Elements: Canyon de Chelly

Exploring thousands of years of Tséyi' history

TSÉYI' – Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established on April 1, 1931, for the National Park Service to preserve part of the Navajo Nation that has been inhabited for nearly 5,000 years. The monument contains three major drainages: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument, where some 40 Native American families continue to live by growing crops, orchards and other farming activities. Ruins of Ancestral Puebloan settlements remain to this day. There is no fee to enter the park.

The monument is about a three-hour drive from Page and can be visited as a day trip, but to really experience the park and even take in a horseback, four-wheel drive or hiking tour of the valley floor, it’s better to spend at least one night. Several hotels are located in Chinle, Arizona, at the doorstep of Canyon de Chelly. Cottonwood Campground offers camping, which is managed by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation.

Me and my wife stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge, which has been in operation since 1902, which started from humble beginnings as a trading post. The trading post still exists today, offering a wide variety of Navajo (Diné) and Native American arts and crafts and souvenirs. A cafeteria offers favorites such as Navajo Tacos, burgers, mutton stew, and blue corn meal pancakes.  

Stopping at the Welcome Center, we picked up a park map and toured the exhibits and browsed the bookstore and gift shop.  Next to the Welcome Center is a traditional Navajo Hogan with traditional furnishings and foods. Even though it was cool for a typical July morning, it was even cooler inside the Hogan. The ranger offered some Navajo tea that had been freshly brewed on a wood fire. The tea was smooth, tasty and is believed to have medicinal properties.

Once moved into our room, we started by driving along the paved South Rim Drive, which winds its way along the rim of the canyons with several view points along the way. At the furthest eastern end of the drive, about 16 miles from Chinle, stands the most famous formation: Spider Rock, two columns of sandstone towering some 800 feet above the valley floor.

Below is where Spider Woman lives and where she was the first to weave the web of the universe and taught the Navajo how to weave. We found it was best to start our visit from this point since the remaining viewpoints would be on our right, returning to the hotel.  We followed the short trail from the Spider Rock Overlook parking area and made our way along the panorama of the canyon. We admired the stark contrast between the reddish brown of the rock and the light green of the valley floor, dark green of the cottonwood trees and bluish green Russian olive trees. The viewpoints featured ancient ruins, canyons, rock formations, farmland, homes and other buildings. Some of the viewpoints had handy steel tubes aimed at ruins visible from the rim aimed at specific ruins.  

About halfway between Spider Rock Overlook and Chinle is White House Overlook. This is the only place in the park to hike to the valley floor without a guide service. The hike is about 2.7 miles, round trip, dropping 600 feet to the base of the ruins.  The trail is moderate in difficulty and is well marked. The ruins are easily seen from the rim.  The White House is the largest of the buildings in the alcove, 50 feet above the lower ruins and is colored white, in contrast to the rest of the structures that blend with sandstone walls. The hike takes around two hours, round trip.

An NPS ranger presents an evening program on the patio outside of the Thunderbird Trading Post. That night, Justin, a seasonal ranger who grew up on the rim of the canyon, talked about the Long Walk where Navajos in 1868 were rounded up and forced to walk, on foot, to Bosque Redondo, New Mexico. They were expected to live on land that was alkali and the water unfit to drink or grow crops.  

A sad chapter of history, Ranger Justin spoke eloquently of how it affected his elders and other members of the Navajo Nation.  He told us how the canyons had supported families for millennia and continue to do so today. As the light faded to darkness, the group of visitors there were captivated by his storytelling.

The next morning, we got breakfast take-out from the cafeteria and sat on the patio, surrounded by green lawn and old growth cottonwoods with park ranger Ravis. He told us about some of the customs of the Navajo culture and answered questions from visitors. He reminisced how, as a child, he and his friends would play under the shade of the cottonwoods, on what seemed to them as an oasis. He pointed out a nearby masonry wall with fine detailing and remarked that his grandfather had built that wall.  

We drove along the north rim and stopped at the three viewpoints along the rim. This side has fewer paved trails, and fewer viewpoints and the trails unpaved and slightly longer. Few people gave more of a sense of solitude. The unpaved trails, often across slickrock, required more attention to footing. We saw several other ruins.  

Returning to the hotel, and since it was the Fourth of July, we watched the fireworks in Washington, D.C. as the sun set and the sliver of a moon slowly settled onto the western horizon.
We were happy with our visit and got our bags ready to head home the next day. We sat on patio chairs, we enjoyed how dark, quiet and peaceful it was. We were glad to have walked in beauty today.

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