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A comparatively little-known canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) has sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, scenic overlooks, well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and an insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.
People have lived in the canyon for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.
From the mesa east of Chinle in the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.
The sheer walls, shaped and smoothed by thousands of years of rain and wind, provide a dramatic backdrop for those who still live and farm within the canyon.
There are two ways to experience Arizona’s lesser-known canyon. You can drive along the rim stopping at overlooks to marvel at the vertical cliffs and stone spires and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.
Canyon de Chelly is managed through a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, and many areas, including the backcountry, are accessible only with a permit and an official Navajo guide. Start your visit to Canyon de Chelly at the visitor center to learn more about the history and rules at this unique place. To enhance your visit, a motoring guide and a trail guide are available at the bookstore in the visitor center.
The northernmost and southernmost edges are accessible from paved roads—the North and South Rim drives. The South Rim Drive offers the most dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint, the overlook of Spider Rocks—twin 800-foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls and a site of special significance for the Navajo.
From the visitor center to the last overlook is about 16 miles one-way. There are seven overlooks from which to view Canyon de Chelly. Watch for changes in vegetation and geology as the elevation rises from 5,500 feet at the visitor center to 7,000 feet at Spider Rock. Allow two to three hours for this drive—and considerably longer, if you’re a photographer.
The third overlook, Junction, affords the first look at the canyon’s depth, and the signs warn that it’s a sheer drop of 600 feet to the bottom. Junction has views of Chinle Valley and the confluence of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly.
The scenery elevates to spectacular at the Sliding Rock Overlook, about 700 feet above the canyon floor and site of ruins that once slipped off the canyon walls. Face Rock Overlook is even higher and sort of a prelude to the most magnificent of all—Spider Rock Overlook. From here you can see the volcanic core of Black Rock Butte and the Chuska Mountains on the horizon.
According to legend, Spider Woman taught the Navajo how to weave and now lives on top of the spire that is covered with white limestone. The legend says the white stuff is the bones of bad children who were carried off by Spider Woman.
Also worthwhile, but not quite as scenic, the North Rim Drive has only three overlooks from which to view Canyon del Muerto. Some of the most beautiful cliff dwellings are along this 34-mile route from start to finish. Allow a minimum of two hours for this drive.
Don’t miss the White House Ruins. This is a superb hike. Long ago, hundreds of people lived in the structure built into the cliffs. Now the walls are a reminder of how life once thrived in the canyon.
For your efforts you’ll get an up-close look at White House ruins, mentioned in the Navajo Night Chant as “white house in between”. The trail begins at the White House Overlook and is a two- or three-mile round trip, depending on which signs you believe. Allow two to three hours to complete the trail. The drop from the rim to the canyon floor is 600 feet. Since the trail is considered moderately strenuous, hiking boots are recommended. Ensure you take plenty of drinking water, especially if you’re hiking in the summer’s heat.
We didn’t inherit the earth; we are borrowing it from our children.
—Native American Proverb