Road Trip: Canyon de Chelly

We’re not sure there are enough pretty words in the English language to describe Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon d’Shay). However, stunning, beautiful, and breathtaking immediately come to mind. As a national monument and also part of the Navajo Nation, its history is just as inspiring as its beauty. Enjoy the journey.

Where is it?

Canyon de Chelly is near Chinle, Arizona, which is located in the northeastern corner of the state.

  • Admission to the national monument is free.
  • Tours of the canyon floor require fees and are not booked through the park. Click here for a list of approved tour operators.
  • Call the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department at 928-674-2106 for campground and backcountry camping information.

Access the national monument’s website here.

Rain, Rain Go Away

We arrived at Canyon de Chelly with a reservation at the Thunderbird Lodge, a tour that had been booked through said lodge, and an 82% chance of rain. If it rained, we weren’t sure the tour would go on. It was too early to check in to our room, so we made ourselves a picnic lunch and ate on the patio in front of the office under darkening skies.

Thunderbird Lodge. We loved this hotel!

As luck would have it, it started raining about five minutes before our tour was to depart. Our guide, Fernando, insisted that the tour was a go, so we boarded an interesting open top vehicle for what was sure to be a rain-soaked adventure.

Fernando and the truck. Thunderbird Lodge guides conduct their tours in Pinzgauer troop transport vehicles that were built in Austria in the 1970s.

Fortunately, the heavens smiled down on us, and the rain stopped as soon as we grabbed our complimentary bottled water and snack from the office. Off we went, along with five other people, into a (normally) dry wash that had turned into a river along the canyon floor.

Thankfully the water wasn’t deep, but Fernando said in 40 years of living and working in the canyon he hadn’t seen so much water in the wash. Not knowing the difference, we thought the watery wash just added to the adventure.

Canyon de Chelly – The Floor

Access to the canyon floor is only permitted with a Navajo guide or a park ranger. (There is one self-guided trail that leads to a small portion of the canyon floor, but it was closed when we were there.) Besides Thunderbird Lodge, which we highly recommend, there are several other tour companies with various tour packages. Ours was a four-hour tour and we thought it was perfect for viewing the spectacular scenery and learning the canyon’s history.

This shot shows a great example of desert varnish: the drippy striations on the canyon walls where minerals have leached out and stained the rock.

Canyon de Chelly is still occupied by Navajo families who have farmed and raised livestock there for generations, though today most of them only live in the canyon seasonally.

Mostly made up of De Chelly sandstone, the canyon walls vary in height from 30 feet to 1,000 feet. All of them are spectacular.

Things Best Seen from the Canyon Floor

The National Park Service maintains a scenic drive with overlooks along the rim of the canyon. However, here is what visitors will miss by not touring the floor: closer looks at Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings! Our tour took us to seven ruins, and each one was mind boggling, especially because some of them are located so high above the canyon floor. We’ve highlighted a few of them below.

First Ruin – that’s really the name.

There are approximately 2,500 ancient dwellings in Canyon de Chelly and adjoining Canyon de Muerto. Built between 1500 BC and 1350 AD, the dwellings have survived because they’re under overhangs or in cave-like formations in the rock.

Junction Ruin, so named because it is near the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon de Muerto.
Ledge Ruin because it’s on a ledge, and that ledge is in a natural amphitheater.
Antelope House was built on the ground and was once covered in white plaster.

We saved our favorite, White House Ruin, for last. Building began at this site around 1050 AD. Over the next two centuries, more rooms were added resulting in 80 rooms and four kivas at its height. White House was originally covered in white plaster.

White House Ruin and its rock art.

Ancient Rock Art

Canyon de Chelly’s amazing rock art cannot be seen from the rims. Yet another reason a tour of the canyon floor should be included on every itinerary. Below are a few of the many pictographs and petroglyphs that we saw on our tour.

Pictographs (painted on the rock)

Antelope or deer, people – perhaps a family, and a hill or rainbow.
Cow, antelope, horses, flowing water, and perhaps an astrological symbol.
This spectacular pictograph panel depicts the arrival of Spanish explorers, including a priest.

Petroglyphs (chiseled into the rock)

This probably depicts a deer hunt on horseback.
Horses, maybe and and a figure eight which possibly has an astrological meaning.
Possible depictions of snakes and other unknown images.

Canyon de Chelly – The Rim

There are three overlooks along North Rim Drive and six overlooks along South Rim Drive. Allow a few hours to enjoy all of the overlooks when visiting the park. 

Recent rains filled the wash and enhanced the “green”.
Views from the top are just as stunning as they are from the floor.
Spider Rock (center) is probably the most recognizable feature of Canyon de Chelly and rises 1,000 feet from the canyon floor.

Tragic Navajo History

Our post would not be complete without mentioning the 1863 – 1864 attacks led by Col. Kit Carson on the Navajo people who lived in and around Canyon de Chelly. In an effort to open up the western part of the country for settlement, the government decided the way to control Native Americans was to move them to encampments.

Traditional Navajo hogan (dwelling – pronounced hoe-gone) in Canyon de Chelly.

However, the Navajo, after hearing about the raid, fled to the top of a butte called Fortress Rock.

Fortress Rock – a sacred place for today’s Navajo people.

The people watched from atop Fortress Rock while Carson and his men destroyed their homes and orchards, killed their sheep, and stole their horses. Once captured, the Navajo were deemed prisoners of war and forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico – a journey that is now known as the Long Walk.

This shot shows a ladder (the two wooden poles on the right) used by the Navajo people who fled to the top of Fortress Rock.

Many Navajo people died during the Long Walk. Those who survived the trek were confined in a prison camp called Bosque Redondo. Living conditions at Bosque Redondo were horrific, and many people died of disease and malnourishment while imprisoned there. The hardships continued for four long years until a treaty was signed. Finally, the people were allowed to return to their homelands.

