I found the overlook trails a little too confining in a few spots so went wandering off - being careful of any cryptobiotic crust - to take in some other viewpoints. One of my pootles turned up this small alcove with images painted on the back wall. Authentic pictographs or just some cleverly executed graffiti? Only an archeologist could tell for sure but it was fun to speculate. And whatever the case, I knew enough not to touch it as oil from my hands could damage the fragile pigment if it was the real deal.
Ancient hunter-gatherers and later indigenous peoples carved (pertroglyph) or painted (pictograph) images of animals, people and mystical shapes into desert-varnished rock faces and sheltered alcoves all over the Southwest. They are too often referred to as "rock art"; a term I find misleading as archeologists believe they are far from purely decorative.
Some think they were a form of worship while others believe they could be records of important historical or astronomical events. Or all of the above. So while none of them really know for sure what all of the squiggles, footprints, animals and otherworldly anthropomorphic (human) forms mean, they have a rough idea how old they are and which groups of people carved them by the age of other artifacts found nearby and specific attributes of the images themselves. For instance, bows and arrows first appeared in this region around 500 A.D, and horses not until after the Spanish brought them in the mid 1500's. Sometimes the age of the surface they've been etched into is a clue, and older figures are darker than more recent additions. Newer images are sometimes superimposed over older ones, too.
Canyon de Chelly has both types of “art” including some which clearly illustrate the arrival of early Spanish explorers and missionaries. You’re unlikely to see many of them without taking one of the guided tours into deeper parts of the canyon than you’re allowed to do on your own but there are a few in the White House Ruin location. Look carefully at the lower right of photo #3 and you can see a petroglyph of a human form.
Beside ancient carvings, all sorts of artifacts can turn up around previously occupied sites - especially after a heavy rain. Theft of such pieces is illegal and can land you a stiff fine and/or some time in the clink so if you run across anything that looks important, please don’t pick it up! Leave it where it is and tell a park official where you saw it so they can appropriately investigate/document. The same look-but-don’t-touch rule applies to the flora, fauna and geology of the park: take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.
As mentioned on my main page, Canyon de Chelly is a bit of an anomaly as it’s on land owned by the Diné so the NPS and Navajo Parks and Recreation Department share conservation and operational duties, and both tribal and federal laws apply. People who live in and around the canyons that comprise the monument are protective of their privacy and of especially sacred sites so the list of rules and regulations may be a little different than what you may be used to at a national park:
• The Visitor Center is open from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m NAVAJO TIME every day but Christmas. Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time but the Navajo Nation does so from March through November park time is 1 hour ahead of the rest of the state; same as neighboring New Mexico and Utah - where large parts of Navajo lands reside - and Colorado. But to really mess with your head, Hopi lands - which lie within the Navajo Nation - go by Arizona time so if you’re traveling in and out of these areas, setting your watch can be interesting! One side of main street in Tuba City, for instance, is on Hopi territory but Diné on the other!!!
• There are only three areas tourists are allowed to explore on their own: the North and South Rim roads, and one trail down into Canyon de Chelly itself for a close-up of an inaccessible cliff dwelling. Entrance to these parts of the park is free (donations gratefully accepted; please consider doing so.)
• Hiking, horseback, vehicle and overnight camping tours of the canyon are available through the tribe. All tours require backcountry permits which may be obtained at the Visitor Center or by pre-arragement for early/late-day reservations: see “Things to do” on the website for operators and procedures. NPS rangers also provide some guided hikes during the summer months. No independent backcountry hiking/camping is allowed in the canyon.
• There is one public campground located near the Visitor Center: find info on that here:
• Photography of the Diné people and their dwellings is forbidden without permission - even from a distance
• Pets must be leashed and are only allowed out of vehicles at the overlooks, parking lots and campground; not on White House Trail or on tours.
• Don’t leave valuables in your car while unattended: the park is not responsible for break-ins
• Consumption/possession of alcohol is forbidden and subject to fines under Navajo law - regardless of the amount of broken beer and liquor bottles you may see littered about. This applies to visitors as well as residents so if you are traveling with a supply for personal use, best to keep it well out of sight. Hotels/restaurants in Chinle or other towns within Navajo territory do not serve libations nor do convenience/grocery stores carry alcohol.
In general, just remember that you’re a guest in someone’s home so please treat it respectfully. When visiting Navajo, Hopi or the nations of others of our indigenous people, you're expected to abide by their individual laws. Some less sensitive visitors are apt to regard our “Original People” as tourist attractions so they’re understandably offended by cameras shoved into their faces or strangers peering into their homes.
