The red rock and ancient wonders of Canyon de Chelly

The red rock and ancient wonders of Canyon de Chelly

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Around a decade ago, I abandoned attempts to describe the awe-inducing exposures of Navajo Sandstone. Efforts to harness in words sinuous ribbons of rock at The Wave at Coyote Buttes, the enveloping folds of Antelope Canyon and the soaring walls of Glen Canyon never matched the transcendent feelings that overtook me in their presence.

I relived this old struggle when I walked slowly to the edge of Canyon de Chelly. I contemplated the twin pillars of Spider Rock, rising more than 800 feet from the floor of a 1,200-foot-deep red-rock canyon. What words might hold together to describe these rising spires from the heart of an archaeological treasure trove?

Spider Rock appears like an oracle in a fantasy novel our hero needs to climb to seek wisdom. The formation belongs high on the list of Arizona’s most important landmarks. It stands as sacred ground to the Navajo and as a stunning geologic wonder—and one that should draw more people to visit and contemplate it.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “duh shay”), its sister gorge Canyon del Muerto and all of its formations reside in a tucked-away corner of the map. It lies 75 miles north of Interstate 40 in the heart of the Navajo Nation. From Flagstaff, it takes around three hours one way to drive there. When visitors arrive, they find a national monument of significant proportions. It offers a quiet space to contemplate the geology, plants and animals of this high-desert jewel.

Around 850,000 people make the monument a destination each year, compared to the six million-plus who trek to Grand Canyon annually and millions more who flood other Southwest national parks. People who arrive at the monument in the springtime likely have some viewpoints all to themselves—complete with the greening of the cottonwoods and farms that line the canyon and contrast with its earthy hues.

From Flagstaff, Canyon de Chelly works as an ambitious day trip, but is best experienced as an overnight or weekend jaunt. A triple bill of the two rim drives along de Chelly and del Muerto and the White House Trail prove a must, and visitors can also make time for a Jeep tour or horseback ride along the canyon floor from a private guide. Whatever the plan, binoculars will come in handy to scope out the dozens of visible ancient ruins trussed in the cliffs throughout the monument. The larger and more intact ones have helped elevate Canyon de Chelly’s status as an archaeological marvel.

“White House, Antelope House and Mummy Cave are perhaps the most viewed and photographed multi-storied pueblos found in the canyon,” said Josh Ramsey, monument archaeologist, in a recent email interview. “Despite very limited preventative or corrective maintenance and reconstruction, all three of these large pueblos still retain significant structural stability. The preservation of these villages is a testament to the engineering feats accomplished during the 11th through 13th centuries in the Four Corners region.” 

The larger ruins are joined by a significant list of smaller archaeological sites that the Navajo Nation and National Park Service have partnered to protect. Around a third of the monument has been inventoried, and “extrapolating the recorded site densities to non-inventoried portions of the monument would result in an estimated 6,000 archaeological sites,” according to Ramsey.

The Canyon de Chelly experience also interweaves the beauty and wonder of the place with the tragedies that haunt its walls. In the early 1800s, the Spanish fought with and killed Navajo in Canyon del Muerto—from the Spanish word for death. This includes a landmark known as Massacre Cave, where 110 Navajo were killed in 1805. The ranger talk on the night I spent at the monument was on the Navajo Long Walk, and how that dark chapter of American history is interwoven into the narrative of the canyon. It also marvels visitors to see how the human story of the canyon continues to evolve, as Navajo families still call it home, living and cultivating along the canyon floors.

“While cliff dwellings are a primary tourist attraction, it is the integration of Navajo customary uses of the land that makes Canyon de Chelly unique,” Ramsey said. “These Navajo families are responsible for the creation of many of the park’s most fundamental resources including its expansive cornfields, melon patches, alfalfa fields, trail systems, charcoal drawings, pictographs and petroglyphs, sheep and horse corrals, water diversion features, granaries, peach and apricot orchards and habitation structures.”

During an overnight trip to the monument with my family, Sunday morning offered a chance to explore the edges of Canyon del Muerto. The only traffic jam came when a young sheepherder led his flock across the road. The quietude of Antelope House Overlook offered a chance to study the farms on the canyon floor, while scoping out the ruins built along the stony seams. Antelope House proved a stunner and highlight of the del Muerto drive, with its remains of towers and kivas that stir the imagination into conjuring the once-thriving village.

While traveling to or from Canyon de Chelly, a stop at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado opens a portal into a different time period. The Park Service maintains the trading post much as it had been in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Visitors can take a brief tour of the Hubbell home, which feels like a time capsule.

The space, art and furniture of the home are so preserved you expect one of Hubbell’s children to run around the corner, or to smell one of Mrs. Hubbell’s pies baking in the oven. Barn animals and gardens abound, to add to the sense of living history. Navajo weavers also demonstrate their craft in the adjacent visitor’s center—a wonderful addition to a weekend adventure and cultural exploration.

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