Vien R. Guenther
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Updated: Jan 7
Arizona has several national monuments worth visiting in addition to its national parks. We’ve been to all three national parks, but we never got around to visiting Canyon de Chelly (pronounced, “de-Shay”) National Monument until this year. This park is one of the most visited national monuments in the United States, but since it was autumn it was not crowded when we were there.
What pushed us to visit this place was when it was mentioned in a book we read entitled Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides. The book is about Kit Carson, a frontiersman, trapper, guide, soldier and Indian agent. It was a long and complicated story and a sad one at that, but if you like history I recommend you to read it. Anyway, to make a long story short, Carson's connection with Canyon de Chelly is that he was responsible for the removal of the Navajo tribe in the canyon, but he also advocated for the creation of the Indian Reservations.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in the northeastern part of Arizona, within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners Region. The main entrance is just east of Chinle, the largest town in the area and the gateway to Canyon de Chelly. There is no fee to enter the park, unless you take a tour of the canyon floor or camp at the campgrounds.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established on April 1, 1931 authorized by President Herbert Hoover, as a unit of the National Park Service. It was created to preserve the important archaeological resources in the area that span more than 4,000 years. The park is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation, but they work in partnership with the National Park Service to manage Canyon de Chelly. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on August 25, 1970.
This canyon is called Canyon de Chelly, but to the Navajo tribe it is called “tsegi” (SAY-ih), meaning “rock canyons” or “between the rocks”. This canyon preserves ruins of the indigenous tribes that lived in the area, from the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi, the “ancient ones”) to the Navajo. Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America.
The park’s one main attraction is its landscape, with meandering streams as well as rich vegetation between steep rocky cliffs found in some areas. It encompasses approximately 84,000 acres of land, including the floors and rims of the Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. Plants that thrive here range from desert grasslands to evergreen forest. Mountain lions, black bear,and bobcats are some of the animals that live here. We actually saw a black bear while driving along the rim road.
The incredible sheer cliffs alone are enough to impress, but looking down to the canyon floor is like looking at a different world. It is lush with vegetation. The canyon has natural water sources and rich soil, which supported human inhabitants for thousands of years. The Ancient Puebloans planted crops and raised families here 5,000 years ago. Their descendants - the Hopi people - spent their summers in the canyon cultivating peach orchards and corn. Even today, the Navajo, or Diné, as they like to call themselves, who entered the canyon 400 years ago, live and farm the land and raise livestock here.
The canyon's tall vertical walls provided protection for the inhabitants since ancient times. The canyon walls rise from only 30 feet high from the canyon’s mouth near Chinle to 1,000 feet high as you get further into the canyon.
The canyon's sandstone was deposited as sediments during the Permian Period, then carved by millions of years of stream-cutting and land uplifts, ending up with the beautiful site that we see today. Nature is indeed incredible.
The "Long Walk"
Canyon de Chelly is peaceful today, but it was the last refuge of the Navajo during the height of warfare with other tribes and Spanish colonists in 1700. In 1846, Watts Kearny subdued Mexican forces and claimed present day New Mexico and Arizona as a U.S. territory. He proposed peace agreement among tribes, but conflicts continued for another seventeen years. The expansion of the American West brought death and suffering to the native tribes.
In the winter of 1864, Col. Kit Carson sent troops through the canyon, destroying hogans, orchards and sheep, leading to the surrender of the Navajos. They were forced to march over 300 miles, which they called the “Long Walk”, to Fort Summer (now called Bosque Redondo) in New Mexico territory. Some died from thirst, fatigue and hunger on the way. After years of living in poor shelters, lack of food, diseases and death, a treaty was signed between the Navajo and the U.S. Government in 1868 which allowed them to return home to rebuild their lives.
EXPLORING THE CANYON RIMS
Entering the canyon floor is restricted, due to the canyon’s delicate geology and historic artifacts - with the exception of White House Ruin Trail, which is a self-guided hiking trail. You can only enter the canyon floor with a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide. Unfortunately, by the time we were there, entry to the canyon floor was closed for the season. So, we just drove around the rims of the canyon and stopped at overlooks. The South Rim Drive and North Rim Drive are 37 miles and 34 miles round-trip respectively from the visitor center - this includes driving to all of the overlooks.
Even though we weren't able to see the ancient ruins up close, it was fascinating to see the canyon itself. It is something to behold. The Antelope overlook is one of my favorite viewpoints; it was such a peaceful landscape and scenery that I could just sit there and absorb the beauty of the surroundings for some time, if only we had enough time.
ANCIENT & GEOLOGIC FEATURES
When exploring the rim of the canyon, you will find ancient ruins and geologic rock formations at certain viewpoints. Look down below and you will see homes and farms of the Navajo, as well as some of the ancient ruins left behind by the Anasazi - but some are a considerable distance away, so you need binoculars to see them a little closer. Deep within the park, in Canyon del Muerto along the north rim drive, is Mummy Cave which features structures that have been built at various times.
Antelope House & Mummy Cave
At the Massacre overlook, there's a cave where a group of Navajo had fortified themselves in a battle against a Spanish military expedition led by Lt. Antonio Narbona in 1805. Over one hundred Navajo died here.
At the Spider Rock overlook, you will find sandstone pinnacles that rise up to 750 feet above the canyon floor. According to traditional Navajo beliefs, the taller of the two spires is the home of a Spider Woman who taught the Navajo how to weave. The other version of the myth is that the taller of the two spires is the home of Spider Grandmother who keeps the bones of her victims on top.
We didn't have enough time to hike but if you do, there's a self-guided hiking trail to the White House Ruin. The hike starts at the White House Overlook on the South Rim. It takes about two hours, leading down and back to the rim. The White House was built by ancestral Puebloan people and named for a white plaster wall of the upper dwelling.
This picture is an example of a Hogan, a sacred dwelling located at the Visitor Center. This one is a female hogan, an 8-sided dwelling used as a residence or for ceremonial purposes - the male hogan is square and used primarily for storage. If you want a real Navajo experience, some Navajo families offer their hogans as lodging.
Visiting this place on our way to California was part of our "spur of the moment" road trip this year. Although our visit was short, we were fascinated by what we have seen - what more if we had been able to explore the canyon floor.
Navajo National Monument (and the Navajo Nation) observes Mountain Daylight Savings Time, unlike the rest of Arizona, which remains on standard time year-round.