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Canyon de Chelly National Monument - Arizona

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 winter.

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 sure.

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 region.

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).

 

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Canyon de Chelly

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.

Chinle Camping

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 museum.

For information on camping within the national monument, call the park office at (602) 674-5436.

 

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