Canyon de Chelly

  Canyon de Chelly, just outside of Chinle Arizona is a national monument that is managed jointly by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service.  AIROSMITH settled in to the, dry camping only, Cottonwood Campground located at the mouth of the canyon.  We planned for a two day visit.

The park maintains canyon overlooks on both the north and south rims.  These can me accessed by paved roads.  The trails to the lookouts are well maintained.  The drive on each rim are just over a 30 mile round trip, and both could be done in one ambitious day.

If you plan to go into the canyon it self, you must be accompanied by a licensed Navajo guide.  We arranged for a half day trip with Beauty Way Jeep Tours.  We began our visit to this breathtaking canyon with Viola who was driving “Snoopy” a black and white Jeep wrangler.

 We were fortunate in that Viola grew up in the canyon where she played during the summers, and helped her grandmother herd sheep.  She told us that families still farm and raise livestock in the canyon, though there is only one woman who lives there full time.  The only way into the canyon is through the wide sandy wash at the mouth, and requires a four-wheel drive vehicle even when the road is passable.

We asked that our tour concentrate on the archeological sights in the canyon.  Viola knows the canyon well and shares that knowledge mixed with personal stories.  Our four hours with here passed too quickly.

Our first stop was Kokopelli Cave, named for the petroglyphs found around it.

You can see Kokopelli, a frog and handprints.

The canyon has been occupied by indigenous people for some 5,000 years.  These visitors have left their marks from the Archaic people in its earliest days to the Navajo beginning in the 1700’s.

Throughout the canyon massive walls present amble opportunity for art and storytelling.

Many of these petroglyphs are found high up on these walls.  As are many of the ruins found in the canyon.  One wonders how the artists and builders could get so high up to work.  Then you remember that these were done some thousand years ago, and there has been a lot of erosion since that time.  Viola talked of how the canyon flooded this spring from the runoff of record winter snowfall.

There seems to be art in rocks themselves.  These owls overlook the indigenous art across the way.  Though, Viola tells us that the Owl is a bad omen for the Navajo.

Canyon de Chelly is quite wide throughout while Canyon del Muerto is much narrower.

We arrive at our first ruins, aptly named “First Ruin”.  At about 200 BCE the Basketmaker People began building houses and ceremonial structures into the canyon walls.  Nearly a thousand years later the Ancestral Puebloans followed and built their communities, often adding on to what was already built.

There are similar ruins throughout the canyon.

This is the White House Ruin.  It is named because of the white wash to be found on the upper level of the structure in the alcove on the cliff.  We see exposed brick today, but these structures were typically covered with a white wash.


Again we find art.  A figure with a rain hat, and a Road Runner.

Throughout the canyon, and up on the rims you will find wild horses.

A bit farther up the canyon we find the Antelope House Ruin.  So named for the series of antelope petroglyphs. 

Here was see both petroglyphs and pictographs.  An antelope and several colored quadrupeds.  The double circle typically records an eclipse. 

Looking up, the canyon provides a unique perspective.  The cliffs here in Canyon Del Muerto approach 1,000 feet in hight.

As an added bonus, we find a Natural Bridge

Our last stop in the Canyon is called Newspaper Wall.  Nearly the entire wall is filled with petroglyphs.

Looking closely you will see hundreds of figures.  Were they telling just one long story, or recording a lengthy history.  One theory is that it is recounting the Long Walk 1863-1868.  After a brutal campaign to take their traditional land, the Navajo were forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico.  Many died along the way.  Finding only misery at the fort, the Navajo negotiated a settlement that allowed them to return home and rebuild their lives.

A drive along the South Rim provides several overlooks into the Canyon.

Junction Overlook is where the Canyon de Chelly and the Canyon del Muerto divide.

The last overlook is for Spider Rock.  According to Navajo legend, Spider Woman lives on Spider Rock.  She was the first to weave the web of the universe, and taught the Navajo how to weave.  How to create beauty in their life and create balance in body, mind and soul.  It’s the teaching of the Beauty Way.

The North Rim dive offers three overlooks.  The first is above Antelope House.  The views of the valley are spectacular.

Follow the carin marked trail across the sandstone rim rock to the overlook above the ruin.

Walking across this sandstone surface reminded me, accept for the angle of attack, of climbing the Third Flatiron above Boulder, my home town.

Seeing Antelope House, built in the 1300’s, from above gives a better perspective of it’s size.

These peaceful sites are throughout the canyon.  The Navajo continue to farm and run cattle and sheep.  These are used in the summer.  The livestock have been moved out of the canyon for the winter.

Our next stop was Mummy Ruin.  It is one of the largest Puebloan villages in the canyon.  It was occupied to about 1300.

The town complex on the central ledge was built in the 1280’s by the people who had migrated south from Mesa Verde.

The east and west alcoves were occupied by living and ceremonial rooms.

Our final stop was Massacre Cave.  In the winter of 1805, about 115 Navajo took refuge on this ledge above the canyon floor.  A Spanish military expedition led by Antonio Narbona found and killed them all by firing from the rim.

Looking North from the top of the Canyon.


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