Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a bit off the beaten track and missed by many visiting the Southwest. In fact, in my many travels to the Southwest, our trip last month was the first time I had been there. It certainly deserves more visitors than it gets; it is a wonderful place which combines scenery, ancient history, and traditional Navajo culture. First, the canyons are beautiful, and deserving of national monument status without their historical and cultural aspects. But what really makes it special are the many large and small ancestral Indian ruins sprinkled throughout the canyons and the Navajos who to this day make it their home. These canyons have been continually inhabited for nearly 5,000 years.
The park is made up of two main canyons that join together near the park entrance. These are Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly itself. There are many other smaller canyons that branch off these main two. The canyons start as a shallow wash and gradually deepen; eventually the walls reach a height of 1,000 feet. The stunning vertical red, yellow and orange sandstone walls contrast with the green cottonwoods and small agricultural fields, tended by resident Navajos, in the flat, canyon bottom.
There are two ways to see the canyons, above from the canyon rims or from below, inside the canyons themselves. The South Rim Road travels 36 miles along the southern side of Canyon de Chelly. There are seven viewpoints along the road, the best (in my opinion) are the White House Overlook and Spider Rock Overlook, but all are worth a stop. The North Rim Road traverses 32 miles along the northwest rim of Canyon del Muerto to three overlooks – all are worth stopping at.
While the views from the rim are good, to really experience the canyons you need to see it from within. To travel inside the canyons, you either need to go with a Navajo guide or hike in yourself on the only trail open without a guide – the White House Trail. This trail takes you from the rim at the White House Viewpoint, down the wall, and into the Canyon de Chelly just up canyon of the White House Ruin – so named because of one of the buildings is painted white. The ruin has two levels, one on the floor of the canyon and one some 30 feet higher on the canyon wall. The hike is well worth doing, but can be brutal in the hot sun of the afternoon. Most of the trail is in the sun throughout the day, expect perhaps late afternoon. You might try going first thing in the morning (which is what Tanya and I did). The ruin will be in the shade in the morning and in full sun in later in the afternoon. Be warned if you take a tripod. The ruin is surrounded by a 5-foot high wire fence. My tripod was too short to extend over the top of the fence, and I ended up shooting images of the ruin by setting the camera on the top of the fence and “hanging” the tripod down like a plumb bob to help steady the camera. This way I was able to get sharp photos with shutter speeds as low as 1/15 seconds. Such fences are also around other ruins in the canyons.
The other way to get into the canyons is to hire a guide. We took a “half day” tour from Changing Woman Tours. In this case, a half day was about three hours, which is barely enough time to start to see the canyons. Be sure to inquire about the length of your tour. Some half day tours are four hours. Full day tours can be six or more hours. In hindsight, I should have picked a longer length trip. There is just too much to see in only a few hours. Our tour guide, Victoria Begay, was quite knowledgeable, and we learned much about the history of the area. Because we had earlier hiked to White House Ruin, Victoria took us up Canyon del Muerto. It is my understanding, however, that most tours go up Canyon de Chelly. If you prefer to go one way or the other, be sure to ask your guide. Most people, us included, opt for a vehicle tour – typically in a 4-wheel drive supplied by the tour company. Hiking and horseback tours are also available. Tour costs vary. Our tour, for just the two of us and the guide, cost $165.