Two of the three canyons which comprise the Monument converge near the Visitor Center. The North Rim Drive follows Canyon del Muerto, and the South Rim Drive, Canyon de Chelly. Both have 5-7 overlooks respectively of ancient dwellings, important historical sites or just darned beautiful scenery. The overlooks are not difficult to walk to from the pull-offs, and views into the canyons are killer: a real treat for shutterbugs. The Navajo still farm some of canyon floor so their green fields are a lovely contrast to the red of the rock walls.
The rim drives don't loop so you'll need to double back to the Visitor Center after completing each of them. The alternative is to enter or leave the Monument by the end of the North Rim Road (Hwy 64). This is a good option if coming from/going to Mesa Verde in Colorado (which we did) or Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. While it meant missing the Visitor Center until halfway through the day, it cut some serious time out of a tight schedule. As we were staying near Chinle that night, we only had to double back on the South Rim drive.
Each rim drive is about 15-16 miles long, one way, and are open 24 hours. Entrance to the monument is free (donations are encouraged) but other than the White House Ruins trail, access to the bottom is restricted to guided tours. See the website or my "Good Stuff to Know" review for more information on those.
A map of the park may be downloaded here:
And information on the overlooks may be accessed here:
This is the only access into the canyon without a guide, and is a 600 ft. descent down a 1.25 mile (2.5 RT) switchback trail and across Chinle Wash to White House ruins. Trail rating is moderately strenuous.
At about 80 rooms, this is one of the largest ruins in the canyon and was occupied between 1040 and 1275 AD. Constructed both on the canyon floor and in a cave above, you aren't allowed to enter them but will be closer enough for a better look than from the overlook above (photo #1 is from trailhead at left; ruins are just left of center). An interesting note from the Visitor's Guide says that some of the ruins in the canyon are so fragile that just the vibration from footfalls can compromise their stability!
The hike took us about 90 minutes and there's little shade so wear sturdy shoes, a hat, and take plenty of water. Out of respect for the Navajo who live there, and their sacred sites, you are asked please not to leave the trail or take any pictures of the hogans you pass by. The view from the bottom up is terrific so I highly recommend this one!
One note of warning: if there has been recent heavy rains, you could get your feet wet or very muddy.
Info on the trail can be downloaded here:
Either the Navajo guide you into the other parts of the park, or maybe Thunderbird Lodge also has that opportunity to access to White HOuse Ruins. They had a truck full of people drive through while we were down there. Navajo jeep tours are $175 for 3 hours with 1-3 people, and goes up to $225 for 5-6 people. They leave form the Holiday Inn in Chinle town for group tours to White House ruins and that runs $60 per person.
Thunderbird Lodge also has truck tours down to White HOuse ruins and around the valley. Full day is $74 and half day is $46. They have a Navajo guide to insure it adheres to the requirement of Indian rules in the park
Spider Rock is an 800-foot (240 m) sandstone monolith at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and the smaller Monument Canyon. According to traditional Navajo beliefs, the taller of the two spires is the home of Spider Woman, who lives at its top. Spider Woman (also known as Spider Grandmother) is the creator of the world in Native American religions and myths. They tell how she made the stars in the sky, by taking a web she had spun, lacing it with dew, and throwing it into the sky, where the dew became the stars.
Another rock on the far side of the Canyon is known as Speaking Rock. Naughty Navajo children are told that Speaking Rock reports the names of bad boys and girls to Spider Woman, whereupon she descends and carries the offender up to her lair at the top of Spider Rock. The white rocks at the top are said to be the bleached bones of children who didn’t listen to their parents’ warnings!
Today Spider Rock is one of the most photographed of the Canyon de Chelly’s features (along with the White House Ruins) and has been used in several TV adverts. It marks the final point on the South Rim Drive.
This is the only one of the ruins you can get close to without taking a guided tour, as the one open trail crosses the canyon from White House Overlook to the ruin on the opposite side. As I have said elsewhere however, we hadn’t allowed enough time for a proper visit to the Canyon, so had to content ourselves with this view from above.
The so-called White House is in fact a village, and would have been home to around 100 people. The village was probably in its heyday about 800 years ago. The roofs of the lower buildings, in the foreground of my photo, would have provided access to those above them set into the cave. The people who lived here were farmers, growing their crops on the Canyon floor much as the Navajo do today, although unlike them they would not have had domesticated animals such as sheep, as these were only introduced by the Spanish. They would also have gathered berries, and hunted rabbit and venison with their bows and arrows.
If you want to walk to the ruins, allow a couple of hours. It is a round trip of 2.5 miles (4 kilometres), with an elevation change of about 500 feet (150 metres). You can’t go into the ruins by the way, but I still would have liked the opportunity to get closer that this walk affords, so maybe that’s a reason to go back some day. Just the same, with a zoom lens you can get good photos even from the overlook, while binoculars would allow you an even closer examination of the ruins.
