Horse Camping in the Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located on the Navajo Reservation near Chinle, Ariz., in the northeastern part of the state. It's about a six-hour drive from either Phoenix or Santa Fe. From Phoenix, take Route 17 north to Flagstaff, Route 40 east to Chambers, Route 191 north to Chinle. From Santa Fe, take Route 25 south to Albuquerque, Route 40 west to Chambers, Route 191 north to Chinle.
Although the canyon has its heaviest influx of tourists in July, idealriding seasons are late spring/early summer, and into the fall, when temperatures are moderate. Daytime temperatures in May, June, September and early October are usually in the 70s and 80s; at night the mercury dips into the 50s and 60s. Shooting-star alert: August often brings heavy meteor showers. The visitor center at the canyon is open year round, though some parts of the canyon close seasonally due to snowfalls, melting snow packs or heavy rains.
There is no entrance fee, but a Navajo guide is required for all horseback trips into the canyon. No alcohol is permitted on the reservation. There is nowhere to buy food or supplies in the canyon. There are basic toilet facilities at Antelope House, White House and Mummy Cave ruins; ouroutfitter trucked in portable outhouses to our campsites.
Day trips on horseback cost about $10 per hour, per person, plus $10 perhour for the guide; one guide may take a group of people, though the group size per guide depends on the length of the trip and the outfitter's discretion.
A half-day ride will get you to the Junction House ruins and back; allow a full day to see either White House or Antelope House ruins. Count on a two-day ride, camping out overnight, if you want to visit Spider Rock or Mummy Cave; on the way to these sites, you'll have a chance to see the White House or Antelope House, respectively. For a two-day, one night trip, including two meals, one outfitter charges $190 per person. Bring your own camping gear for overnight trips; the outfitter will truck it into the campsites.
Invaluable items: a canteen (I used a soft, insulated one, with a loop that fit over the saddle horn), sun block, sunglasses, snacks, a sweatshirt, camera gear and string (I needed it for something practically every day). I invested in an inexpensive pair of saddle bags ($20), which held all that with room to spare. My riding instructor advised me to wear a helmet; I ordered one from an equestrian catalog for about $50. If you opt not to wear a helmet, definitely take along a hat of some kind, the sun at 6,000 feet can be brutal.
To get a horse you'll enjoy riding, be honest with the outfitter about your experience. One of the women in the group has ridden since childhood. Shewas given a 3-year-old male, with racing bloodlines. By week's end, she was nicknamed"Pony Express," since the rest of us ate her dust. Those of us who ID'd ourselves as beginners got calm animals who needed little direction.The pace was gentle, mostly walking and trotting, though everyone cantered a little toward the end (Pony Express was an inspiration).
The riding trails were good, mostly level sand, though we did ford shallow creeks and climb the surrounding embankments, some of which were rather steep. The road at Chinle Wash, where we entered Canyon de Chelly National Monument, was broad enough to accommodate a six-lane highway in a more populous area. The trails narrowed as we got deeper into the canyons, but it was almost always possible to ride two or more abreast.
Even the most experienced riders among us mentioned feeling sore after afull day in the saddle; the second day was a turning point: We all felt better after that. I made a point of stretching morning and night, however, acouple of Motrin sure tasted good at bedtime.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication