore down inside the canyon, you’ll need a special permit as well as the company of a Hopi guide. To explore the rim by car or on foot, you will need a Navajo Nation backcountry permit. Permits are $12 and can be purchased in-person at the Navajo Parks & Recreation Office in Cameron, Arizona or over the phone by credit card.