This is the point where the northern Canyon del Muerto and southern Canyon de Chelly come together, and the valley walls really start to climb. Several Anasazi ruins can be seen from here, most notably Junction Ruin. This takes its name from its location at the junction of the two canyons, and consists of 15 rooms and one kiva or ceremonial room.
On the far side of the Canyon to the left of the overlook is the ruin known as First Ruin, so-called not for its age but because it was the first Anasazi ruin to be explored and described by white archaeologists. It has ten rooms and two kivas.
There are three main ways to explore the Canyon: driving along one or both of its rims, with stops at the frequent pullouts; a hike to the White House Ruins (the only permitted unguided access to the Canyon floor); or a guided tour with one of the local Navajo. We were short of time, having been overly optimistic about how much we could pack into a day on this trip, so we settled for a Rim Drive, and as the South Rim is considered better for photos in the afternoon and also take you closer to the rim in more places, it was easy to decide that this should be the one.
Pick up a leaflet at the Visitor Centre before you set out as it will help you spot the pullouts and, more importantly, understand what you are looking at. The drive is nearly 22 miles long and you need to allow around two hours – more if you want to linger at the viewpoints, a little less if you’re happy to skip one or two. These viewpoints are:
~ First Pullout: an opportunity to see the point where valley becomes canyon, as the cliff walls start to rise ad narrow either side of the river.
~ Tsegi Overlook: from here you can see some of the Navajo traditional homes, known as hogans, on the Canyon floor
~ Junction Overlook: see my separate tip
~ White House Overlook: see my separate tip
~ Sliding Rock Overlook: the ruins opposite are of a smaller house which was built on a sloping ledge and had to be shored up to prevent it slipping into the canyon
~ Spider Rock Overlook: the end of the road – see my separate tip
Although not an ideal way to get close to all that the Canyon has to offer, we found this a great substitute as you do get to see many of its highlights, albeit at a distance, and get an overview of the landscape and its history.
This is the only self guided hike that can be taken in the park. The rest require a Navajo guide to assist and either hike with you?, or take a jeep ride. The hike down to these ruins at the valley floor was exhausting and rather difficult as compared to what I expected. Instead of being 2 miles as stated, it ended up at 3.2 miles and took 1 hour 15 minutes. There were loose rock and stones on the trail, and had to hike over slick rock on an angle a ways. Also there were steps to traverse to go down the 600 feet; a lot steep down. The Anasazi ruins is 80 rooms and about 50 feet in the rock wall
These are tow other places toward the south end of the road on Hwy 7 for overlooks. I did not see the 50 room dwelling said to be at Sliding Rock, but who knows, it must be there. Spider Rock is self evident., as its 800 feet tall twin spires reach to the sky. The other pictures are of buttes near the entrance on Hwy 191
There are a number of places to stop and view down into the canyons for views of the valley, green and the cliff dwellings in some areas. The views are nice and colorful. The rock of 30 to 1,000 depth make for a woozy moment if you get too close to the edge-I have vertigo-Yeh.
These pictures are of Tsegi and Junction overlooks; the first two on the road from the visitor center entrance.
These maps show the sites and locations. The park has 26 miles of roads so it takes a while to go end to end and there is no loop. With the Navajo living on the land, and farming, it is unique for a park to offer limited tourism while looking out for the Natives. This land was a fortress to hide form other Indian tribes that came to steal or fight, and eventually the Spanish and then Americans conquered the territory fiercely. Navajo were moved out to Fort Sumner for a decade and allowed to return in 1864, but by then they had been demoralized and the proud heritage diminishing. YOu can understand the looks you may get because of the past tragedies.
The scenic road of Hwy 12 to the east is I heard rough and not easy to travel to; so I did not and never ill know now.
The White House Ruin Overlook gives a great view of this impressive cliff dwelling. Though not nearly as well preserved or intricate as those at nearby Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, it in nonetheless stunning due in part to its superior setting. The dwellings at Canyon de Chelly are lower in the cliffs and why not with that big river flowing through the valley? Ancient Puebloans built and lived in this structure around the year 1000 AD and is named after the long wall within that is colored with white plaster. It is tough to get a photo of this without shadows so perhaps best to shoot it in shade to cut down on contrast. Either way, you'll need a good zoom to get a decent close-up from the overlook.
The Visitor Center has some interesting displays though not nearly as elaborate as those at nearby Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Staff were friendly but again it was not as well organized as at Mesa Verde or any number of other National Parks in the vicinity. That said, we did spend ample time in the facility to escape the midday heat and catch up on some reading. Perhaps the most interesting thing was a replication of a traditional Dine Hogan just outside. The Hogan is a spiritual structure for the Dine or Navajo people which is used not only for religious practice but as a “home” to remain in balance with one's spirit even if the people live in other facilities most of the time. Generally constructed with no nails, they are an engineering feet.
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