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 section bordering the river there we several farms with livestock and cultivated fields for crop growing.
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 which protected it from the elements and the unwanted attentions of any passing unfriendly tribes.
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.
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.
We had a fantastic time at Canyon De Chelly and thank our friend Sandra Lieb Geiger for recommending this wonderful place.
GETTING TO THE PARK
- The Welcome Center is about 3 miles (4.8 km) from Highway 191 in Chinle.
- 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.