Canyon de Chelly: Explore this extraordinary monument in Arizona
Visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona will be a different experience from most federal reservations. Because the place is of extraordinary importance to the Navajo people, it remains their property and is jointly managed by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service.
Access is limited; Unaccompanied visitors are permitted at eight open viewpoints along the north and south routes, offering a bird’s eye view of the canyon. (White House Overlook and Trail remains closed). But to see historic areas up close and understand them better, you’ll want to sign up with a Navajo guide. They can lead you to famous archaeological sites in the park, such as ancient dwellings, pictographs, and petroglyph panels. You will also learn about the history of the area and its importance to the Navajos.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de-shay”) is about 460 miles from Las Vegas in the Four Corners region of the state. It sits about 6,000 feet above sea level, so expect temperatures about 20 degrees cooler than Las Vegas. The best times to visit the park are in April and May and again in September and October.
Located in Chinle, Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, the park was established in 1931. It covers 84,000 acres and is still home to approximately 40 Dine’ (Navajo) families. The main canyons to visit are the nearby Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.
People have lived in these canyons for nearly 5,000 years. Evidence indicates that the former just camped here, but left petroglyphs and pictographs as evidence of their presence. The next residents belonged to a culture now called Basketmakers, who arrived around 2,500 years ago and built compounds and high storage areas on cliffs and ledges. These were followed by the ancestral Pueblos, considered the ancestors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi peoples, who built multi-story villages and kivas.
The Navajo arrived in the 1700s and, like those before them, used the canyon to support themselves. The Navajos raised domestic sheep and goats and planted crops and orchards. Corn, alfalfa and fruit orchards continue to thrive here during the warmer months. The canyons also provided a wide variety of native plants used for food, medicine, and dyes.
There was an abundance of deer and rabbits, and bobcats, cougars, wild turkeys and even bears can still be seen.
In January 1864, Canyon de Chelly was part of a crucial American operation in the Navajo Wars. Colonel Kit Carson forced the removal of 8,000 Navajo from their homeland. Some Navajos were killed; most of the survivors were forced to walk more than 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico Territory, an ordeal now called the “Long March”. Many died of fatigue, hunger and thirst along the way; others died of diseases and related causes at the poorly designated site where they were forced to remain.
In 1868, the US government released those who survived. They were allowed to return to the canyons but found their crops, livestock, and hogans (mud and log houses) destroyed. Survivors rebuilt what they could, and traditional hogans can be found to this day.
If you are going to
To visit, sign up with a licensed Navajo guide for a hike, 4×4 tour, or horseback ride through the canyon. There are many lengths of excursions available and the guides will tailor the trip to your wants and needs. Plan at least half a day. If you have time, a day or multi-day trip will be best to enjoy the tranquility of the canyons of Canyon de Chelly and De Muerto. There is a list of guides and what they offer, available on the park’s website at www.nps.gov/cach.
Near the entrance to the park is the Canyon de Chelly Cottonwood Campground. Sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. No campfires are allowed. For more information, contact Navajo Parks and Recreation, 928-674-2106. www.navajonationparks.org.
For a wilder experience, and within the park itself, is the private Spider Rock Campground. It’s rustic and no-frills, but you can make a campfire. They also sell firewood and offer not only campsites but also authentic Navajo hogans for visitors. Call Spider Rock at 928-674-8261. www.spiderrockcampground.com
Chinle town is located about three kilometers from the entrance to the park. There is a grocery store, post office, gas stations, convenience stores, fast food and local accommodation. The Park Visitor Center is located within the park and is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, call the park at 928-674-5500 or www.nps.gov/cach.