Canyon de Chelly

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Occupying 131 square miles, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (which encompasses Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon) contains more than 800 known archaeological sites places that, while much younger than the Egyptian pyramids, lend authority to Campbell's and Jung's ideas about the ancientness of the place.

Most of those sites mark spots where the forebears of today's Pueblo Indians, known by the Navajo name Anasazi (literally,"enemy ancestors"), lived; some of them, ranging from simple pit houses to many-storied pueblos, date to the fourth century A.D. The Navajo came to Canyon de Chelly about 300 years after the original ancestral Pueblo people had migrated in the late thirteenth century, when a regional drought caused the small river within it to dry up. (The river now runs for most of the year, exiting the canyon at the little town of Chinle, "the place where the water flows out.")

Visitors can get a sense of Canyon de Chelly's ancient history by following two scenic routes, the 36-mile-long South Rim Drive, with eight overlooks, and the 34-mile-long North Rim Drive, with four overlooks.

South Rim Drive

The first on the South Rim Drive is Tsegi Overlook, which offers an acrophobiac's nightmare view down a 500-foot canyon face. The third, White House Overlook, offers access, via a 2.5-mile round-trip trail, to a heavily visited Anasazi cliff dwelling; if you're in good shape, you can make the trip in a couple of hours, and it's the only inner canyon hike for which you don't need a permit. At the end of the South Rim Drive, Spider Rock Overlook takes in a view where the canyon walls fall off more than 1,000 feet, just across from a slender, 800-foot-high monolith called Spider Rock. According to Navajo belief, this was the home of Spider Woman, who taught humans the art of weaving. On looking at it, you'd believe that only a spider could negotiate its heights, although it is said that humans have scaled it. The Navajo take a dim view of heaven-taunting enterprises like climbing within the canyon, however. And the Tribal Council recently banned hang gliding within its walls.

"The insurance load must have been pretty heavy," I speculated, on learning of the council's decision.

"No, it wasn't that, really," replied Ronnie Nez, a Navajo silversmith who operates a roadside stand near Spider Rock Overlook. "It was just too expensive to have to hire medicine people to exorcise the ghosts every time someone crashed."

North Rim Drive

For its part, the North Rim Drive offers a view of Antelope House, located at the point where Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon come together. There, 500 years ago, a Navajo artist drew a stunningly beautiful series of pictographs of running antelope, paintings that later inspired some of Adam Teller's subtle jewelry designs.

Eight miles up the road is the famous Mummy Cave Overlook, giving a view of an ancient pueblo that owes its name to a group of mummified corpses found inside it. Nearby Massacre Cave Overlook is a reminder of more recent deaths, those of 100 men, women, and children slaughtered by Spanish soldiers in 1805.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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