Canyon de Chelly Chinle, AZ
… inhabited by people for over 5,000 years …
Story and photos by Karin H Wilson
Canyon de Chelly has been on my travel list for over 20 years! I finally got to see this really cool spot on the girls’ trip to see Pueblo Heritage in Arizona and New Mexico with Road Scholar.
When you are traveling through this area keep in mind the time zones you are passing through. The Navajo Reservation observes daylight saving time, while the rest of AZ and the Hopi Reservation don’t. If you are not aware of this you can miss an appointment.
The park is located within the Navajo nation in Chinle, AZ. Most of the area is private land so stay on roads and trails. You can drive along the rim and stop at all of the lookouts on your own. But if you want to go into the canyon you need to hire a Navajo guide.
Start at one of the overlooks to get a good view of Canyon de Chelly
We were going to start the day with a hike down White House Trail from White House Overlook (this is a public trail that you don’t need a guide for). But someone from Hollywood was filming a movie that morning, and apparently their permit trumped our permit. No worries, there is plenty more to see. So we went to Spider Rock Overlook instead. Spider Rock is the home to Spider Woman. Legend has it that she is mostly good, but has a low threshold for bad children and eats them (so our guide says).
The view from Spider Rock Overlook is amazing. We are on the rim about 1,000 feet looking down into the canyon. Spider Rock is striking! It is thin and 800 feet tall. It is located where Canyon de Chelly meets Monument Canyon. We can see a creek with water in it meandering down the center of the canyon. I love the color of the red rock walls!
These canyons have been inhabited by people for over 5,000 years. Historically residents include the Archaic, Basketmaker, Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo people. While the canyon appears to be an ideal place to live, there has been some tragedy here. In 1805 a Spanish military expedition killed 115 Navajo hiding on a ledge. 1863-1868 was the Long Walk where the US army practically eradicated the Navajo living in the canyon. Anyone left was marched over 300 miles to Fort Sumner. Those that survived the ordeal were eventually allowed to return to the canyon but hogans, orchards and livestock were all destroyed or killed. Getting reestablished was a challenge.
From the lookout area we even spotted an old cliff dwelling on the far wall. It was a nice preview of what was in store for the afternoon! After touring the upper rim we have lunch and are ready for the off-road portion of our tour into the canyon — woohoo!
Every turn in Canyon de Chelly reveals a new view
Canyon de Chelly is really a series of many canyons which includes Canyon del Muerto. As we drive in, we are quickly dwarfed by the canyon walls. The walls start at about 30 feet high and rise to over 1,000 feet deeper into the canyon. I love how quickly the canyon walls are way over our heads. There are people living and farming in the canyon so you see some fenced in horses and yards along the way.
Even when water is not visible you can see where there is water. These trees are super healthy and flashing us a bit of fall color!
We stopped at several cliff dwellings. Some are so high up off the ground it is hard to imagine carrying water and food up there on a regular basis. The rock ledges offer protection from the rain and most dwellings look undisturbed. Some are quite large and have large round kevas (community or ceremonial spaces).
And we did get to see the white house ruin after all. Instead of walking down the canyon, we drove right up to it. Nice that we didn’t miss anything!
Petroglyphs and pictographs — woohoo!
I was thrilled to see so many petroglyphs and pictographs in the canyon. No one knows what all of them mean, but some are familiar to us like the kokopelli, snake, handprints, human forms and deer. One image was clearly a chicken to half the group and a road runner to the other half! Only the artist knows for sure — and they didn’t leave any notes!
Our guide called his old truck rearview mirror a “Navajo flashlight”, and used it to highlight the individual petroglyphs as he talked about them. He was both entertaining and informative.
We did see what looked like a swastika in a few places. The Navajo used this symbol long before it was used by the Nazis in World War II. The “swirling log” shape is a sacred symbol to the Navajo but because of the bad association practically disappeared from Navajo art after the 1930’s. Some Navajo artists are reclaiming this symbol and putting it back into their rugs and weavings.
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Learn more and plan your own trip to Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is located in Chinle, AZ. You can learn more about Canyon de Chelly on the National Park Service website.
This trip to Canyon de Chelly was part of a larger tour with Road Scholar. I would highly recommend this tour if you are interested in Native American culture. There was plenty of time to explore each location on the trip, and interpreters at each location shared history and answered questions. Here are the specifics on the tour: Pueblo Heritage: The Anasazi, Hopi, Navajo and Chaco Canyon.
Enjoy the journey!
Karin H Wilson
Artist | Designer | Photographer | Traveler | Storyteller
I am Karin and I just love to share a good story — preferably with snacks! I’m particularly interested in capturing the world’s beauty and wonder in photographs.
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