Horse Camping in the Canyon de Chelly

Trailblazing off the Beaten Path
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After a hearty breakfast, we started our second day by riding deeper into Canyon de Chelly. While dawdling over the breathtaking scenery I fell behind, and nudged my horse, Blackie, to catch up with the only person still in sight. I didn't realize I was following the group's most adventurous rider.

He headed far off the beaten path, into a grove of trees, with me right behind. At one point, I was certain I was lost, but since I had no idea how to backtrack, I followed the sound of the horse crashing through the brush ahead of me. Finally, the woods ended at the edge of a deep ravine and the other rider was already on the opposite side.

He very solemnly told me I was going to have to jump. Once he saw the look I gave him, he guided me to an easier crossing point. We laughed about my wild cross-country jaunt all the way back to camp. My companion said I'd seen country I would have otherwise missed and I pointed out that I hadn't exactly seen it, as I'd had my hands up protecting my face most of the time.

Blackie and I came to a parting of the ways later that day. After a lunch break and nap, we were riding in Monument Canyon, on a beautiful cottonwood-shaded trail. As we paused to look at some ruins, Blackie lowered himself to the ground, like a camel. It was one of those moments that seemed to last forever. In fact, another rider said it must have taken close to a minute for him to fold up. At first I was frozen in disbelief: Is this typical horse behavior? Then I came to my senses, and bailed out of the saddle, as we neared the ground. The guide assured me that Blackie would be OK, he was just hot and tired. No matter. I'm not an aggressive rider, and I knew I'd never again have the heart to urge Blackie to pick up the pace to a trot, if he wore out more quickly than me. The outfitter immediately put me on another horse. I enjoyed the rest of the ride on Oreo, a leopard Appaloosa, who looked like a beautiful half-ton Dalmatian.

The Lay of the Land

After two nights at Spider Rock, we headed for our base camp at the junction where Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto split apart. Taking a break from trotting, some of us threw a frisbee, played softball and volleyball ? our voices and grunts echoeing and reverberating in the canyon.

Hiking was another nonequestrian activity. I took walks every morning and evening. In part to stretch out, but also to get to know the land better. Exploration of the junction area was incredible. The remains of the traditional hogan where our Navajo outfitter was born, small Anasazi ruins high up in the canyon wall, and antelope pictograms incised in the rock all adorned the area.

The spectacular scenery was the highlight of most of the journey, however, I could have been happy anywhere, as long as I was on horseback. We headed into Canyon del Muerto, on our way to our Mummy Cave mini camp. That part of the national monument has an abundance of traditional native hogans, ubiquitous Anasazi walls and some truly spectacular petroglyphs, especially at the Antelope House, Blue Bull and Standing Cow sites.

Through it all, I had a great time putting Oreo through his paces. I guided him off the trail, up hills and into creek beds, just for the pleasure of movement, to feel Oreo's response to my signals. I was delighted to see how much my riding skill had improved after a few days in the saddle.

Good thing. After lunch that day, we ran into an electrical storm, complete with booming thunder, heavy rain, and horizontal lightning bolts that looked like they were severing the heavens from earth. I was concerned about how the horses would react, and wondered if I was up to the challenge, should there be one. We were in an area of the canyon with narrow trails and steep hills. I guided my horse a little distance off the trail ? in case there was any restlessness, I didn't want to be in a pack I only wanted to contend with my own mount.

Apparently, the horses are used to these dramatic storms, as most of them stayed calm and well behaved. After about 90 minutes of riding through the downpour, the skies cleared, the temperature climbed, we doffed our rain gear and dried out.

To the Navajo people, the canyon is holy ground. I entered the national monument respecting that belief, and by the time I left, I was convinced of it. No where did I feel that reverence more strongly than at the Mummy Cave ruins.

That night, we built a campfire (according to a guide, Indian people build small fires and gather close together, white people build huge fires and keep moving away from the heat and one another), and listened to the guides tell stories about the Navajo beliefs and traditions. Positioning my sleeping bag so I could see Mummy Cave, I closed my eyes for the night.

Mummy Cave is named for the remains of ancient people, wrapped in yucca leaves and preserved by the dry environment that were removed from these caves at the end of the 19th century. The main structure at Mummy Cave is truly a magical sight with its beautiful proportions. The three-story tower is largely intact and the timber supports are visible and remarkably well-preserved. You can't help but wonder who made it, how they did it, and how it's lasted so long. It seems almost unreal in its serene beauty, and age.

I hiked as close as I could, eagerly observing it from all angles, climbing up a steep hill to see it better, and staring in wonderment. There are deep caves on each side of the main building containing dozens of structures, some with rounded walls and foundations. According to local legend, the canyon's echoes are the whispering voices of the ancient people. But a far more modern speaker jolted me from my reverie that morning. Although the campsite was easily a half-mile from my perch, the canyon's acoustics carried a summons to tend to more corporeal matters, "Elzy! Breakfast is ready!"

Spiritual enlightenment is one thing, but then there's coffee. I ran down the hill, carrying with me a warm feeling that lasted for the rest of the trip and for weeks thereafter.

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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