Note: In answer to several requests, this is a repost of a 2010 blog.
I have just two things to say about our visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument – “Awesome!” and “If you have never been to this natural wonderland, put it at the very top of your travel plans NOW! You won’t regret it!”
I have been to the Grand Canyon, Zion, the Salt River Canyon, I’ve seen Canyon Diablo and a lot of other natural wonders of the Southwest, and in my opinion, none of them are as impressive as Canyon de Chelly! I only wish I had discovered this magical place years ago.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’Shay) is located at Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo Indian Reservation, and has been inhabited by native peoples for nearly 5,000 years. At the canyon’s mouth, the colorful rock walls are only 30 feet high, but deeper in the canyon, the cliffs tower over 1,000 feet above the valley floor.
Eons of natural land uplifts and the river cutting through the bottom of the canyon created the colorful sheer cliff walls that draw visitors today. The canyon’s reliable water sources and rich soil provid a variety of resources, including plants and animals, that have sustained the native peoples who have lived in Canyon de Chelly for thousands of years.
Ancient Puebloans found the canyon an ideal place to plant crops and raise families. The canyon’s first inhabitants built pit houses that were eventually replaced with more sophisticated homes as more families migrated to the area. Later homes were built in alcoves to take advantage of the sunlight and natural protection. Their communities thrived until the mid-1300s, when the Puebloans left the canyon to seek better farmlands.
Over time the Hopi, and then the Navajo, settled in Canyon de Chelly, where they continue to raise families and plant crops just as the “Ancient Ones” had. Several Navajo farms and hogans are visible from the canyon’s rims.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument was authorized in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, in large measure to preserve the important archeological resources that span more than 4,000 years of human occupation. The monument encompasses approximately 84,000 acres of lands located entirely on the Navajo Nation, with roughly 40 families residing within the park boundaries. The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation share resources, and continue to work in partnership to manage this special place.
Access to the canyon floor is restricted, and visitors are allowed to enter the canyon only when accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo tour guide. Tours of the canyon floor can be booked at the National Park Visitor Center and at hotels near the canyon and in nearby Chinle. The tour guides charge different fees, depending on the type and duration of the tour chosen.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, park rangers lead at least two hikes weekly. A signup sheet is available at the Visitor Center for the first 15 visitors.
Hikes are moderate to strenuous and are not recommended for those who have had recent surgery, have respiratory problems, knee injuries, or difficulty climbing stairs. Hikers must be prepared to walk through sand, mud and water. Some of the canyon’s trails feature slick rock and uneven surfaces, with descents of 200 to 600 feet. Hikers should dress comfortably in layers, wear good hiking shoes, pack snacks, and carry plenty of drinking water.
The only trail accessible to visitors without a guide is the White House Ruin Trail. The trailhead is located about seven miles along the South Rim drive. Be aware that the mile long trail is rocky, and steep in places, but well-maintained and not too difficult for anybody in reasonable health. Plan on 30 minutes to an hour to get to the ruins, depending on your fitness level. The White House ruins are some of the oldest in the canyon, dating from about 1060 A.D. Archaeologists say that at one time the ruins had over 80 rooms, though only about 60 remain today.
We had been advised not to take our 40 foot motorhome to Canyon de Chelly, and I’m glad we didn’t. There are two campgrounds, one is the free Cottonwood Campground, which is best suited for small (under 30 feet) RVs, though we did see a couple of larger rigs that had somehow managed to squeeze in. But between the small spaces, tight turns, and trees close to the roadways, there is no way I’d take our motorhome in there.
Spider Rock Campground, about nine miles from the National Park Service Visitor Center, is privately owned, and it looked pretty run down to us. About the only amenities you’ll find there are lizards, porta-potties, and dry camping
We drove our van to Canyon de Chelly, and after a stop at the Visitor Center, we took the seventeen mile long South Rim Drive, which offers seven overlooks, each one more magnificent than the one before. Each overlook gave us a different perspective on the canyon. Our first stop was the Tunnel Canyon Overlook, which gave us nice views of the canyon, which is very green year around due to the river that flows through the bottom of the canyon.
At our next stop, Tsegi Overlook, we saw this farm, which is owned by a Navajo family who lives in this dramatic wonderland. Can you imagine what it would be like to wake up to these kinds of views every day?
It is very had to choose just one, but if I had to pick, my favorite view in Canyon de Chelly is of magnificent Spider Rock, which towers over 800 feet from the canyon floor. This rock formation is sacred to the Navajo people, who say that Spider Woman lives on top of the rock, and it was this deity who taught the first Navajo women to weave, creating a tradition that has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.
Navajo mothers tell their children that if they misbehave, Spider Woman will carry them away and take them to the top of the rock spire to live until they learn their lesson.
I wish I had room to show you all of the wonderful photos we took at Canyon de Chelly, but there are just too many. And it doesn’t matter, because the photos just don’t do this natural wonder justice. You have to see it for yourself to believe it!
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located about three miles from Chinle, Arizona, which is 75 miles north of Interstate 40 via US Highway 191. This is a good two lane road, and can accommodate any size RV. The Park Service Visitor Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Christmas Day. We saw a 36 foot motorhome and a fifth wheel in the Visitor Center parking lot. The North and South Rim Drives and the White House Trail are open all year. The drives are paved roads, accessible by passenger vehicles.
If you’re like us, one trip to Canyon de Chelly National Monument will not be enough, and you will find yourself returning again and again.
Thought For The Day – There’s a spider in my bathroom sink. Well, it’s his sink now.