Chinle, AZ – Located in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (pronounced “Shay”) is within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation and lies in the Four Corners region. Reflecting one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America, it preserves ruins of the indigenous tribes that lived in the area, from the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi) to the Navajo. Canyon de Chelly is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation and is the only National Park Service unit that is owned and cooperatively managed in this manner. The name Chelly is a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word “Tséyiʼ”, which means canyon or literally “inside the rock”. Canyon de Chelly is one of the most visited national monuments in the United States.
The monument covers 83,840 acres (131 square miles) and encompasses the floors and rims of the three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto (translates “of the dead”), and Monument. These canyons were cut by streams with headwaters in the Chuska Mountains just to the east of the monument. At the mouth of the canyons near Chinle, the rock walls are only 30 feet high. Deeper in the canyons the walls rise dramatically to heights of over 1,000 feet above the floor. Across many millennia, water etched paths through layers of sandstone and igneous rock, as the Defiance Plateau rose.
People have lived in the canyons of Canyon de Chelly National Monument for nearly 5,000 years—longer than anyone has lived uninterruptedly elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau. The first residents did not build permanent homes, but remains of their campsites and images etched or painted on canyon walls tell us their stories. Later, people we call Basketmaker built compounds and storage, social, and ceremonial spaces high on the canyon’s ledges. They lived in small groups, hunted game, grew corn and beans, and created wall paintings. Ancestral Puebloan people followed. Predecessors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi Indians, they are often called Anasazi, a Navajo word for ancient ones. They built multi-storied villages, small compounds, and kivas with decorated walls that dot canyon alcoves and talus slopes.
From the park brochure: “Within an area formed by four sacred mountains, a canyon cradles the history and the culture of ‘Diné’ —the Navajo people. To the outside world it is known as Canyon de Chelly. To the people who live here it is ‘Tsegi’, a physical and spiritual home. The smell of woodsmoke and the distant sounds of sheep bells, barking dogs, and children playing tell us the Diné still live here. Alfalfa, corn fields, and small orchards surround the traditional log hogans on the canyon floor weaving a tapestry of everyday life.” About 40 Navajo families still live within the park.
Most park visitors arrive by automobile and view Canyon de Chelly from the rim, along both North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. No entrance fee is charged to enter the park. Private companies offer tours by horse, jeep, or on foot for a fee. The North Rim Drive is a 34 mile roundtrip with stops at cliff dwellings/ruins (Antelope House, Mummy Cave, Yucca) and views of de Chelly and del Muerte canyons. The South Rim Drive is a 37 mile roundtrip offering stops at ruins (White House, Sliding House, and Junction) and panoramic views of the de Chelly and Monument canyons, Defiance Plateau and the Chuska Mountains. The ancient ruins and geologic structures are visible, but from a distance via turnoffs on each of these routes. There are hikes of varying length and difficulty to the numerous viewpoints. Access to the canyon floor is restricted, and visitors are allowed to travel in the canyons only when accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide. The only exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail, which was one of our favorite trails in the region. White House Ruin Trail is included in the book we used to select hikes in the region, “A Falcon Guide: Hiking the Four Corners” by JD Tanner and Emily Ressler-Tanner. Mike wrote about our hike at White House in his post on our Favorite Four Corners Hikes.
The park’s distinctive geologic feature, Spider Rock, is a sandstone spire that rises 750 feet from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. Spider Rock can be seen from South Rim Drive. It has served as the scene of a number of television commercials. According to traditional Navajo beliefs, the taller of the two spires is the home of Spider Grandmother. Deep within the park is Mummy Cave. It features structures that have been built at various times in history.
Canyon de Chelly long served as a home for Navajo people before it was invaded by forces led by future New Mexico governor Lt. Antonio Narbona in 1805. In 1863, Col. Kit Carson sent troops through the canyon, killing 23 Indians, seizing 200 sheep, and destroying hogans, as well as peach orchards and other crops. The resulting demoralization led to the surrender of the Navajos and their removal via “The Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico, an attempt at ethnic cleansing. They were finally able to return to their homelands in 1868.
We stayed at Goulding’s RV Park, Monument Valley, Utah, which is located off of UT-163 near the Utah-Arizona border, about an 87 mile drive from Canyon de Chelly National Monument. While in the region we also visited: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Navajo National Monument, Goosenecks State Park, the Natural Bridges National Monument, and toured areas of Bears Ears National Monument and the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch BLM Lands including the Valley of the Gods. The region is rich in scenic beauty and has many ruins from the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi).