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Rock Formations In The Canyon De Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona

Arizona: Chinle – Canyon De Chelly

Less touristy than the Grand Canyon the Canyon De Chelly is much more accessible and definitely worth including in any tour of Arizona

A good friend of ours had told us about a place that she loved and had often visited called Canyon De Chelly (pronounced “Shay”) in Arizona. So, when we were on a cross-country jaunt that took us through Arizona we felt that a detour here was absolutely essential.

The Canyon de Chelly National Monument (established on April 1, 1931) is a unit of the National Park Service and is found in northeastern Arizona. It lies within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation and is located in the Four Corners region.

The area is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America.  In its boundaries are the ruins of the indigenous tribes who have lived in the area, from the Ancestral Puebloans to the Navajo. The park covers 83,840 acres and encompasses the floors and rims of the three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. These canyons were cut by streams with headwaters in the Chuska Mountains just to the east of the monument. None of the lands is federally owned and it is owned lock stock and barrel by the Navajo Nation.

We visited the Canyon in February so it was still cold, particularly on the rim of the canyon. There is a road that runs along the south rim, which gradually gains in altitude. One of the nice things about being here in the winter was that we had the canyon almost to ourselves.

Along the road, there are several pull-ins to allow you to peer down into the valley. As well as the impressive rock walls and monoliths you can see that the floor of the valley is still home to Navajo families. In some of the wider flatter sections bordering the river there we several farms with livestock and cultivated fields for crop growing.

The valley of Canyon de Chelly - Arizona
Farms in the shadow of the canyon walls
The Canyon de Chelly is not as deep and as long as the Grand Canyon - Arizona
The Canyon de Chelly is not as deep and as long as the Grand Canyon
Rock formations in the Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona
Rock formations in the Canyon de Chelly
Formations in the sandstone - Canyon de Chelly
Formations in the sandstone

One of the nice things about the Canyon De Chelly is its accessibility. Unlike its big cousin down the road the Grand Canyon it is relatively easy to get from the rim to the canyon floor along much of its length. We decided we needed the exercise and left the cosy comfort of our car and took one of the snaking paths down into the valley. At the bottom, the temperature, much to our relief, was several degrees warmer. There were well-marked trails that led us down to the river where there was a bridge, across which was a small visitors centre (with the most disgusting pit toilet) and a traditional Navajo home complete with the obligatory local selling traditional Navajo jewellery. A short distance from this spot were some rather nice Pueblo ruins built into the sandstone rock of the canyon wall, below a large overhang that protected it from the elements and the unwanted attentions of any passing unfriendly tribes.

Canyon de Cheely overlook, Arizona
Canyon de Cheely overlook
The trail down is rough but not steep - Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona
The trail down is rough but not steep
Rocky path to the bottom of the Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Rocky path to the bottom of the Canyon de Chelly
The canyon is even more impressive once you are reach the floor - Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
The canyon floor is very impressive
Interesting rock formations in the Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation
Interesting rock formations in the Canyon de Chelly
Pueblo ruins in the canyon cliffs - Canyon de Chelly
Pueblo ruins in the canyon cliffs
The Canyon de Chelly is very accessible - Arizona
The Canyon de Chelly is very accessible
A traditional Navajo hogan - Canyon de Chelly
A traditional Navajo hogan

We had a great time wandering through the rocks and little caves that had been carved into the sandstone by the weather. The climb back up was a bit more challenging but the effort had warmed our bodies so it didn’t feel cold when we go back to the rim.

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly

The rim road ends at one final overlook where you can look out on the most famous rock formation in the valley, Spider Rock. This 8oo foot rock spire was very impressive and made all the more so by the last of the winter snows speckling the red sandstone.

A view from an overlook on the rim trail - Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
A view from an overlook on the rim trail
Spider rock - Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Spider Rock

In summary …

  • The Canyon de Chelly is very accessible, walking down from the rim to the base is fairly easy
  • There are plenty of things to see as you explore the canyon including petroglyphs and Pueblo cliff dwellings
  • Easy to explore in a day or extend this to cover the backcountry during a multi-day stay
  • It is off the beaten track but well worth the detour!

About Canyon de Chelly

Address:Chinle, Arizona
Telephone:T: +1 (928) 674-5500
The visitor centre is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The rim road and trails are open all year
Admission Fee:

Getting to Canyon de Chelly

The RECOMMENDED route to the park is from Highway 191 in Chinle then turning east on Route 7. The park entrance and Welcome Center is less than 3 miles from Highway 191.

An ALTERNATIVE route is entering the park from the east via Route 64 from Tsaile, AZ. There are 3 overlooks to stop at along Route 64 before getting to the Welcome Center.

DO NOT use Route 7 from the EAST to enter the park. This road is unpaved and unmaintained between Sawmill and the Spider Rock turnoff. Using this road may lead to being lost and stranded without cell phone signal.

By Car

  • The Welcome Center is about 3 miles (4.8 km) from Highway 191 in Chinle, AZ.
  • From Flagstaff, AZ, take I-40 EAST then Highway 191 NORTH.
  • From Gallup, NM, take Highway 264 WEST then Highway 191 NORTH.
  • From Kayenta, AZ, take Route 59 SOUTHEAST then Highway 191 SOUTH.

Best time to visit Canyon de Chelly

The best time to visit the Canyon de Chelly area, which is located in the arid and desert part of northeastern Arizona, is the one that includes the spring months of April and May, the summer months (June, July and August) and the autumn months of September and October.

Where to stay near Canyon de Chelly


The historic Thunderbird Lodge is the only hotel in Canyon De Chelly. It is Navajo owned and operated.

Adjacent to the lodge is the restaurant, located in the original Trading Post built in 1896. In this historic setting visitors can enjoy regional specialities. Combining professional training and ancestral heritage, the restaurant’s Navajo chefs prepare a number of Navajo and non-Navajo dishes. The restaurant offers a cafeteria-style menu and is open 7-days-a-week.

The Lodge can also help with organising tours of Canyon de Chelly.


Situated only four miles from Northern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn provides guests with friendly customer service and comfortable accommodations for an affordable price. Each well-appointed guest room at this Chinle area hotel features cable satellite television with HBO® and high-speed Internet access. Begin your morning with a delicious meal at the Junction Restaurant, located on-site, before starting your adventurous day. The hotel offers a newly remodelled indoor heated pool, sun deck, sauna room and an outdoor picnic area as well as private banquet room facilities for large groups.


Located in the heart of the Navajo Nation, the Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly (Chinle) hotel provides an impeccable mixture of ancient Navajo traditions and modern conveniences. With great features like an outdoor pool and a beautiful courtyard, you’ll stay relaxed.

From the hotel’s location in Chinle, AZ, guests can roam the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. There are 11 points around the rim of the canyon that travellers can drive to and that overlooks the spectacular canyon. If these incredible panoramas of weathered rock and plunging cliffs are not enough, tour guides can take you down to the canyon floor where ancient ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs are still visible.

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