The labyrinth called Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) comprises several canyons that include Canyon de Chelly, Monument Canyon and Canyon del Muerto. At the mouth of the canyons near the tribal town of Chinle, in northeastern Arizona, the rock walls are only 30 feet high. Deeper in, the bright red sandstone bluffs rise dramatically to stand more than a thousand feet above the sandy floor. Sheer cliffs overshadow streams, cottonwood trees, and small, culturally significant ancestral farms below. The Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 to preserve this record of human history, embracing more than 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation. Canyon de Chelly is administered by the National Park Service, but is home to Din
— the Navajo people. My brother Dave and I visited this beautiful canyon with its rich history and culture on Thursday, April 30, 2015 from 8:00AM to 1:00PM. Our plan was to explore both the North and South Rim Drives, stopping at each overlook along the way.
How to Get There: From Flagstaff, AZ, take I-40 East then Hwy 191 North. From Gallup, NM, take Hwy 264 West then Hwy 191 North. From Kayenta, AZ, take Route 59 Southeast then Hwy 191 South. The Visitor Center is 3 miles from Route 191 in Chinle, AZ. The North Rim Drive takes you up Canyon del Muerto and is 34 miles round trip. The South Rim Drive follows Canyon de Chelly to its confluence with Monument Canyon and is 37 miles round trip.
Artifacts and written accounts place humans in Canyon de Chelly for more than 4,500 years. These signs can be used to place activity in a timeline, a chronology that marks events on a calendar. But to the Navajo and many other American Indians, the passage of linear time isn’t important. Native histories and the past are explained through traditional beliefs, stories, and images.
The earliest people lived at seasonal campsites in rock shelters beginning about 2,500 BC, and for the next 2,300 years. Canyon de Chelly provided abundant food for these first settlers. They ate deer, antelope, rabbit and more than 40 varieties of plants. About 2,200 years ago a fundamental change occurred in how people lived in Canyon de Chelly. Instead of relying on hunting and gathering, a group called the Basketmakers learned how to farm. They tucked small fields into corners of the canyon, or on the mesa top.
Beginning about 750 AD dispersed hamlets gave way to a new kind of settlement
— the village. These Pueblo people raised turkeys for food and grew cotton, leading to new weaving techniques. Puebloan life ended in the canyon about 700 years ago because of extreme drought. They scattered south and west, developing a migratory lifestyle. These people became known as the Hopi. This pattern continued until the Navajo arrived in the 1700s.
The Navajo brought with them domesticated sheep and goats and a culture tempered by centuries of migration and adaptation. Like all those before them, the Navajo used the canyons and plateau to support a way of life. Canyon de Chelly was known throughout the region for its fine corn fields and peach orchards. Small settlements in clearings gave the landscape a tranquil quality.
To the Din
é, this beautiful canyon home is known as Tsegi (SAY-ih), a physical and spiritual home. As you explore Tsegi, the smell of wood smoke and the distant sounds of sheep bells, barking dogs, and children playing will tell you that Din
é still live here. Alfalfa, corn fields, and small orchards surround the traditional log hogans on the canyon floor. To Din
é the canyon means more than a summer home or a place to raise sheep and corn. The Din
é culture emerged from this land.
My brother and I witnessed that as we explored the variety of overlooks scattered about the mesas peering into the canyons. There were school buses full of excited native children here to learn about the precious culture. It was evident in the broad smiles on their faces, and the joy in their playful screams and shouts.
Your visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument will take you on two drives known simply as the North Rim Drive and the South Rim Drive. Rangers and Din
é at the Visitor Center can help you plan your visit. Start here for information, exhibits, and a bookstore. It is best to start your adventure on the North Rim early in the morning because of the proximity of the rising sun. That bright sun creates a stark contrast between the glowing canyon rims and the dark shadows of the floor far below.
The North Rim follows Canyon del Muerto to three overlooks, starting with Antelope House. Intriguing cliff dwellings are found along this 34 mile round trip. You are driving through the Navajo Reservation on your way to the viewpoints. Once you reach Antelope House Overlook it is a quarter mile walk to the cliff’s edge. When I caught my first glimpse into the canyon I understood why this area is so revered. The landscape is glorious. It is a diversity of color: from the shining red sandstone of the cliff walls, to the azure desert sky, and the verdant fields on the canyon floor. The ruins found at Antelope House date to the 1300s.
The next stop on your venture out the North Rim Drive is the twin overlooks known as Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave. The Mummy Cave ruin is one of the largest ancestral Puebloan villages in the canyon. In 1,280 AD people who migrated from Mesa Verde built the tower complex that rests on the central ledge. We encountered a group of college-aged archaeology students on a field trip here, equally as excited as the Navajo school children. Massacre Cave refers to the Navajo killed here in the winter of 1805 by a Spanish military expedition. More than a hundred were killed on the ledge above the canyon floor.
The South Rim Drive offers panoramic views of Canyon de Chelly, Defiance Plateau, and the Chuska Mountains. Watch for changes in vegetation and geology as the elevation rises from the Visitor Center at the mouth of the canyon, to Spider Rock, the end point of the drive. Perhaps you have seen iconic images from Canyon de Chelly as you tour landscape photography websites. Likely those images are of Spider Rock.
Dave and I spent an hour just at the Spider Rock Overlook. We had lunch there. I can’t speak for him, but my jaw dropped at the sheer beauty of the place. A dear friend, and Arizona native, described to me how she was so moved that she wept at the exquisite scene, the history, and the culture. It is a sight that everyone should behold at least once in their life. Hopefully the photo at the top of this post will entice you to try some day. Click it for a larger image.
The next stop along the South Rim Drive is Face Rock, followed by Sliding House, then White House Overlook. One of the features of the latter is the White House Trail. This 2.5 mile round trip hike is the only place where you may enter the canyon without a permit or an authorized Navajo guide. Allow two hours. Ancestral Puebloans built and occupied the site that is now the White House ruins about one thousand years ago. It is named for a long white plaster wall in the upper dwelling.
Private vendors offer hiking, backcountry camping, horseback and 4-wheel-drive tours into the canyon with an authorized guide. Prices vary with the type, length, and difficulty of the trip. Information may be obtained at the Visitor Center.
As we continued west along the South Rim Drive we were treated to native horses grazing on the sage and other desert scrub that lines the road. Picturesque puffy white clouds were popping up over the Chinle Valley adding to the aesthetic at each succeeding overlook. We were fortunate to have one of those crystal clear desert sky days where you can see for miles without the distraction of haze or blowing dirt. The surrounding mesas with names like Ventana and Carson were clearly in evidence.
The Junction Overlook is named for the confluence of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly. You have perhaps the best view of Chinle Valley here. Junction Overlook, as well as several of the others, has wheelchair accessible viewing. The final two stops on the South Rim Drive are the Tsegi and Tunnel Overlooks. You can see how the depth of the canyon has diminished, to no more than 30 feet, as you return to the Visitor Center.
In summary, Canyon de Chelly is really more of a sightseeing destination than it is one for hiking. You can take the White House Trail, or hire a Din
é guide, but most of the enjoyment here comes from the overlooks perched on the cliff tops. Keep in mind that despite this being a National Monument, you are on Navajo Reservation. Please respect the Navajo property rights. Don’t drive off road, or hike without permission. Also ask permission before photographing or painting Din
We spent about five hours within the National Monument and got a good overview of what Canyon de Chelly is all about. Yes, it’s about absolutely stunning scenery, but it is also about history and culture. People have lived in these canyons for nearly 5,000 years
— longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. When you go, see if you can feel the aura of the earliest settlers, the Basketmakers, the Puebloans, Hopi and Din