Upon leaving the Petrified Forest we set out for Canyon De Chelly on the Navajo Indian Reservation! Little did we know at the time, but this little known National Monument would become our favorite destination so far. We headed through the petrified forest and went East on I-40. We then took Hwy 191 North, arriving in the town of Chinle. Located in North-Eastern Arizona, Canyon De Chelly National Monument consists of two main canyons (De Chelly and Muerto) and multiple side canyons. The canyons range from 30 to 1000 feet deep and have been inhabited by different civilizations for nearly 5,000 years.
The earliest inhabitants, Archaic, used the canyons seasonally. They were followed by the farming peoples of the Basketmakers, Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), Hopi and finally the Navajo. The Navajo raised domesticated sheep and goats, corn and tree fruit within the canyon. They also used it as refuge from warfare with other tribes, Spanish settlers and the US army. In 1863 the US army launched a brutal campaign against the Navajo, entering the canyon and capturing or killing most of them. They were then marched over 300 miles (The Long Walk) to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. The remaining Navajo were allowed to return to the canyon in 1868 to find their homes (hogans), crops and livestock gone. They worked to rebuild what they had lost while turning a focus to trading posts where they could trade their jewelry, wool rugs and crafts for food and other staples in order to survive. Navajo families continue to farm in the canyon using traditional methods to this day and many live there during the summer months. The National Monument was created in 1931, in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, to preserve the amazing amount of cultural history and artifacts within the canyon.
Where to Stay
When visiting Canyon De Chelly you will be on Navajo property and therefore boondocking is not available. There is one main campground near the visitor center called Cottonwood Campground. The campground is first come first served and costs $14 per night. There aren’t any hookups but there is a dump station (without water). The maximum RV length is 40 feet. Expect to have a wild horse roaming around camp and to hear a lot of dogs barking at night.
Visitor Center and Programs
The visitor center is your source for maps and information as well as a bookstore and orientation video. Be sure to ask about free events and programs. The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years).
Much of your tour of Canyon De Chelly will be from the 10 overlooks along the North and South Rim drives since access to private property in the canyon bottom is restricted. Each rim drive is less than 40 miles round trip. These overlooks will give you fantastic views of cliff dwellings, ruins and farms on the canyon floor. Each viewpoint will have signage explaining what ruins you are looking for. Unfortunately many of them are really faded and some difficult to read. Also look closely at the canyon walls because in some places you can see old “trails” carved in to the stone that have been used for thousands of years. Some of the walkways to the overlooks are across rock – look for footprints carved in to or painted on the rock to guide your way. There will be local people selling their goods at some of the parking areas if you’re looking something very authentic.
There is one trail leading down in to the canyon that is accessible by the general public without a guide or permit, the White House trail. The 2.5 mile hike leads 600 ft down the rocky canyon wall to the White House Ruin. The ruin was built by Ancestral Puebloans about 1000 years ago. There are toilets available in the bottom along with local artisans selling their hand-made jewelry, sand paintings and other crafts. We purchased a sand painting of the white house ruin from a young man including the petroglyphs found on the canyon wall and meaning of each on the back. He was painting it at the time and brought it to us later at the campground. An amazing thing that we saw along the trail was a young mother who had given birth in the canyon hiking out with her infant to take it to its first well child check. It is such a different way of life than we’re used to!
Archaeology Month (March)
We just so happened to visit the monument during the month of March which is Arizona Archaeology Month. This means that throughout the month there are free programs and hikes offered to visitors. We attended a really informative talk on the people and cultures that have lived in the canyon given by an archeologist who has participated in digs and preservation within the canyon.
I was also ecstatic to be able to take another hike down in to the canyon led by a Navajo park ranger! I went on a 3.5 mile hike on Bare Trail, crossing the river 3 times to reach Ledge Ruin. The trail was basically invisible in most places to those of us attending the hike. Faint paths could be seen in the slick rock in some places along with some foot and hand holds in steep places carved many years ago. Our Navajo guides knew the trail by heart and traveled by foot in and out of the canyon up to 3 times a week on various trails to reach family farms. If you know the way it is faster to reach them by foot down the canyon wall than drive the trails from the canyon entrance! Along the way we saw a farm owned by a woman who raises hay to feed her sheep, which she uses to harvest wool. She creates dyes from traditional sources then dyes the wool and uses it to weave beautiful wool rugs. I felt really honored to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.
If you want to get a closer look at the canyon outside of archaeology month or do not want to hike, there are many private guides that will take you on horseback or in their vehicles in to the canyon via the 4×4 trail through the bottom.
Other Area Attractions
Weekly (on Thursday if I remember correctly) there is a flea market in the town of Chinle. If you want to try some local fare like mutton stew or Navajo tacos this is the place! You may also find some jewelry, old DVD’s, car parts or clothes you just can’t live without!
Hubbell Trading Post
An ally to the Navajo, John Lorenzo Hubbell began trading in the area in 1876 after purchasing a small trading post. He opened his home as a hospital to the Navajo when small pox swept the reservation. He employed Navajo to demonstrate weaving and crafts and marketed Navajo rugs to Eastern cities. A post office opened at Hubbell trading post in 1883 and he built a home and ranch on the property in the 1890’s The Hubbell trading post stayed in the family until 1965 when it was sold to the National Park Service. You can tour the trading post, where you can still purchase Navajo rugs and other crafts, along with the barn and property.
Know Before You Go
The Navajo nation observes day light savings time but the rest of Arizona and the Hopi reservation do not so be sure you know what time it is! We verified the time in the visitor’s center and set our phones to that. No cell phone carriers have service within the Navajo reservation so don’t plan on making any calls or using your hot spot. The reservation is open range land so watch for livestock and wild horses. All of the land is privately owned and it is asked that you gain permission from property owners to take pictures of their property out of respect. In town you will be approached by many locals attempting to sell jewelry or other crafts that they have made. They are all very nice and are not offended if you don’t wish to purchase anything. The only thing we bought was some cupcakes from some little girls at a mini-mart!