Canyon de Chelly
Explore a sacred Navajo canyon
Owned by the Navajo Nation, one of 15 tribes that live in Arizona, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) exudes a quiet magic and spirituality that inspired mythology guru Joseph Campbell to call it ‘the most sacred place on Earth’. Navajo families tend farms and orchards on the fertile bottom of this canyon system, and herds of sheep and goats graze in the shadows of stone towers. Around A.D. 700 the Ancestral Puebloans began carving multi-storeyed dwellings into the sheer sandstone walls. Mysteriously abandoned in the 1300s, they are the oldest known houses in the U.S. and—paired with the canyon’s special beauty—the principal attraction of this 130-square-mile monument.
Most of the canyon bottom is off-limits to visitors to protect the privacy of the 500 or so Navajo who live here. Part of the vast Navajo Indian Reservation, it is considered one of its holiest sites. Apart from one steep trail to the bottom, you’ll have to go on an organised vehicle tour in the company of a Navajo guide to enter the gorge.
The monument’s name comes from the Navajo word tseyi, meaning ‘rock canyon’, and what a canyon it is; soaring cliffs glowing pink, yellow and orange are cut by the cottonwood-lined Rio de Chelly, here and there decorated with ancient pictographs and petroglyphs. Near the park Visitor Centre, three miles east of Chinle, you’ll find the Thunderbird Lodge, which began as a trading post in 1902 and retains its early ambience with a cafeteria in the original building and Southwest-themed rooms. Sign up for one of their ‘shake-and-bake’ jeep tours, so named because of the bumpy road and summer heat.
The paved 15-mile North Rim Drive follows the Canyon del Muerto (Canyon of the Dead), which gets its name from the many bodies found buried among its prehistoric ruins. Across from the Antelope House ruins, above the junction of the Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon, is the Navajo Fortress, where native warriors hid from U.S. troops in 1863 after the government ordered the tribe to be moved to a barren reservation in eastern New Mexico.
If your time is limited, opt for the 16-mile South Rim Drive, which offers even more remarkable views from places like the Tsegi Overlook and the Junction Overlook. The White House Overlook is the only place you’re allowed to visit on the canyon bottom without a guide; take the steep but short trail a mile down to White House Ruins, the remains of an 80-room dwelling believed to have been inhabited between 1040 and 1275 and the largest ruins in the canyon. Spider Rock Overlook is the last stop on the South Rim Drive and one of the most spectacular. Kids will be thrilled to know that Spider Woman, who Navajo say taught their ancient tribes to weave, still lives on top of the stark pinnacle that rises 800 feet from the canyon floor.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.