Our travels have found us close to this national monument several times, but it always seemed like we had places to be and other destinations to see so we never quite made it to this place of magnificent beauty. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) National Monument sits in the northeast corner of Arizona on the Navajo Indian Reservation. The monument is quite large (nearly 84,000 acres) and features not one but three canyons — Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon.
While the National Park Service administers this national monument and protects the record of human history found herein, it is truly home to Diné, the Navajo people. These canyons have been sacred to the Navajo and other ancestral Puebloan people for centuries, and people have lived here in these canyons for some 5,000 years; longer than anyone has lived uninterruptedly anywhere else on the Colorado Plateau.
Because some natives still live in and around the canyons here in the Navajo Nation, access to the park is somewhat limited. Visitors can enter into the canyon in two ways: 1) with an authorized Navajo guide who takes small groups around in an SUV or on horseback through the bottom of the canyon to the various sites; 2) by hiking down the only trail that’s allowable — White House Ruins Trail — to see the ruins, then hiking back out. Of course we opted for the hike, waiting until the late afternoon when the sun shaded much of the trail. It was an easy 2.5 miles round trip, although still scorching hot thanks to the deadly heat wave making its way through Arizona. But no complaining from us; we had water, and once down in the canyon, we were rewarded with close-up views of the White House Ruin, built and occupied centuries ago by ancestral Puebloan people.
Canyon de Chelly can still be enjoyed without going down into it. Two scenic drives, one along the north rim of the north canyon (del Muerto) and the other along the south rim of the south canyon (de Chelly), offer panoramic views of the canyons, and from overlooks visitors can peer down into the labyrinth to see remnants of lives lived long ago. Many ruins, some of them along the canyon floor and others built into cliff-side caves and caverns, are visible proof that these Anasazi — Navajo word for ‘ancient ones’ — called this place home.
Throughout our two-day visit in the park, we saw several Navajo, many of whom were selling their art — paintings, carvings, jewelry, and the like — along the lookout points. We picked up a couple of souvenir pieces and talked to these natives; a truly rewarding experience.
One of the most popular features in the park is Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone spire that rises from the canyon floor. Photos hardly do this monolith justice; it’s truly a sight to behold!
As we have been traveling around here in the American Southwest for a good part of these past 12 months, we have frequently been asked, “Have you been to Canyon de Chelly yet?” Clearly this place has left a mark on the people who have visited here. Well, us, too. And now we can answer, “Yes!” we have been there, and we will add that we really liked it.