de Chelly, view from the rim. It's not hard to see why this
geological wonder, inhabited by humans for at least 5,000
years, is considered sacred.
It has been inhabited contiguously for nearly 5,000 years, is the
only National Monument owned by the Navajo Nation, and contains thousands
of archaeological sites.
Yet next to its cousinsthe Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion
national parks, and Monument Valley Park on the Navajo Reservation,
where so many westerns have been filmedCanyon De Chelly often
gets overlooked by people visiting the Southwest. All are wonderful
inclusions for any vacation, but Canyon De Chelly offers an identity
unlike anything the others offer, and it's also part of the Navajo
"The Anasazi were here from 2500 B.C. to 1300 A.D.," said Leon
Skyhorse Thomas, founder of Canyon De Chelly Tours, one of the first
companies to offer private tours in the canyon. "The Hopis were
here from 1300 to 1600 A.D., and the Navajo from 1600 to the present
day. People have been living in Canyon De Chelly for nearly 5,000
years. It's the oldest inhabited area within the Colorado Plateau."
Canyon de Chelly is the only national monument in the U.S. that
is not owned by either the Department of Interior or National Park
Service. Navajo people own the land. The National Park Service protects
and preserves the numerous archeological sites and historical sites
in cooperation with the Navajo Tribe. Touring the canyon with a
Navajo guide is an experience you'll never forget.
Thomas is one such guide. Born just south of the canyon and
raised in a traditional family, he began working as a guide in Canyon
De Chelly in 1988 and formed his own company in 1993. The website
for Canyon De Chelly Tours averages about 225 hits per day, making
it a major player in the tourism business.
The company's tours are information-packed, and are unique from
the second visitors climb aboard four-wheel-drive vehicles with
their guide and proceed into the canyon. Much of the "road" is actually
the stream that flows through the canyon; vehicles drive right up
the stream. The guides know where to drive and what to avoid. Quicksand
is not really a threat, but throughout the years more than 20 vehicles
have become stuck and remain submerged beneath the sand. The canyon
is huge, 131 square miles, Thomas said. Side canyons merge into
the main canyon, and the tour continues upstream. The deep reds
of the cliffs form a wonderful backdrop to the vegetation carpeting
the canyon floor.
"Over 2,700 archeological sites and over 700 ruins are in the
canyon," Thomas explained, pointing out some of the petroglyphs
along the canyon walls. "The Hopi chain coming down represents the
snake clan. The four-leaf clover on the bottom represents the coyote
clan. A few feet above you have a Hopi Snake dancer. The horses
are Navajo. Horses were introduced to the southwest by the Spanish,
and the first military expedition was in 1539. That petroglyph on
top is the arrival of the Spanish. The broad shoulders represent
the Spanish breastplate."
line the walls of Canyon de Chelly. (Photo: Jack McNeel)
Antelope ruins are just some of many left by ancient civilizations
in Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation. (Photo: Jack McNeel)
The canyon walls are reddish and frequently overhang the stream.
A number of Navajo families live here, their alfalfa, corn, bean
and squash fields flashing in and out of view from the road. The
word 'chelly' comes from the Spanish from a Navajo word, tséyi,
which means 'canyon.'
The most famous of the ruins are Antelope House Ruin and White
House Ruin. Visitors aren't allowed within these ruins, but guides
will take you near it for photos and a chance to see the structures
A road also leads around the perimeter, offering a number of
views into the canyon from above. Though a drive around the edge
yields beautiful views, it is no match for the feelings generated
from touring the canyon floor with its many petroglyphs, ruins and
close-up views of the canyon walls, in addition to the drive up
the stream bottom itself.
"Canyon De Chelly has a charm," said Donovan Hanley, director
of sales for the Navajo Nation. "It's not as grand as Grand Canyon,
but when people are here, it's, 'Wow, this is here!' "
And it isn't completely undiscovered, logging its share of visitors,
especially so-called snowbirds from the northwest and Canada who
stop if they're wintering in southern Arizona, Hanley said.
"It's authentic and unique," he said. "They want to bring their
families. We see a lot of multigenerational trips where grandparents
are traveling with their grandkids. When people come out it's, 'Wow!
Why haven't we done this sooner?' "
Canyon De Chelly adjoins Chinle, Arizona. Thunderbird Lodge
sits right at the entrance to the canyon and is now owned by the
Navajo Tribe. It's an older facility but is currently being reconditioned
from the inside out and is beautifully done. The adjoining tribal
cafeteria offers good food for moderate prices. Thomas uses the
location to meet his customers before the trip into Canyon De Chelly.
"It's hard to visit the southwest without hitting the Navajo Nation
at some point," said Hanley, noting that the motel is one of four
owned by the tribe. "We grasp that tourism hand quicker than some
of the smaller tribes. Thunderbird Lodge is a really good venture
because it's under the National Parks Service, so our partnership
is heightened a bit more. They're glad someone is here at the property,
and the fact that it's a Navajo Nation entity is better, because who
better to tell the story than Navajo Nation itself?"