M. D. Jackson has traveled and lived all over the Southwest/Northwest. She visits everything from tourist traps to National Monuments.
Worth the Trip?
We stopped at the visitor center. It was a typical stop, bathrooms, a couple examples of hogans (Navajo homes) and the usual “Welcome to” sign. The visitors center did not prepare me for what I was about to see. I’m sure you have seen the picture of Canyon De Chelly. It’s a picture of a Puebloan ruin that clings to the edge of a cliff inside a cave. Oddly, that picture of a rudimentary structure is not a great representation of Canyon de Chelly. In fact, the close up picture of these canyons is deceptive.
Maybe the Department of Interior doesn’t want tourists swarming this monument? I cannot blame them for wanting to keep this area as it is today. Canyon de Chelly is a pristine natural attraction on the level of the Grand Canyon. Unlike the Grand Canyon with its expansive impressive landscape, Canyon de Chelly is a close up personal experience. I’ve yet to see a photo that does it justice.
Canyon del Muerto
Be still and the earth will speak to you.
— Navajo Proverb
Canyon De Chelly is Located on the Navajo Reservation. For over 5,000 years indigenous people have farmed, raised sheep, and lived in Canyon De Chelly. This place is the home of the Navajo people in a literal sense. Dirt roads inside the monument lead to homes and farms. If you drift off a path you are likely to run into someone’s yard, or live stock. Herds of sheep roam free with Australia shepherds guarding them. As you travel through the monument, be respectful of the heritage and lives of the people who lived and live there.
Before you look it up Chelly means “inside the rock”. Inside the rock is exactly what you will see. It almost looks as if someone sliced the earth to create these canyons. The rock walls have signs of erosion and water seepage that create fantastic designs. You might have guessed that Canyon Del Muerto means Canyon of the dead. Canyon Del Muerto is appropriately named after a massacre that occurred in Mummy Cave. A group of Navajo Natives were slaughtered at this spot in 1805 by the Spanish. Reverence should be used at the Mummy Cave Overlook.
What is Canyon de Chelly?
Two canyons make up the monument; Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. These two canyons connect to each other. Around the rim of both canyons are roads with overlooks into the canyon. These overlooks usually have a short path to them. The paths are not always well marked. We found paths marked with arrows painted on rocks, smalls rocks lines up, and steps carved into the rocks. A few times we had to figure out a path to overlooks that we could see in the distance. Once you get to the over look at each space you become connected to this natural wonder. The views are spectacular. It’s unlike any place you have ever been or will ever be. The canyons seem to appear out of nowhere in the landscape. The towering cliff walls are something out of a fantasy novel. You won’t want to leave but, curiosity will press onto the next outlook.
All around me my land is beauty.
— Navajo Proverb
What to See
The first thing that I want to impart is that the actual ruins themselves are not easily visible from the outlooks. It is best to bring binoculars or a telescope. Some of the ruins were easier to spot through the zoom on my phone. That might lead you to believe this isn’t worth the trip. The opposite is true. What you are going to see is an amazing red rock canyons full of caves. This is the only place I’ve ever been that rivals Sedona for red rock views.
Bloggers said that these two canyons cannot be viewed in one day. If you are driving to the overlooks, both canyons can be done in one day. When we were there White house overlook was closed. White house is the only hiking trail down into the canyon. If you plan on hiking, I would call ahead and make sure it will be open. Normally you can access all the outlooks.
Photographing the Canyons
The red rock is an absolute surprise when you discover the canyons. If you love the Arizona red rock then this is about to be one of your favorite places. Canyon Del Muerto is best photographed before noon. This is because most of the lookouts face south. The afternoon is better for exploring the Canyon De Chelly side of the monument. The afternoon sun lights up Canyon de Chelly, whereas in the morning it would be shadows.
Now I’m going to tell you why you don’t see tons of pictures of the canyons. The red rock photographs as orange rock. The reflecting rock creates a weird digital over exposure. One tip I would give anyone is to shade your camera (with a hat or umbrella) when shooting pictures. This seemed to help with the over exposure. Even some of my contrasting rock pictures looked orange when I went back to look at them. Obviously through the miracle of editing you can fix the color.
These paths are easily navigated in tennis shoes or hiking shoes. There is some mild climbing up grades here and there along the paths. You are never far from your vehicle. You should still carry water. Even though it was 74 degrees we went through four bottles of water each that day. Keeping in mind that this advice does not pertain to The White House trail because, it was closed.
I’m always overly guarded when I see kids around cliffs. The edges are steep and there are no hand rails over most the areas. I would caution parents of small children to either keep them close or wait until they are older.
We had our 11 year old tea cup Chihuahua with us this entire trip and he handled the trails like a champ. I’m going to say if he can do it; your dog will be fine as long as the weather isn’t hot. Don’t forget water for the dog.
People consider places like Canon de Chelly to be spiritual. If you hike around Arizona a lot you will see shrines. At one of our first stops was a makeshift shrine. You may see oddly stacked rocks with personal items around them. Leave it alone. Sometimes these are offerings, other times they are for the person to take into the next life. Respecting the people means leaving these items where they are untouched.
What to Bring
When to Visit
Arizona in general is too hot to vacation in the summer. We were among a handful of people that visited the canyons in late March. It was 74 degrees outside and felt more like 80 degrees. Spring or falls are your best times to visit Canyon de Chelly. In the winter the cold is bitter and in the summer the heat will dehydrate even the most avid water drinker.
This monument is open 24/7 all year round. It is free to do the self-guided tour of the monument. You can book a tour into the canyon for a per person fee. The only restroom is located at the visitors center. There is a camp and picnic area also at the visitor center. The monument is almost right in the middle of the town of Chinle. Everything from stores to a Churches Chicken are located in the town. You are never very far from a meal.
Note: pictures chosen for this article intentionally only hint at the views. This is so visitors can have their own experience. Enjoy!
© 2022 MD Jackson MSIOP