Canyon de Chelly rewards intrepid travelers with spectacular views and glimpses into traditional Native American life.
In the state of Arizona, near its eastern edge, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de-SHAY”) National Monument rewards intrepid travelers with spectacular views and glimpses into traditional Native American life.
On the Navajo Indian reservation, 379 kilometers northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this dramatic, sandstone-walled canyon preserves centuries-old ancestral puebloan dwellings and rock art, along with ancient campsites and etched images of the Archaic-era people, the first to call the canyon home thousands of years ago. For more than 300 years now, the Navajo have inhabited this land.
Between the canyon’s 305-meter-high walls, cottonwood-fringed washes meander past bright green meadows, humble farms, hulking sandstone monoliths and the occasional hogan (a traditional Navajo home). On the cliff walls you will spy small adobe dwellings and clusters of rock carvings, called petroglyphs, depicting animal figures, spirals, snakes and other symbols that spark the imagination.
What to See in Canyon de Chelly
Peer into the canyon from one of two scenic rim drives, each involving a 64-kilometer round trip from the visitor center and punctuated with panoramic overlooks. Photography along the North Rim road is best during morning hours. You can capture great photographs at the sweeping Antelope House Overlook.
Drive the South Rim road in the afternoon, when softer light makes for rich, colorful pictures taken from seven canyon overlooks buzzing with photographers and Navajo vendors selling handmade pottery, jewelry, paintings and other crafts.
The South Rim’s grand finale is monolithic Spider Rock, its dual sandstone spires towering 244 meters above the canyon floor. From the overlook parking lot, a short walking trail leads to outstanding views of this iconic rock formation.
Spider Rock is an iconic, not-to-be-missed rock formation in Canyon de Chelly.
What to Do in Canyon de Chelly
Though managed and protected by the U.S. National Park Service, the land belongs to the Navajo tribe and is considered sacred ground. The Navajo live and maintain working farms within the canyon, creating a unique place to visit. With the exception of a single hiking trail, you may only enter the canyon if escorted by an authorized Navajo guide.
The White House Trail — 4 kilometers round trip — begins at the White House Overlook on the South Rim road, about 9.6 kilometers from the visitor center. There’s no need for a Navajo guide on this steep, winding hike to the canyon bottom, where your destination is the ancient cliff dwelling White House Ruin. Dating to about 1200, the ruins occupy an alcove near the base of a 152.4-meter-high sheer cliff. Fences prevent climbing on the archaeological site, but it’s still wonderful to behold. Nearby are public restrooms as well as Navajo vendors selling drinks and snacks, including warm Navajo frybread (deep-fried dough) served with toppings like honey, cinnamon and powdered sugar.
Navajo guides lead four-wheel-drive, hiking and horseback trips within the canyon. Choosing a tour will depend on your budget and the time you have. One of the most popular canyon excursions are the so-called “shake and bake” tours offered by Thunderbird Lodge. For this bumpy, three-hour tour you will climb aboard a heavy-duty flatbed truck that seats a dozen passengers. Guides point out ancient rock art and talk of Navajo mythology as you visit ruins like Antelope House and White House. For a bit more money, you can join a private, four-wheel-drive tour with an outfit such as Antelope House Tours.
A little-known option, you can drive through the canyon in your own four-wheel-drive vehicle (a necessity due to deep-sand roads) as long as a Navajo guide rides with you. You will find guides soliciting business in the visitor center parking lot.
You can walk the White House Trail on your own. To explore more of the area, however, you will need a Navajo guide.
Where to Sleep
Within the monument, the Thunderbird Lodge offers basic rooms on tranquil grounds shaded by cottonwood trees. The low-key Navajo town of Chinle, adjacent to the park entrance, has chain motels. Don’t expect luxury. Do anticipate high rates between April and October.