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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Petroglyphs (chiseled into the rock)
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.
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.
However, the Navajo, after hearing about the raid, fled to the top of a butte called Fortress Rock.
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.
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.
For more national monument inspiration, check out these other great destinations:
- George Washington Carver National Monument
- Colorado National Monument
- Craters of the Moon National Monument
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.