Canyon De Chelly National Monument Overview
|Cliff Dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Kent Knudson\Photodisc\Getty)|
In 1863, while the War Between the States raged in the East, legendary "Indian fighter" Kit Carson led a brutal campaign against the Navajo of the Southwest, whose raiding parties were seen as a threat to the United States government. One Navajo stronghold was Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "d'SHAY," from a Spanish mispronunciation of the Navajo name for the area, tsegi), a colorful canyon near present-day Chinle, Arizona. Beginning in 1864, Carson, with the eager assistance of the Navajo's traditional enemies, marched into the beautiful, steep-walled canyon to destroy cornfields, hogans (circular, domed structures made of mud and logs), and orchards. Without food or shelter, the Navajo surrendered. Thousands of them were forced to march 300 miles eastward across New Mexico to a parched reservation where they were held as prisoners of war.
Throughout the nearly five years on the reservation at Fort Sumner, the Navajo people begged to be allowed to return to the land they considered "the heart of the world." Of those who survived the grueling "Long Walk," only half saw the day their people returned to the canyon in 1868. Slowly, the people rebuilt their lives. Today, there are approximately 80 families living in Canyon de Chelly. You can see the plowed fields and homes scattered about the canyon floor from overlooks high above.
The national monument, which actually includes Canyon del Muerto, Monument Canyon, and Canyon de Chelly, has housed people for more than 1,500 years. Numerous pictographs, petroglyphs, and ruins tell the tales of the people who once made their homes here. The style of living has changed from the circular pit houses of the Basket Makers to the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi and Pueblos to the hogans of the Navajo (who first came here in the 1700s), but the regard for the cliffs as a spiritual place has always remained true.
Although its history is marred by incidents of massacre, forced relocation, and abuse, Canyon de Chelly's overall effect is a lasting sense of peace. Its beauty is subtler and more profound than that of other parks in the U.S., and its intricacies are entwined in the culture that calls it home. Highlights of the Canyon are Spider Rock, an 800-foot spire said to be the home of "Spider Woman," and White House Ruin, an ancient dwelling that allows visitors to understand how the ancients lived and thrived here.
Take a Guided Tour
Because Canyon de Chelly is essentially private land, visitors must have a guide to enter the canyon. This is far from a detriment. Having a Navajo guide lead you through his or her ancestral land will add unfathomable depth to your journey. When you learn about the history, ecology, and geology of this spiritual place from a native rather than a park ranger or tour guide, you learn from someone who knows it best—and you gain a window into the culture. You feel like less of a visitor and more of a guest. Stop by the visitor center at the canyon's entrance to make arrangements for your tour.
Scenic Driving Around the Canyons
Because travel in Canyon de Chelly is limited to respect the privacy of the Navajo still living in the canyons and to protect the many fragile ruins, driving is the best way to gain an overall appreciation of the park in the smallest amount of time. Two paved routes totaling 43 miles stop at numerous spectacular viewpoints above the canyon floor. South Rim Drive offers seven overlooks into Canyon de Chelly itself: Tsegi, Junction, White House, Sliding House, Wild Cherry, Face Rock, and Spider. North Rim Drive provides four overlooks into Canyon del Muerto: Ledge Ruin, Antelope House, Mummy Cave, and Massacre Cave. Both rim drives begin at the monument visitor center, just east of Chinle.
Move Under Real Horsepower
No matter what your experience or skill level, riding a horse through the canyons under the able supervision of a Navajo guide is possibly the best way to see Canyon de Chelly. These rides move at a slower pace than four-wheel-drive tours, which are also available. Overnight trips allow for camping under the stars near such amazing sites as Spider Rock and Mummy Cave. The trails are sandy and level for the most part, though there are shallow creeks to ford and embankments to climb. The best time of year to go is either late spring or early fall, though the Perseid meteor showers of August help make the heat bearable. Guided horseback tours are provided by two National Park Service-authorized stables. Trips are by the hour, with extended and overnight tours available. Advance reservations are required.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication