The Canyon floor has been inhabited for thousands of years: primitive peoples lived here 2,000 years ago; the Anasazi civilisation of the twelfth century dominated this whole region (before suddenly and inexplicably disappearing) and has left its remains here; and today the Navajo, who have lived here for the last 300 years, and who still rear sheep and goats in the canyon, and plant their crops.
The word Anasazi is Navajo for "Ancient Ones" or "Ancient Enemy”. This ancient pueblo culture is perhaps best-known for the stone and adobe dwellings built along cliff walls, and it is these ruins in particular that draw visitors here today. They were constructed with bricks created from sand, clay, and water, with some fibrous or organic material, shaped using frames and dried in the sun. Access was often only possible using ropes or ladders, making these homes and other buildings relatively safe from attack by animals or enemies. There was also safety in numbers, as several families would live together in one dwelling. These people were farmers, and knew how to irrigate their land, so were attracted to live in places where rivers flowed and could be harnessed for their crops. They are generally described as having suddenly died out in the 14th century, although some historians and present-day Pueblo people (e.g. the Hopi) dispute this, and say rather that the Anasazi merged with other peoples and are the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people.
Fondest memory: Enlarge the photo to see me perched on the Canyon's edge, complete with dodgy perm!
The good part is those manning the park are quite welcoming and much of what they offer is also free, including an infrequent ranger-led walk into the canyon. Luckily, there is one hike into the canyon that can be done sans guide, surprisingly to the canyon's best preserved ruin. We arrived in perfect timing to do the ranger hike and liked the canyon so much, we did the free hike twice since there was no other way into the canyon aside from paying for a horse or four-wheel drive tour.
We drooled over the idea of backpacking in this paradise but it was not an option unless we wanted to hire a guide which would have been not only pricey but also unnecessary. Though the ruins were nice, it was the canyon itself that was so enticing. With some educational pre-hike videos, and a quota system in place, the park's popularity would rise. It is unlikely that backpackers would cause as more damage to the park than local merchants who are allowed to sell souvenirs on the canyon floor or people driving in four-wheel drive vehicles with little restriction.
So, we left this oasis after only three days due mostly to lack of affordable things to do. Though we got a good idea of those who roamed the canyon before us, we felt somewhat hampered in our exploration as well as cut off from them due to our not being directly descended from them. It is an American National Monument but the rules seem different depending on the American you are. A beautiful place we would like to see more of and visit again compared to the more limited Mesa Verde was reduced to club we felt not part of. As non-members, we felt no pride or allegiance and are less likely to return. We did not let this ruin our continuation of exploring the Native American sites of the Southwest. Next up, we'd be going to Monument Valley Tribal Park, a place that makes no pretense of being part of not only the National Park system, but also the United States.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is part of the National Park system of the United States though a visit there might leave you with a mixed impression. While manned by rangers, they seem to be made up entirely of Native American descendants. Not that there is anything wrong with that; who better to explain the area's unique history? What seems lacking is the type of organization that generally accompanies Federally administered lands. One is left with the feeling this park has somehow been abandoned.
Graced with a rare lush beauty for this arid part of the region, Canyon de Chelly is a true river-gorged valley, with steep red-walled cliffs well broken up by the green of trees and shrubs. It is easy to see why Native Americans would have flourished here and held it in such sacred esteem. The Native cliff dwellings are not nearly as impressive as those in nearby Mesa Verde National Park but the setting more than makes up for it. This is an area where the intrepid backpacker could wander for days but sadly this is not possible with the park's restrictions which all but bar non-Navajos from freely roaming the canyon. While Navajos can take four-wheel drive vehicles into the canyon, on foot backpackers cannot. This is the first clue that Canyon de Chelly is perhaps not as much a part of the National Park system as it would seem. Second, there is no entrance fee and no charge for the campground. Though it is a nice gesture, it would seem monies generated could help preserve the park and certainly help to make a nicer place to camp. What one is left with is a ramshackle infrastructure offering mere skeletal protection for an incredibly beautiful place. (concluded below in Fondest Memory)
Favorite thing: Canyon de Chelly is extremey difficult to photograph to show its beauty and grandeur! Before the trip, I've looked at the many pictures of the Canyon that are available on the net and did not get impressed! I've decided to visit it "only if I had some spare time", on my way north to Utah. So..... I did get some spare time and drove along the South Rim. Never regret my decision! Very impressive place, indeed. But, picturewise, I could not capture its true grandeur, either! Strange!.....
Favorite thing: Put out the effort to walk down into the canyon. Its the only way to appreciate the quiet calm alongside the river. You'll pass by a hogan and herds of sheep and get a tiny taste of what it is like to live in Canyon de Chelly. They ask that you not take pictures of the canyon residents.
Favorite thing: After rain the creek bed in the canyon fills with water and becomes quite treacherous . You then cannot get close to the ruins . There is a makeshift bridge made of trees which you can cross . If you have not done this type of thing in your youth it is best if you do not use the bridge .
Open from 8-5 (til 6 in summer), the Visitor Center holds a small museum and bookstore to introduce you to the history and layout of Canyon de Chelly. The monument is FREE, unlike most National Parks. Pick up a canyon guide (also free) with a map of the overlook stops on the two rim drives and head out! All of the overlooks are worth a stop because the scenery is simply breathtaking, but my favourite was the Spider Rock Overlook before sunset.
Fondest memory: I was taken with the colours of the red rocks and the blue sky at Canyon de Chelly, I don't think I could tire of those views.
The Visitor Center has all the information you need to know about the place.
The jeep ride down into the canyon where the Navajos hid from Kit Carson in 1868, to the writing on the walls, and if you want you can walk ten miles with your young child or children and know the feeling the Navajos felt during the "Long Walk". That was the starting point to Fort Sumner in the Territory of New Mexico
Favorite thing: remember the Anasazi who disappeared for no clear reason in around 1300. The ruins of their dwellings are still there and can be visited (guided jeep tours or hiking only). Look closely - their dwellings are right here, in the cliff recesses!
drive along north- and south rim of Canyon de Chelly. The sheer sandstone cliffs with the peaceful river flowing down below are most impressive.
Down in the canyon, you´ll still find active Indian communities. They, too, organize guided jeep tours through the canyon.
Favorite thing: The Cliff Dwellings at places like Canyon de Chelly were located in seemingly hollowed out alcoves in the rock. The alcoves..huge..in the case of Chelly and others like Betatakin, were formed by erosion..water slowly dripping through the softrock. The inhabitants of these dwellings used these alcoves for protection and repair from the elements and invaders. This alcove is but a microscopic example of the huge ones that the cliff dwellers inhabited.
Favorite thing: Cheely Canyon is not exactly on an Interstate Highway like a lot of interesting places in Arizona or New Mexico . But the drive is worth it.
Fondest memory: Spider Rock is the canyon´s distinctive landmark. There is a lovely hiking path along the south rim, but you can also drive there.
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