See the Famous Sights of Hillerman Country

Ponies in Northern Arizona. Don Graham photo.
Ponies in Northern Arizona. Don Graham photo.

Hillerman Country: Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado

By Janis Turk

Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona - photos by Janis Turk
Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River in Arizona – photos by Janis Turk

The four corners of mystery writer Tony Hillerman’s world aren’t on any map.

They lie someplace between fiction and fantasy, myth and memory, and are bordered by ancient cliff dwellings, steep canyon walls, sun-baked Zuni pueblos and dry winds that sweep across Navajo lands.

So the best way to experience Hillerman Country is to go by the book.

Take along some of Hillerman’s 20 best-selling novels while traveling through Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado, and see the Four Corners region of the Southwest through new eyes.

Hillerman recalls it as “love at first sight,” when he first beheld the Four Corners region, and says he’s “been getting acquainted with its mountains, canyons, and interesting cultures ever since,” and so have his readers, who have fallen in love with Hillerman’s characters and the rugged country where his murder mysteries are set.

That’s why many well-read travelers are taking to the open road to discover the places shrouded in mystery and enchantment in Hillerman’s novels.

A Special Tour

Likeness of a Hopi 'Koshare' or 'sacred clown'
The likeness of a Hopi ‘Koshare’ or ‘sacred clown’

While you can “go by the book” all on your own, using Hillerman’s tales as your guide, you may want to also consider taking a tour to learn more about the lands and peoples which inhabit the stories.

Three years ago, popular, award-winning mystery writer Tony Hillerman did something almost unheard of for an author of his stature: he endorsed a special “Hillerman Country” tour offered by Scottsdale-based Detours of Arizona.

This laid-back literary road trip takes travelers, for five days and four nights, through miles of high desert mountain lands and rocky canyon paths that fictional characters, like Navajo Tribal Police Jim Chee, Officer Bernadette Manuelito, and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn have covered hundreds of times in Hillerman’s stories. Better yet, travelers get to meet some of Hillerman’s real-life friends who appear as colorful characters in his novels.

High, Dry, Big Sky Landscapes

Trekking across the canyonlands of northern Arizona and northwest New Mexico, home of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other American Indian tribes, travelers get to know the “friendly high, dry, big sky landscape of the Four Corners world” that Hillerman first beheld in 1945, a world he’s been writing about ever since.

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon

The tour covers 1,100+ miles of glorious rugged country, including a jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly, which is the setting for parts of Sacred Clowns, as well as a walking tour of the ruins of Chaco Canyon, prominent in Hillerman’s Thief of Time.

The tour starts with a pick-up from the Phoenix Sun Harbor airport or from area hotels in Scottsdale, Mesa, and Phoenix, and those who travel on their own may want to start there too, as they can make their way up Carefree Highway (Hwy 17) toward Flagstaff, with a small detour off to the west on Hwy 179 for a stop in the popular town of Sedona. From there, travel north to the Grand Canyon, where Hillerman country really begins.

Sacred Places

Maverick Helicopters skip like stones across the top of the Grand Canyon to remind readers of Skeleton Man, the novel in which a diamond-filled attaché case and dismembered arm are found in a Havasu cave.Later stop at Zuni and Hopi reservations n

James Peshlaki
James Peshlaki

ear Four Corners, including a rare visit into private homes and sacred places there — settings for mysteries in Hillerman’s books, like Dance Hall of the Dead, Coyote Waits, Skinwalkers and The Wailing Wind.Along the way, windswept red-rock canyons and towering monoliths line the highways.

The snow-capped peaks of Mount Humphreys hold a regal place outside Flagstaff, in the distance. Dining at local lunch spots and trading posts like the one in Cameron, Arizona, with its fabulous Navajo taco on the menu, or stops at places like Tuba City or Toadlena, New Mexico, with its Two Grey Hills Weaving Museum, prove unforgettable as well. Wend through golden aspen groves until coming upon the ghostly shadow of Shiprock Mountain.

Colorful Characters

For Hillerman fans, the best part of the trip is meeting the real-life inspirations for fictional characters prominent in Hillerman’s novels, men such as a highly respected Navajo scholar, teacher, and silversmith named James Peshlakai, who appears as a Navajo shaman in The Wailing Wind. Peshlakai is a long-time friend of Tony Hillerman, and stories of their friendship and of how he came to be in a couple of Hillerman’s novels are as fascinating as he is.

During the tour, guests enjoy visiting with Peshlaki over lunch, and he sometimes invites them into his home on the Navajo reservation near Cameron, where his wife, Mae, maybe at work crafting stunning turquoise and silver jewelry at her kitchen table.

Likewise, tour guests are able to spend an hour or so conversing with Bob Rosebrough, a recent former mayor of Gallup, New Mexico, and rappelling enthusiast, who inspired a character with his name in Fallen Man, a rock climber who is lifted by helicopter on to the top of Shiprock Mountain in New Mexico where a body was found. Rosebrough had been a great fan before writing to Hillerman to ask if he’d consider writing about Shiprock and a fallen climber whose death is now part of local lore.

Shiprock in New Mexico figures in many of Hillerman's mystery novels.
Shiprock in New Mexico figures in many of Hillerman’s mystery novels.

The writer and fan went on to work together on research for Fallen Man, and now Rosebrough and Shiprock are part of Hillerman’s lore as well. Even if you’ve never read a Hillerman novel, this tour is fascinating — and don’t worry: there’s no pop quiz at the end of the journey.

Movie Stars of a Bygone Era

One needn’t be a Hillerman fan to understand the allure of the canyonlands of the Southwest or to get your kicks on historic Route 66, traveling down memory lane with plenty of stops at soda fountains, trading posts and “kitschy” fab hotels, like Hotel El Rancho in Gallup, which boasts wagon-wheel lamps and rustic rooms, each named after the movie stars of a bygone era who slept there more than a half-century ago.

If you go by the book, with a Hillerman novel tucked under your arm and a spirit of adventure in your breast, you’re sure to fall in love with America’s rugged southwest. So take a detour on Arizona’s Carefree Highway and explore the mystery of Hillerman Country.


The Hotel El Rancho was favorite of movie stars in a bygone era.
The Hotel El Rancho was a favorite of movie stars in a bygone era.

Check these sites for more information about Tony Hillerman and the Four Corners region:•

Tony Hillerman’s official HarperCollins website

Grand Canyon National Park

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Detours of ArizonaMaverick Helicopters


Recommended by Hillerman Country guide Michael Dean:•Tony Hillerman’s Navajoland: Hideouts, Haunts, and Havens in the Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee Mysteries by Laurance D. Linford with a foreword by Tony Hillerman•Navajo Places: History, Legend, Landscape by Laurance D. Linford•The Book of the Navajo by Raymond Friday Locke

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5 thoughts on “See the Famous Sights of Hillerman Country

  1. Are Hillerman tours still being offered? I have just finished re-reading all of Tony Hillerman’s novels and am almost finished reading Anne Hillerman’s novels that continue the saga.

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