Canyon de Chelly (de SHAY) is one of the hidden gems in Arizona and a photographer’s dream. Located on the Navajo reservation three miles east of the town of Chinle, the National Monument covers 130 square miles of precipitous gorges and fertile canyons. To this day, Navajo families still farm and tend sheep in the bottom of the canyons, following traditions that goes back many generations. Ancient ruins from as long ago as 350 A.D. fill the alcoves of the cliffs; some were only accessible by gravity-defying hand and toeholds carved into the rock wall.
There are three canyons that make up Canyon de Chelly: Canyon del Muerto (Canyon of the dead), Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon - which joins Canyon de Chelly at Spider Rock. All are covered with Ancestrial Puebloan dwellings, pictographs, petroglyphs and hogans, which are traditional homes for Diné (Navajo) people.
There are roads with pullouts on both the North and South canyon rims that lead to overlooks. The farther away from the visitor center you go, the taller the canyon walls get, about 900 feet out at Mummy Cave overlook on the north side and Spider Rock overlook on the south.
For people who want to hike, the only trail that doesn't require a guide is the trail to the White House Ruins. It's a great hike of about 1.5 miles one-way to the bottom of the canyon and to a large Ancestrial Puebloan dwelling that is separated between the floor of the canyon and an alcove in the cliff. At one time they were connected, which would have been a sight to see. There are lots of other trails for hikers and horseback riders, but they require a guide who can help you explore while respecting the land.. There are amazing things to see in all parts of the canyons!
You can hire a vehicle from tour companies who will take you into either the North or South canyons. This is where the trip back in time really starts. There are things to see at every turn and having a guide to point them out and explain their meaning is what brings the canyons to life. Bring a picnic and find a good spot to take in the scenery and imagine what life was like 1,000 years ago for the people who inhabited this area. It’s truly surreal. You can find these tour companies at http://navajonationparks.org/htm/canyondechelly_tours.htm.
The Sacred Canyon Lodge, formerly The Thunderbird Lodge, is a nice spot I’d recommend staying at, inside the National Monument, at the mouth of the canyons. Navajo owned and operated, it has a restaurant and a well-stocked trading post. There are also major hotel chains that provide lodging in Chinle.
If you are driving up from Phoenix, be sure to stop at Hubbell Trading Post in the town of Ganado. A National Historic site that hasn't changed much since the National Park Service took over operation in 1967. It's still an active trading post and a great way to see what life was like for the Navajos, as well as the traders that helped them bring their rugs and jewlery to market. The tour of the house is worth the time; it's filled with original furnishings, rugs and baskets.
Dave DeMarsh moved to Arizona in 1992 and has been exploring it ever since. A four-wheel drive truck, a 30-year-old film camera and a wife who likes to go on picnics have allowed him to explore and photograph the amazing scenery that makes Arizona such a great state to get outdoors. Dave is a part of the Arizona Office of Tourism's Guest Blogger program. To learn more about this program, or to apply to be a guest blogger, please visit: arizonaguide.com/guest-blogger.