Just east of the town, the muddy, seasonal Chinle Wash
enters the beginning of the canyon, where the walls are only a few feet high, but they rise sharply after a short distance so that there is only one possible entrance for vehicles, next to the river. A sandy track leads alongside the wash to the scattered settlements and ancient ruins, but all visiting vehicles must be accompanied by a Navajo guide. The canyon floor remains green and fertile all year round; this, together with the protection offered by the rocky walls and the beauty of the landscape explain why the valley has been inhabited for so long - from primitive peoples 2,000 years ago, through the Anasazi civilisation of the twelfth century which occupied a large area of the Southwest before suddenly disappearing, to the Navajo who have lived here for the last 300 years. They rear sheep and goats in the canyon, and plant crops.
The Canyon de Chelly drainage system comprises four main gorges (Canyon del Muerto, Black Rock Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon - see map
), plus many side ravines, branching eastwards from Chinle into the Defiance Plateau
. Most of it may be reached only at rim level via rough, unpaved tracks - just the north edge of Canyon del Muerto and the south edge of Canyon de Chelly are accessible from paved roads. The North Rim Drive
(Indian Reservation 64) links Chinle with the north-south route IR 12 and passes several overlooks, while the South Rim Drive
, although not a through road, offers more dramatic vistas, ending at the most spectacular viewpoint of all, the overlook of Spider Rocks
, which are twin 800 foot towers of rock isolated from the canyon walls. The rocks are a site of special significance for the Navajo, as according to legend, the Spider Woman lives on top and keeps the bones of her victims there. Beyond the rocks, the main canyon continues unseen for many miles.
Canyon de Chelly Overlooks
- descriptions and photographs of 19 overlooks along the canyon edge.
White House Trail
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is administered as part of the National Park Service but since it lies on Navajo land, admission is free. However, unsupervised access is restricted to the rim overlooks and to a single trail into the canyon, leading to the White House Ruins
, as for all other trips down or along the canyon, a Navajo escort is required. The ruins date from about 1200 and are some of the oldest in the canyon. The trailhead is located seven miles along the South Rim Drive; the one mile trail is rocky and steep in places but well-maintained and not too difficult - it takes between 25 and 50 minutes to get down, depending on your fitness. There are a couple of short tunnels en route, and plenty of cacti and lizards, as the track descends slickrock slopes to the canyon floor, then passes a farm and an orchard before crossing the stream and arriving at the ruins. Near the stream, just before the second tunnel, the path takes an interesting short-cut down a narrow gully, using old foot-holes carved in the sandstone walls.
Once at the White House, rest rooms and Indian jewelry sellers detract a little from the experience but the delicate well-preserved buildings beneath the sheer, desert varnish-streaked, 500 foot cliff are well worth the trip. Despite the pleasures of walking, many visitors prefer to take the Navajo jeep tours, which visit various other locations along the canyon last for all or half of a day, and cost in the range $70 to $100.
The national monument has a well-stocked visitor center, near which is an excellent campsite (Cottonwood Campground
) with basic facilities - though no showers - and plenty of sites, nestled beneath large cottonwood trees. For many years there was no charge to stay here, but fees have been collected since April 2012. Like Chinle itself, the site is visited by quite a few stray dogs, but they tend to be friendly and well-behaved. Another option is Spider Rock Campground
, a privately-managed operation along the South Rim Drive but just outside the monument boundaries.