From its rim, Canyon de Chelly
(pronounced de SHAY) drops a thousand feet. At the
bottom, Navajo hogans, fields and orchards are seen. This
is a vision of present-day life that continues a theme
which is 2,000 years old. The first known people in the
canyon were the Basketmakers.
Canyon de Chelly is a Hispanicized version
of the Navajo term Tseyi, meaning "among the rocks" or
"canyon." This canyon and its tributary Canyon del Muerto
have seen permanent residents since about ad 300, when
pithouses were built and farming began. The Basketmaker
II people hunted game in the area and practiced a
primitive form of horticulture. They founded several
communities including Tse Yaa Tsoh, located in a huge
Canyon del Muerto niche.
An Ancient Civilization Lived Here
Between ad 1050 and 1300, Anasazi Indians
lived in the canyons, building the cliff dwellings that
are the major attraction for visitors today. These
villages (some of them large towns) include White House,
Sliding Rock Ruins, Mummy Cave, Junction Ruins, and
Standing Cow Ruins. The Anasazi were the first to paint
drawings on the canyon walls, followed by the Navajo, who
added more art works.
The Rio de Chelly flows through the canyon,
providing water for farming and the Navajo residents.
Like Chaco Canyon -- to the east in New Mexico -- it is a
place of serene beauty and awesome silence.
The Pueblo period began during the Anasazi
period, between ad 700 and 1150. After this initial
period, the Anasazi left the plateaus above the canyons
to move into the cliff dwellings, supposedly to provide
fortification against hostile forces. Some archeologists
believe that the Anasazi moved to the cliffs to escape
the ravages of the floodplain, and the heavy rains of
Later, in the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries, other Indians from Chaco Canyon and Tsegi
Canyon moved here but didn't stay for long. By ad 1284,
the last of the Anasazi had left, and, as in Chaco Canyon
and other sites, their flight is still a mystery. Could
they have departed because of drought? Perhaps enemies
appeared, causing a swift departure. Nobody knows for
Hopi Indians seem to have come here around
1300, a theory borne out by remains of ceramic art in the
canyons. The Navajo, a nomadic Apache tribe, came from
the Great Plains in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, and the area became a Navajo stronghold with
the colonization of most of the Southwest by Spaniards.
It was a staging point for raids on the Spanish and later
the U.S. Army.
In the early 1800s, an all-day battle was
fought between the Navajo and the Spanish, ending with
the Indians being trapped in Massacre Cave. In 1864, Col.
Kit Carson led his cavalry detachment into the canyon,
burning Navajo homes and fields. The army forced more
than 8,000 Navajo to walk to Fort Sumner, New Mexico,
where they were held captive before being
returned&emdash;an event known as the Long Walk.
Today, about 300 Navajo live in and work
the fields of Canyon de Chelly during the summer months.
Out of the way, apart from the large cities of the
Southwest, this unique collection of former Anasazi and
Navajo communities remains one of the most significant
reminders of the first settlers of the Four Corners
How to Get There
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is
located close to Arizona Highway 63, at the town of
Chinle. The site is 95 miles from Gallup, New Mexico, via
Highways 491 (formerly Hwy. 666), 264, and 191. If you're
arriving from the north, take U.S. Highway 191 south from
its intersection with U.S. 160 and drive south for 62
miles to Chinle. From the south, drive north on U.S.
Highway 191 from the junction of Interstate 40.
What to See & Do
The best way (and the easiest) to see the
ruins and canyons is to drive along the two scenic routes
-- the South Rim Drive (36 miles round trip) and the
North Rim Drive (34 miles round trip). The South Rim
Drive provides access roads to eight overlook viewpoints.
There are four overlooks on the North Rim Drive. The most
popular overlooks are on the South Drive: Junction
Overlook, with views of First Ruin and Junction Ruin, and
the White House Overlook.
Travel by foot into the canyon is allowed
only in the presence of a park ranger or guide. The one
exception is the White House Trail. This 2.5- mile
round-trip walk leads to the best-known Anasazi ruin in
the canyon. It is named after a long wall in the upper
ruin that is covered with white plaster. The trail begins
at the White House Overlook, 6 miles from the park
headquarters and information center. The village was home
to about 100 Anasazi between ad 1060 and 1275. The
descent is 500 feet and the trail takes you across the
river. Set aside 2 hours for the round trip.
Visitor services include picnic sites.
Cottonwood Campground is located near the monument
headquarters, with fireplaces, drinking water and
restrooms. Gasoline, propane, food, and other camping
supplies are available in Chinle.
The best way to see the other ruins in the
canyon is to take the guided tour by vehicle offered by Thunderbird Lodge, the hotel inside the Monument,
near the visitor center (write Chinle, AZ 86503). The
lodge uses vehicles that can negotiate the sandy terrain
(with some quicksand) and mud following flash floods.
Other visitors use their own 4WD vehicles, hiring a
Navajo guide through the Park Service. Horseback trips
into the canyons are also available.
Also, Leon Skyhorse Thomas provides
guided tours of the canyon and significant archeological
sites in his Unimog, or jeep, or in your own SUV. Every
guide is certified by the Park Service. The basic three
hour tour includes Antelope house in Canyon Del Muerto,
and the White House Ruin in Canyon De Chelly. In
addition, the following ruins may be viewed: Kokopelli
Cave, Petroglyph Rock, First Ruin, Junction Ruin,
Ceremonial Cave, and Ledge Ruin. The total distance
traveled is 24 miles. Departure is from the Chinle
Holiday Inn Parking Lot -- a short walk from the
Cottonwood Campground. For information and reservations,
call 520-674-5433, or 520-674-1044 (daytime cell phone).
Canyon de Chelly Motel, P.O. Box 295,
Chinle AZ 86503, (602) 674-5875
With 68 units, an indoor pool, and a restaurant that
opens at 6:30 am, this motel is 3 miles west of Canyon de
Chelly National Monument. It's a quarter-mile east of
U.S. Hwy. 191. Rates depend on the season; they're higher
in the summer months.
Holiday Inn Chinle, P.O. Box 1889, Chinle AZ
86053, (602) 674-5000
This large, modern Holiday Inn has a complex rate
structure, with four different rate periods. As with the
above, the rates are higher in mid summer and lowest from
January through April. The hotel is located at the
entrance to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, on Indian
Road 7, 2.5 miles east of U.S. 191. There's a heated
pool, and laundry, and the restaurant opens at 6 a.m.
Cottonwood Campground, inside Canyon de Chelly
National Monument, has 75 sites and is open year-round.
RVs are limited to 32 feet. Dump station but no showers.
Extras include a visitor center, nature trails, and
For information on camping within the national
monument, call the park office at (602) 674-5436.