Canyon de Chelly (pr. Canyon de Shay) has a somewhat awkward political situation. The park is a National Park, but it resides in the Navajo Nation and is essentially owned and run by the Navajos. The difficulty with this is that unlike other National Parks, Canyon de Chelly is considered private land and with the exception of two rim overlook roads, and a single short trail down into the canyon, no one but Navajos are allowed to enter the canyon floor. Unfortunately, while the overlook roads are nice, with some spectacular views down into the canyon, the Canyon floor is by far the best part of Canyon de Chelly. Luckily the Navajo Nation has found a work around for this problem…hire a Navajo guide ($100 / day, please) and you can hike to the canyon floor. Or, hire a Navajo jeep and driver ($55 / person for 2 hours, please) and you can get a ride through the canyon. We elected to drive the rim roads, do the single hike, and make the best of it.
Spider Rock is pretty spectacular and justifiably famous. We were there just before sunset and there were lots of cameras focused on it. I imagine a lot of rock climbers lust after Spider Rock.
Canyon de Chelly is a pretty place and I have to tell you I would love to have free access to that canyon, but it is what it is. Personally, I think Canyon de Chelly should be a Navajo Tribal park, privately owned and funded, not a National Park. Access to our National Parks is for everybody…In the world.
We did the very nice hike down to the White House Ruin one afternoon. It’s a great trail, cut into the canyon wall with switchbacks, tunnels and precipitous dropoffs. The ruin itself is impressive, but fences prevent you from getting too close to it so the pictures are from about about 50 yards away. Actually some of the ruins we saw from the overlocks on the rim roads were even more impressive due to the unbelievable inaccessibility that makes one wonder how they built them, why, and how they lived day to day in such places. Some of the ruins, with no sign of restoration, are in very good condition. The canyon was occupied by primitive people as early as 2,000 years ago, but the ruins were built mostly in the 12th century by people known as Ancestral Puebloans. Their descendants are the Pueblo Hopi and Zuni tribes which live in parts of Arizona, but mostly New Mexico. The Navajo settled the area about 300 years ago and a few still live on the canyon floor grazing sheep, goats, and cattle and tilling the canyon floor for crops.
The two rim roads are each about 30 miles with frequent pull offs for the overlooks. The Canyon is around 1000 feet deep for the most part and the sheer sided red sandstone walls are beautiful, especially in the photographers golden hours just after sunrise and just before sunset. The rock just glows.
The South rim drive runs along the top of Canyon de Chelly, The North Rim Drive runs along Canyon del Muerto with views into Black Canyon. All are part of the National Park.
We were frequently approached by Navajo craftspeople who are allowed to sell their wares at pulloffs, the White House Ruin, campgrounds, and at the trailheads to the short trails to the overlooks. We did buy some beaded jewelry and some pottery from a couple of artisans that we were convinced were genuine, but the constant huckstering gets old after a while. I’m glad we visited Canyon de Chelly, and if you are in the area I recommend it, it is one of the prettiest canyons in the west.
Next stop, off the reservation and into southern Utah’s “Valley of the Gods”.