On a recent Friday in August, with my husband at the wheel and our two kids in the back seat, we drove through blurred curtains of monsoon rain, down the mountain, across the desert and finally through a muddy corner of Chinle to our destination: Canyon de Chelly. It was late afternoon when we arrived.
After a quick stop at the visitor’s center for a brochure, we drove to the first overlook, water pooling in the rock all around. We looked into the darkened canyon as water poured over the rock walls and into dozens of temporary waterfalls.
Far down below, we saw horses huddled under the meager protection of fruit trees. When lightning cracked nearby, I hustled the kids back into the car. We continued along the south rim drive, stopping at overlooks during breaks in the storm. Our last stop was at the far end of the rim drive at the Spider Rock overlook.
The iconic red twin spires of Spider Rock glistened like rubies as the storm abated. Our hair spiked in the monsoon-electrified air. As we watched the sun pierce through the dark clouds, I gave the kids a short history lesson of the canyon.
Called Tseyi’ by the Navajo, Canyon de Chelly’s protective walls, access to water, wildlife and the rich soil of the canyon floor have supported its inhabitants for thousands of years. People from Ancient Puebloans to modern Navajo have called the canyon home. The ruins of the ancients dot the canyon walls and inhabited hogans are scattered across the canyon floor.
According to the National Park Service brochure, “Canyon de Chelly National Monument was authorized in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover in large measure to preserve the important archaeological resources that span more than 4,000 years of human occupation.”
The monument is located on the Navajo Reservation and is jointly managed by the Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. It includes about 84,000 acres of lands with a handful of families living within the park boundaries.
What the brochure doesn’t mention is a dark chapter in American history when the canyon was the setting of violence and heartbreak for Navajo families. In 1864, under the command of Col. Kit Carson, U.S. troops were sent into the canyon in a campaign against the Navajo. Destroying homes, orchards and crops as they went, the army eventually forced the Navajo into submission.
Nearly 8,000 Navajo surrendered and were sent to Bosque Redondo, N.M., on a horrifying journey that has become known as the Long Walk. Four years later, the Navajo were allowed to return to Canyon de Chelly but the emotional scars from that time remain.
Today, Canyon de Chelly is a vibrant and beautiful destination that attracts tourists from around the world. Because it is located on the reservation, special rules apply for visitors.
There is only one trail that unescorted visitors can hike into the canyon: The White House Trail. From the White House Overlook, the trail descends 2.5 miles into the canyon and ends at the White House Ruin.
Any other access into the canyon must be with a Navajo guide. Several guide companies offer different ways to experience the canyon including guided hikes, four-wheel drive tours and horseback tours. Tours are arranged individually between visitors and the tour companies (you can schedule tours at the visitor center or check the Web to contact companies in advance) and can be for as little as an hour to several days long.
Camping sites are available at the entrance to the canyon and near the Spider Rock Overlook. There are several hotels in Chinle but only one in the park itself. The Sacred Canyon Lodge (formerly Thunderbird Lodge) has clean, comfortable rooms, a gift shop and restaurant. The restaurant is the original trading post built in 1896. While we are normally campers, the intensity of the monsoon convinced us to book a room at the lodge.
Before checking in, however, we stopped in at the corrals at the mouth of the canyon to book a morning horseback tour. After a filling dinner at the lodge and night in a warm, dry bed, the morning dawned cleared.
Horsey folk we are not. But our Navajo guide Terrill Spencer gamely provided us with four gentle mounts and we were off. Slowly. As we struggled to aim and steer our horses, Spencer told us about growing up at the other end of the canyon near Spider Rock.
He grew up climbing up and down the canyon walls and exploring its depths. A guide for nearly a decade, he takes horseback tourists — 75 percent of whom he said are from other countries — into the canyon year-round.
I listen with half an ear, my senses overwhelmed by the splendor of the canyon. The world is brighter here. Brick red rock, cerulean sky, bottle green grass. The horses step carefully on the sandy canyon floor and over the muddy creek. Overhead, the wind ruffles the cottonwood leaves into making the music of rain.
A four-wheel drive tour truck grinds past us and I’m grateful for my slow horse. Spencer led us to a canyon wall covered with petroglyphs. He pointed out faces and forms in the rocks. We oohed and ahhed and then all fell into silently soaking in the splendor.
The quiet was suddenly broken by a high-pitched cry that bounces from wall to wall to wall. At first I thought it was a baby crying in distress, but then I realize we were hearing coyotes howling. For a full minute they howled and howled. It was a magical, frightening, primal sound. Just as suddenly, the silence returned.
The kids were wide-eyed. Eventually, too soon, Spencer turned us around and we head back to the corral. The horses moved faster now.
We dismounted ungracefully and waddled back to the car. After a quick trip into Chinle for a forgettable fast food lunch, we returned to the monument. The monsoon clouds gathered on the horizon but we figured we have enough time to hike White House Trail and see the ruin. The trail is rocky and there are a few switchbacks but it’s not difficult.
The clouds advanced and block the sun enough to make the temperature comfortable. After about a mile, the trail reached the canyon floor and led us over the creek via a wooden bridge. The White House Ruin came into view on the opposite canyon wall. We headed toward a handful of jewelry vendors who have set up under tents near the ruin but the wind picked up, sending waves of dust across the canyon.
The storm was coming. We hurried to the fence that protected the ruin from anyone climbing on it and took a moment to imagine living life clinging to the edge of a cliff. When thunder boomed and a gust of wind took my hat off my head, we turned back and retraced our steps. We made it back to the car and left Canyon de Chelly the same way we arrived. With windshield wipers flashing in the terrible beauty of the monsoon.