I grew up in Arizona and am familiar with the name Canyon de Chelly as a must-see location on the Navajo Nation reservation in the northeast corner of the state. Unfortunately, Chinle, the closest town, isn’t close to anything else, so over the years I never found an excuse to get there. Then, several years ago, I read Hampton Sides’ wonderful book, Blood and Thunder, a biography of Kit Carson, in which Canyon de Chelly plays a large role as a refuge for Navajo raiding parties throughout the early nineteenth century. I resolved then that this was a place I wanted to see with my own eyes.
Recently, my high school class was having a reunion in Phoenix, Arizona and I decided to make a road trip out of the opportunity and tick off some of the places between Colorado and Arizona that had spent way too much time on my To-Do list. My first stop was Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The canyon is pronounced “de-shay” and is derived from the misspelling and mispronunciation of the Navajo word for canyon, “Tseyi,” which is pronounced ‘say-ee’, and eventually came to be written as “de Chelly.” Recalling a number of old friends I expected to meet at the reunion, I understood how something like this could happen.
I spent the previous night camped out under a full moon near Mancos, Colorado in a closed Forest Service campground with several other illegal campers, and started off before sunrise to reach the Navajo reservation just as the sun was coming up. Roads on the reservation are two-lane, well maintained, and extremely dark. They are decorated with a great many small crosses and other markers along their sides. I don’t particularly like to drive them after dark.
I stopped for gas at Many Farms and was asked politely by a young man for a ride to Chinle. Since my karma budget is significantly in arrears after getting a great many hitches this summer on the Colorado Trail, I said yes, and made room in the car for him. I was hoping I might learn a little of the modern history of the Canyon from him, but it turned out he was not a fan of the Vivaldi I had playing on the car stereo and spent all his time on the short drive trying to get a country and western station to come on the radio at an ear-splitting volume. Karma is a funny thing.
There is no entrance fee to enter the National Monument, which belongs to the Navajo Nation, and is still inhabited and farmed by locals. Facilities and trails are informal by National Park standards, which adds authenticity to the experience of viewing the canyon. You won’t be held back from throwing yourself over the side of the canyon by a phalanx of over-engineered railings. You are treated as an adult.
You are encouraged to take as many pictures of the canyon as you like, but asked not to take pictures of the local residents or their dwellings in the bottom of the canyon without their expressed consent. Tourists, for the most part, stay on the north and south rims of the canyon, where there are ten spectacular viewing overlooks. Travel in the canyon itself is possible, but only when accompanied by a native tour guide. Local businesses are available to take you into the canyon in four-wheel drive vehicles, on horseback, and on foot, backpacking. It is possible to see ancient ruins and other geological features from the rim of the canyon, but remember to bring a pair of binoculars. The canyon itself has been continuously occupied for the past five centuries, and you will see evidence of this in the form of ruins and petroglyphs from the canyon rims, as well as active farms along the bottom of the canyon.
The one exception to the rule that tourists cannot enter the canyon except with a native guide is a relatively short self-guided hike on the South Rim to the White House Ruin. It takes a couple of hours to walk the 600 feet down to the ruin and back up the trail switchbacks. I would highly encourage everyone to take this trail. It can get a little commercial down near the ruins, but if you feel like you want to support the local economy, this is the place to do so. The ruins have to be photographed through a chain-link fence, but this is easily accomplished. I arrived several weeks after torrential rains fell in the canyon, and evidence of that was still visible in the form of damp washes that made the four-wheel drive vehicles in the canyon grateful for the extra traction.
Those wishing to stay overnight can find three hotels in nearby Chinle. Cottonwood Campgound, managed by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department, is nearby with 93 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no showers or hookups in the campground. There is nothing fancy here, but you can certainly find a place to pitch a tent.
I wished I had allowed more time to spend here, but I wanted to push on to spend the night in the wilds of the Petrified Forest. As I left, I was thinking of Kit Carson, a decent man, well liked by native people, but a loyal soldier, too. He was ordered to remove the Navajo from this canyon and relocate them to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico in 1863. I am certain he had tears in his eyes and a heavy heart as he carried out his orders.