We cross through the shallow river, climb up onto a sandy hill, where my guide slows her Jeep to a stop, her brakes squeaking as the brake pads squeegee wet sand off the rotors.
“This is Antelope Ruin,” she tells me. “And right up there are the petroglyphs.”
We step out of the Jeep into the brisk air of a March morning. I smell juniper smoke, blowing our way from nearby Navajo habitation.
We are in the bottom of Canyon de Chelly. The cliff on our right is still in shadow; it tilts slightly forward like a calving glacier. The cliff wall on our left – in full morning sunlight – is tannish-orange. Streaks of desert varnish flow down its face from the top, like a cheerleader’s mascara after a good cry. The cottonwoods growing at the base of the cliff cast their early morning shadows onto the wall like gray ghost vines. The Navajo tapestry and the cottonwood shadows look as if they’re reaching for each other.
This is my second day in Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I spent yesterday up on the rim admiring the gorgeous views from its 10 overlooks. It’s early March when I visit, and the trees are just starting to bud, the grass just starting to grow. In another month this canyon will be bursting with color.
I sling my camera bag onto my shoulder and follow my guide down a sandy trail, and across a footbridge on our way to get a closer look at Antelope Ruin and the petroglyphs that give it its name. I pass through some Cottonwood trees, their pale gray bark is the same color as their pale gray shadows. On the far side of the Cottonwoods I get a close up view of the ruins which were built by the Ancestral Puebloans. As far as ruins go these are comparatively small. This is just a small compound with half a dozen rooms built at the base of the cliff wall. A Navajo family lives in a house nestled among Cottonwood trees two Frisbee throws away.
Many national parks which feature Anasazi ruins allow visitors to get right up to, and even enter, some of its ruins. This is the not the case in Canyon de Chelly. All the ruins, which could be accessed by visitors, are protected by fences, to help preserve their fragile walls and floors.
After viewing the ruins we continue a little farther on the trail to the petroglyph panel. The panel contains several pictographs of vague animal shapes, which could be sheep or deer or even beetles. But it also contains two pictographs of what are very obviously pronghorn antelope. The shape and coloration are spot on. I’ve traveled all throughout the American southwest and I’ve seen tens of thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs and this is one of the most detailed I’ve ever seen. The other vaguer shapes were made by Anasazi artists, but the pronghorn pictographs were made by a Navajo artist named Dibe Yazhi (Little Sheep) who lived in Canyon de Chelly in the early 1800s.
“Pretty impressive, isn’t it?” says my guide. Her name is Victoria Begay. She is the owner of Changing Woman Tours. Her business is located at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, where her family has lived, as she puts it, “since the Navajo first came here.”
We return to the Jeep and continue deeper into the canyon. Begay is very knowledgeable and personable. As she drives along over the sandy hills and through the stream – its edges still rimmed with morning ice – she tells me about the canyon’s geology, and the history of the many people who have called this place home for the last 4,500 years, interweaving modern archaeology and anthropology with Navajo beliefs, myths and traditional stories. She tells a beautiful story.
Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’Shay) is owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation, and cooperatively managed with the National Park Service. The canyon got its name de Chelly from Spanish Conquistadors who visited the area in the 1500s. It’s actually a corruption of the Navajo word for the canyon Tsegi, which means “inside the rock.” The park is visited by about 850,000 people a year, and they will find numerous recreational opportunities waiting for them. The most popular activity is visiting the 10 overlooks along the rim view drives. Canyon de Chelly National Monument actually encompasses three different canyons: Canyon de Chelly, Monument Canyon, and Canyon del Muerto. The three canyons were carved by streams originating in the Chuska Mountains.
At the mouth of the canyon, near the town of Chinle, Ariz.,
Little is known about the area’s first residents, whom archaeologists call the Archaic people.
the canyon walls are only about 30 feet high. At their deepest, near Spider Rock and Mummy Cave, they rise to a height of 1,000 feet.
The South Rim Drive has seven overlooks along Canyon de Chelly. The North Rim Drive has three overlooks along Canyon del Muerto. The overlook areas have been chosen either because they overlook Anasazi ruins or a spot along the canyon that is particularly scenic.
Many visitors to Canyon de Chelly are surprised to discover that it’s still inhabited by Navajo families, who live on the rims as well as inside the canyon. Navajo families still cultivate corn, alfalfa and peach orchards and graze sheep, goats, cattle and horses in the canyon.
In the spring and summer when the fields are growing it’s like looking down on a patchwork quilt, stitched together by the Rio de Chelly, which is bordered by green cottonwood trees.
Visitors can hike from the rim down to the canyon floor at White House Ruin. This is the only place where visitors are allowed to hike without a guide.
Several more adventures await inside the canyon. Visitors can take hiking tours, Jeep tours and horseback tours. But, because the land is still owned and lived on by Navajo families, tourists must hire a guide. The guides are either park service rangers or native Navajo whose families have lived in the canyon for generations. They’ll take you to ruins, petroglyph panels and various scenic stops.
A full list of guides can be found by Googling Canyon de Chelly guided tours, or go directly to www.navajonationparks.org/htm/canyondechelly_tours.htm
People have lived in the Canyon de Chelly region – on its rims and in its canyons – with only a few interruptions for the last 4,500 years. Little is known about the area’s first residents, whom archaeologists call the Archaic people. They didn’t build any permanent homes, but archaeologists have found remains of their camps and some of their pictographs and petroglyphs on the canyon walls.
Following the Archaic people, Canyon de Chelly was inhabited by the Basketmaker people who relied more on farming than hunting and gathering. They built compounds, granaries and ceremonial areas on some of the canyon’s ledges, as well as small hamlets scattered throughout the canyon floor.
The Ancestral Puebloans, often called Anasazi, occupied the area after the Basketmakers. It was the Puebloans who built the multi-storied villages, compounds, and ceremonial kivas that intrigue visitors today. They also grew corn, squash and beans, as the Basketmakers had done, and also began to cultivate cotton for weaving, and raised turkeys for food. They left the area about 700 years ago, it’s believed because of problems arising from drought and out-populating the area’s resources.
When the Anasazi left the area about 700 years ago another small group either moved into the area, or remained behind. This group grew into the Hopi, who lived in the area for about 300 years.
The Hopi were pushed out of the region by the Navajo people about 400 years ago. The Navajo, who call themselves Dine, brought with them sheep and goats. They also cultivated corn, squash, beans, melons and peach orchards. They began trading with the Spanish in the 1500s.
In 1863 the US Army, led by Colonel Kit Carson, forcibly removed the Navajo out of Canyon de Chelly. Those who weren’t killed in the battles were forced to march 300 miles to Fort Sumner, an event now known as the Long Walk, during which scores of Navajo died from thirst, hunger and fatigue along the way.
They were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly in 1868. They returned to find their sheep, Hogans and orchards had been destroyed. With so few resources available, they faced starvation again. But they recovered, again planting crops and orchards in the canyon. They acquired sheep from the Spanish and began making blankets which they traded at trading posts for food and other supplies. In this era they also became expert silversmiths, also trading their silver goods at the trading posts.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument has no entrance fee.
The town of Chinle, just a few miles east of the park entrance, offers food, gas and lodging. There is also a campground near the park entrance. It’s open year round and offers grills, tables and restrooms. There are no showers or RV hookups. For information call 928-674-2106.
A second, privately owned campground, called Spider Rock campground, is located inside the park near the end of the South Rim drive. They offer campsites and, if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can rent a Hogan for the night. For information and reservations call 928-674-8261.