Canyon de Chelly

I began this road trip hiking the red rock canyons of St. George, Utah. Turning north from Tucson, towards my home in Colorado, the stunning red rock Canyon de Chelly National Monument beckoned. I stayed two nights at the Thunderbird Lodge on the grounds, managed and run by Diné (the Navajo name for their people) to enjoy a full day exploring the site.

The Navajo Nation covers over 24,000 miles, mostly in Arizona, spreading beyond over the Colorado and New Mexico borders. The canyon, starting just east of the town of Chinle, cuts through about forty miles, splitting into Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. On the eastern end, the walls tower over one thousand feet above the floor. The Diné called the site a long name beginning with Tséyi’ (SAY-ih) which means “rock canyon.” The Spanish heard that word as Chelly (Shay).

Jeep trip tours are required to enter the canyon these days. Cut by strong streams and washes, it’s understandable. The water flowing through the canyon was barely passable in sections and there are floods at some times of the year. In the morning, I rode, with Ben, an older Navajo man who lives in the canyon with his family most of the year. I had chosen to book this tour because the website claimed it was a with well-known Navajo storyteller. I was disappointed that his father came instead, saying that his son works mostly in the office booking tours, running the business. Ben was not very talkative at first, so I asked a lot of questions and he loosened up, telling me about history and life in the canyon. Their small home stands by the ruin called Antelope House in Canyon del Muerto, where the touring jeeps turn around. His family makes fresh fry bread and sells snacks and their own jewelry and crafts. I bought a small necklace with a turquoise stone made by the grandmother. Present day Diné farm and raise sheep and other livestock.

The photos in this post were taken from the canyon floor during that jeep ride, amid the shapes sculpted by water and wind. In the afternoon, I took the South Rim drive looking down into the canyon. In some cases, I’ve shown a broader view of where the petroglyphs appear and then a closer look.

Petroglyphs

Snake
Horses appear in later petroglyphs, made by Navajo

Native people have lived in these canyons for almost five thousand years. Some of the images painted on its walls date back to the earliest itinerant peoples. Later, the Basketmaker group built rock structures on ledges and mesas, and began farming corn and beans. About twelve hundred years ago, the Pueblo people, also called Anasazi, a Diné word for ancient ones, built multistoried villages and kivas, their spiritual and meeting rooms. I’ve climbed into their structures years ago at Mesa Verde National Park in the southwest corner of Colorado. Although some groups left for other areas, many of these people are believed to have became Hopi, and later Navajo settled there. My tour guide said the Navajo came down from Alaska after a long journey.

Ruins

Antelope House

In one of so many tragic, heartrending stories of the American West expansion, the U.S. military under Kit Carson pushed into the canyon in 1863. Most inhabitants were captured or killed. Canyon del Muerto, Canyon of Death, is named for those who lost their lives. Surviving Navajo were forced to walk over three hundred miles, known as The Long Walk, to a holding fort in New Mexico; many died along the way. Released in 1868, the canyon dwellers returned to find everything destroyed. They established trading posts which helped them to recover.

Life in the canyon today

Ben
The family home at Antelope House

Patterns

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Published by rkrontheroad

Writer, photographer, traveler

49 thoughts on “Canyon de Chelly

  1. I’m always fascinated to see petroglyphs, but how amazing are those ruins (at first, I did not even see it, until one of your closer shots). I’m happy to read the Navajo has re-established them in the canyon again. You have captured beautiful photos for this post, thank you for sharing them.

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    1. It was helpful to ride with someone who could point out the ruins (and I had a pretty good zoom lens!). It’s interesting to imagine how populated those villages on the cliffs had been. Thank you!

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  2. I haven’t heard of Canyon de Chelly, but what a stunning place! Really goes to show that there are so many lesser-known, but equally beautiful natural parks to check out in the US! I might have to make a stop over when I return to Arizona, hopefully sometime soon!

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  3. How wonderful! I was amazed and intrigued by the magic of the Canyon de Chelly and we did both the North and South Rim drives on our visit, but it wasn’t possible to go into the canyon unless you hiked. No private vehicles were/are allowed, as you say, and tour were suspended when we were there because an unexplained disease was circulating among the Navajo people in and around Chinle and they were keeping themselves to themselves as much as possible. We’d even thought about cancelling our visit but we were glad we’d gone, not just for the experience of seeing the canyon but also because local businesses, the hotel and restaurant, were grateful for our custom. We went to mass at the RC church in Chinle which was beautiful but sad, because a local family had just lost someone to the disease.

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      1. The theory we heard at the time was that they were genetically somehow more susceptible to it, but maybe that was coloured by a desire not to see tourism drop off completely as they relied on it so much? I don’t remember it being talked about in the other Navajo areas we visited however, like Monument Valley – only in and around Chinle. Very odd.

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    1. Thank you! The tour into the canyon was certainly worth doing. Getting closer to the ruins, and even being able to see the petroglyphs – not visible from the rim at all, really made a difference.

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  4. Thank you for the tour, Ruth. Your photos alone show why the Jeep tour was worth the cost, though I’m sure any stories you got from your guide only added to the experience. The scale of the canyon walls throws me off when I see the ruins. They look like miniature buildings, not nearly big enough to live in.

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    1. You’re welcome. There were whole communities living in those structures on rock shelves. I imagine they may go in deep a ways as well. It does help to see the near and far photos.

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  5. This sounds like an interesting tour, adding to the simple experience of being in this place. I can almost hear the silence. I especially like the first two photos – beautiful light
    Alison

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    1. I don’t often travel with guides, but sometimes there’s just no choice, or there is more to a place that you want to learn about. I’m not shy about letting a guide know what I’m there for!

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  6. These red rock formations are truly one of the most stunning landscapes on Earth, they really manage to capture one’s imagination. I am always fascinated with petroglyphs. It is good that the indigenous people get to make some profit from tourist visits, especially since it strikes me as a place where making income from farming is extremely tough. And, of course, amidst such natural beauty there’s the tremendous dimension of human death and suffering. Great photography and writing, Ruth, as always.

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    1. I’m sure making a life in the canyon, farming and raising livestock, must be subsistence living. Hillerman emphasizes the sparse lifestyle of the Navajo people, yet helping each other and not doing too much better than your neighbor is a theme. The petroglyphs give a glimpse into what was important in the lives of the historical groups that lived there, telling their own stories down through the centuries. I always appreciate your reading and your kind comments, Leighton.

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