“How did they get upstairs to the bedrooms?” my daughter asks as we look down from the steep cliff at the White House. The abandoned pueblos are nestled against the base of a nearly 900-foot cliff. She points first to the cluster on adobe homes adjoining the creek and then to the ones built into an alcove about thirty feet up.
“See the little man climbing the wall,” I answered pointing to a petroglyph about half-way between the two pueblos, “there must have been a ladder against the wall.” The wind whipped behind us whistling between a pair of sandstone rocks standing like sentinels over the ancient pueblos who lived 5,000 years ago in the canyon. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”) National Monument, deep inside the Navajo Nation, is a combination of ancient farms, holy spirits and tragic history. Taylor snuggled between them to block the wind from blowing her hair.
Minutes east of Chinle, Ariz., Canyon de Chelly National Monument has a story at every overlook. Visiting the Monument is two experiences. For the first experience, the two main canyons, Canyon del Meurto and Canyon de Chelly are viewed from overlooks along two roads following the canyon rims. Navajo Road 7 serves as the South Rim Drive, and Navajo Route 64 as the North Rim Drive.
The second experience is entering the Canyon itself. In addition to the two main canyons, there are two others, Black Rock and Monument Canyons, which are not viewable from the rim. To tour the canyon itself, we hired a Navajo Guide at the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center to take us, and used my 4WD Xterra to ford the Chinle Wash and enter the sacred ground. There are also tours using guides’ vehicles and organized group tours by vehicle or horseback.
Traveling with children makes this an extra-special treat—and not all that expensive—for the four hours we spent beneath the canyon walls. These sheltered grounds have been continuously occupied—there are still families farming and grazing in the canyons—longer than any other location on the Colorado Plateau. Our guide shared cultural and physical geology, explained the stories behind the dozens of abandoned pueblos, and shared a tragic history.
Canyon del Muerto—the Canyon of Death—carries the name following an 1805 Spanish expedition when the Conquistadors discovered more than 100 Navajo hiding on a ledge at the far end of the canyon and killed them all in a “shooting gallery” battle against unarmed civilians at Massacre Cave. Although it can be seen from the overlook, looking up from the wash brings a greater understanding of those moments of terror and genocide staining western civilization.
Canyon de Chelly is the home of Spider Rock. It is here on this sandstone spire that Spider Woman gave the Navajo the skill to weave their world-acclaimed blankets and clothing. The nearby Hubbard Trading Post National Monument is the epicenter of blanket trading—and that was our next destination after a couple days camping here. “Only a spider could get up there,” observed Taylor, craning her neck up the 800-foot tower at the junction of canyons de Chelly and Monument.
Getting to the Park: Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located about two miles east of Chinle, Ariz., some two long hours northwest of Gallup, N.M., and about four from Flagstaff, Ariz. From both, take I-40 to U.S. 191 to Chinle, and east on Navajo Rte. 7 to the Monument entrance. There is no admission fee for park entrance.
There are both a Best Western and Holiday Inn motels in Chinle and the historic Thunderbird Lodge in the National Monument. The Cottonwood campground, which is free, has running water, toilets, but no showers or other amenities. It’s open all year and run by the National Park Service on a first-arrived-first-sited, no reservation program. Privately owned, fully equipped Spider Rock Campground is located on Navajo Rte. 7 near the Spider Rock overlook. Although a U.S. National Park facility, Canyon de Chelly is located inside the Navajo Nation. While many laws are the same in the U.S. and the Nation, there are differences. Visitors are advised to treat the landscape with respect and observe traffic laws. The Navajo Nation has its own police force in addition to the Arizona Department of Public Safety and federal law enforcement.
Also keep in mind:
You’re traveling in the high desert. Carry water and follow appropriate desert safety precautions.
Other places nearby include Monument Valley Tribal Park. See the three-part series:
Monument Valley Part 2: Seventeen Miles – Go in Beauty
Monument Valley Part 3: Visiting the Four Corners
And read on TravelingMom.com