Thank you so much for joining us on our tour of Canyon de Chelly! Our closing shot is of a rainstorm at sunset.

Canyon de Chelly

For more national monument inspiration, check out these other great destinations:

Safe travels, y’all!

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.


73 thoughts on “Road Trip: Canyon de Chelly

  1. Oh my gosh, Mike and Kellye, what a beautiful place! And a four hour tour. I love the pictographs. And some of your photos are just gorgeous. Do y’all go back home between your park adventures? Or just go from one park to the next? I want to be y’all.

    1. Thank you, Neal! We make super detailed itineraries. Then we will hit the road for a week or so and finally head back home to plan the next trip. Our vacations are not super relaxing, but we want to visit as many national parks as possible and time seems to be passing more quickly every day. We really appreciate your support of our posts and your lovely comments.

  2. This was really interesting, Kellye!! I loved the part about the rock paintings and other art forms. Really would love to see them in person. This was great to see them on your post.

  3. The petroglyphs and pictographs are amazing. There are so many and in such good condition. The homes are really fascinating too that they’ve survived for so long. Looks like a fascinating place that I’d never heard of. Maggie

  4. Kellye you have gotten me in trouble! Every time you show these beautiful posts I tell my husband I want to stop there when we take our trip next year. He said I need to plan a month trip if I think we can do all the places you have posted! 🤣

  5. More fascinating ruins to explore (and the better for free)! Despite the shaky start with the rain, you made it through the visit and got to see just how intricate and wondrous the homes of the Navajo Nation were back then: I can imagine the architectural and engineering feat it took to make them! A sad part of US history with the decimation of the indigenous population, but an important one to learn about…thanks for sharing!

  6. Thank you for taking me to the canyon floor 😀 We did the rim tour when we visited back in 1993 but there were no canyon tours operating at the time due to a mysterious illness that had struck local communities, affecting mainly Navajo people. Chinle, where we stayed, was almost devoid of visitors, but we took the risk of going and were very glad we did. Not only did we get to see this amazing canyon (albeit only from the rim), which we loved, but also our visit was much appreciated as their economy had been badly hit. Looking back, it was almost a foretaste of Covid –

  7. A beautiful place Kellye. So many people concentrate on the Grand Canyon, but there are so many others to view in Arizona and Utah. The guided tours by Navajo storytellers would be fascinating. It is appalling to read about what the colonizers did to the First Nations in an attempt to “open up the country”. Thanks for sharing. Allan

  8. Kellye, this place looks amazing! I’ve added it to our bucket list. Thanks for the tour with amazing pictures and for including the sad details of “The Long Walk.” That’s an important piece of history to remember. The cliff dwellings are quite impressive!

  9. Another natural and historical gem, Kellye. The cliff dwellings are an amazing sight and the pictographs are incredible, particularly the panel showing the arrival of the Spanish explorers. What happened to the Navajo people is a crime against humanity. It saddened me greatly to read about their ordeal and destruction.

    1. Thank you, Leighton. You know the more we travel through the western US, the more we realize how terrible the Native Americans were treated. The canyon was just fabulous, though, and we enjoyed our guide.

  10. Stunning post! Love all your photos, especially the ancient rock art. The pictograph of the Spanish explorers is beautifully detailed. Amazing artistic work. Great post! Thanks!

  11. What an amazing outing, and the photos–wow! Kit Carson seems to have been a rather complex figure, far from the dime novel legend, both hostile toward and defensive of Native Americans at one point or another.

  12. Good timing with the rain and great news that your tour wasn’t cancelled. It’s amazing how many of these ancient dwellings, pictographs and petroglyphs have survived over time and are still in such great shape. The views from the Rim are also stunning. We’ll have to add Canyon de Chelly to the list for the next time we’re in Arizona.

  13. Loved this post. So much to see and learn. Your photos are amazing … really capturing the landscape … and those amazing wall pictograms. Sad to read about the experiences of the Navajo people.

  14. Don’t mind me while I stare in wonder at your beautiful pictures. This certainly seems to have a wealth of interest from the incredible canyon views, to the ruins in the rocks, and the cave art and petroglyphs. I’m glad though too that you included the Navajo history and that sad part about the area because it is such an important part of the story.

  15. Wow, you are right with all your descriptive words for this beautiful place! The ruins are amazing and so is the rock art (love the one of the Spanish explorers). And what incredible views from The Rim – stunning last photo!

  16. What great photos! It’s like we’re there with you.

    The United States is coming perilously close to considering camps once again ~ this time for its homeless. Any time you have limited egress from a place in which resources are at an ebb, that is, by definition, a concentration camp.

    Our “homeless services” already feature “no unsupervised exits.”

    Will we ever learn?

      1. I’m happy to hold out a sliver of hope that our brightening quotient of photonic light will tip the balance this time around. Could be wrong, of course. Either way, we’ve made some great friends on the journey! You two rock!

  17. THIS was one of my favorite places, because of the culture that is still alive. How lucky you were to see the rain ,and have your guide be comfortable driving in it. The photos are unique and tell a different story with the water. Just recently, flash floods kept people out for weeks. Always a pleasure to see your journeys.

  18. Holy smokes! Those cliff dwellings, wow! I actually wrote a poem once I long retired called “Demon in the Chelly” based on other pictures of this place I saw. The cragginess in the photo really looked like a demon head to me.

  19. I don’t have the words to describe how intensely amazing these photographs are! Wow! Thank you for sharing the story of the Navajo people and all that they endured before they were able to return home. It is beyond tragic… Your guide certainly took you on an incredible journey!

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