Canyon de Chelly – Navajo Nation

Canyon de Chelly National Monument has been on our “wish list” of places to go for quite some time now. We had planned to visit it two years ago but they closed it due to COVID. Located in northeastern Arizona on Navajo Reservation lands, the national monument is actually owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust. This is the only national monument that is cooperatively managed by an indigenous group and the National Parks Service.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de SHAY”) boasts 84,000 acres and includes the canyon floor and rims of three canyons: Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon. Carved by streams from the Chuska Mountains, this region attracted many different people groups to it fertile canyons. Many people groups like the Ancient Puebloans (also called Anasazi), Hopi, and Navajo have all lived here over the course of the past 5,000 years. Evidence of their presence here can be seen in the ruins and rock art left behind on and embedded in the canyon walls. Some of the remains of compounds, villages, and kivas that they built in the canyon alcoves are still visible. To help preserve the record of these indigenous people and these archaeological sites, President Herbert Hoover established the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in 1931. On August 25, 1970 it was also listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Today the Navajo people call this place “Tsegi.” Canyon de Chelly lies in the middle of four sacred mountains and for them this area is their physical and spiritual home.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument has a Visitor Center and they do not charge admission to visit this unique geological site. Visitors can drive to the overlooks along the North and South Rims to get a sense of the depth and breadth of the canyons. The North Rim drive is 34 miles round-trip and the South Rim drive is 37 miles round-trip. First we drove the South Rim drive which offers expansive views of the canyon floor as well as the towering limestone cliffs. The cliffs start at about 30 feet tall but reach a height of over 1,000 feet. There are seven overlooks that provide panoramic views. The Tunnel and Tsegi overlooks gave us a sense of the scale of Canyon de Chelly as you look down into the canyon and also out over the Colorado Plateau to the Chuska Mountains.

At Junction overlook, you can see where Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto converge.

Next is the White House Ruins overlook. Built by the ancestral Puebloans about 1,000 years ago, the White House Ruins are some of the largest dwelling sites in the canyon. The White House Ruin is thus named because of its white plaster walls. There is a trail that you can hike down to see the ruins. Unfortunately the National Park Service has closed this trail and the overlook so you can only see these ruins from the canyon floor.

The most impressive stop was at Spider Rock overlook. Spider Rock is a sandstone spire that rises 750 feet from the canyon floor. This impressive feature is located at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. The taller spire is home to Spider Grandmother. According to Navajo beliefs, she is a helper and protector of humans. One of the Navajo natives told us that if you are there at sunset, the top of the spire glows as if it were a lit matchstick. At this overlook you can also spot more ruins high in the canyon walls. The South Rim drive is definitely worth taking the time to do.

As we departed Canyon de Chelly a few days later, we drove the North Rim road but did not stop at the three overlooks on that side. We did see one of them, Antelope House Ruin, when we went down into the canyon.

Visitors are not permitted to enter the canyons on your own. You must be accompanied by a NPS ranger or an authorized Navajo tour guide. There are 11 authorized Navajo-owned tour operators. They offer biking, horseback riding, and four-wheel drive vehicle tours. You can get a list of tour companies at the Visitor Center. David and a booked a 3-hour morning jeep tour. We decided to go in the morning because it would be cooler and the light is better for photography. They also have afternoon tours.

Our tour guide was named Junior and he is a Navajo native whose family owns property in the canyon. His family has lived in Canyon del Muerto for generations. In addition to being a guide, he also raises cattle.

He ferried us into both Canyon de Chelly to visit the White House ruin and also into Canyon del Muerto to see Antelope House ruin. He pointed out many other ruins perched high in the cliffs too.

Along the way, we stopped at several places to view petroglyphs left by Hopi, ancient Puebloans, as well as Navajo residents. Some of the rock art documented some of the flora and fauna of the area, hunting exploits, and important events like the arrival of Spaniards and their horses to the area.

Junior showed us several rock formations that were important to their culture. We had a variety of conversations with him about the canyon, the Navajo people, and Navajo beliefs. It was interesting to learn that the Navajo people go to a Medicine Man for healing when they are feeling ill. Junior told us that he had been several times to see him for various physical, mental, and emotional conditions.

Although the canyon was full of cottonwood trees and vegetation, there was no river or stream running through it. When we asked Junior about it, he said that there was water flowing about two feet under the surface. The presence of water is what allowed them to farm alfalfa, corn, and fruit trees down in the canyon.

We were not the only ones touring the canyon that morning. There were lots of tour operators driving folks around to experience the beauty and wonder of that place. Some of the other guides were members of Junior’s family. There were also Navajo vendors in both the canyon and at the overlooks if you wanted to pick up a souvenir.

We had a good time while in the canyon but we were glad that we were not driving because the canyon floor is both very rocky and very sandy in places. It was a bumpy ride a lot of the time and you could easily get suck in the sand if you did not know where to go. Even Junior had to use the four-wheel drive several times to get us out of the sand.

We can now put a check beside one of our “must see” places. It was wonderful to take in Canyon de Chelly both by looking down into it from the canyon rim and also by looking up at the limestone cliffs from the canyon floor. The vistas, ruins, and the rock art are amazing. We are pleased that we finally able to experience this unique national monument.

If you go, the national monument itself has a large campground rightly named Cottonwood. The camping is first-come, first-served but it apparently never fills up. Even during a holiday weekend, there were plenty of available spots. It is dry camping but water, dump, and trash pickup are provided. We parked in a good spot for our solar panels and had no problem. The campground is adjacent to the Thunderbird Lodge which has rooms, a restaurant, a gift shop, and canyon tour bookings. The folks could not have been more friendly, calling us by name and helping us out with our stay.

The nearest town is Chinle, Arizona, which has all the basics that you may need, but keep in mind that this location is far from Arizona’s major cities. This would be a good stop on the way to the Four Corners National Monument or to Monument Valley in Utah.

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