Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Arizona > Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Beyond the Painted Desert, much of the far northeast of Arizona is barren and not particularly scenic, as the land forms wide, empty valleys interspersed by low, scrub-covered mesas. Three of these, named the First, Second and Third, lie at the center of Hopi Indian territory but most of the northeast is Navajo land, including Chinle which is the largest town in the area and the gateway to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. This comparatively little-known canyon is not as immediately spectacular as others in Arizona or Utah but it does have sheer sandstone walls rising up to 1,000 feet, several scenic overlooks and many well-preserved Anasazi ruins, and the area provides a fascinating insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor.

The Navajo

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.

Scenic Drives

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.
Highlights: Deep sandstone canyon on Navajo land, containing many ancient cliff dwellings; overlooks, a scenic drive and one trail, with other sites open via guided tours
Nearest city with hotels: Chinle, 2 miles
Management: NPS, Navajo Reservation
Location: 36.153, -109.537
Seasons: Open all year; occasional snow in winter, hot in summer

Canyon de Chelly - Locations

Ten viewpoints along the rim drives, beside the road or along short trails. Seven on the South Rim, three on the North Rim
  • Map of Canyon de Chelly
  • Canyon de Chelly - Photographs

  • 26 views of Canyon de Chelly National Monument
  • photograph
    White House Ruins
    Dog Rock

    Sliding House Overlook
    Face Rock

    Antelope House Ruin
    Campground at Chinle
    Nearby places Similar places

    Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (37 miles from Chinle) - homestead and store dating from the late 19th century

    Monument Valley (104 miles from Chinle) - famous red buttes and mesas

    Petrified Forest National Park (99 miles from Chinle) - brilliantly colored fossilised logs, plus fine desert scenery
    Nearby places Similar places

    Colorado National Monument, Colorado - dramatic sandstone canyon of comparable dimensions

    Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona - cliff dwellings in a wooded canyon east of Flagstaff
    Canyon de Chelly is part of the Indian Lands itinerary


    Canyon de Chelly Hotels

    There are two chain hotels in Chinle.

    Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly (Chinle) - For those not camping, the nearest hotel in town is the Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly, at Garcia Trading Post, less than one mile west of the national monument along Indian Route 7. The 108 room hotel shares a complex with several restaurants and is within walking distance of all the limited facilities in Chinle. Interiors are bright and modern, the staff helpful, and the hotel has all the expected amenities, including an outdoor heated pool, exercise room, gift shop, and dining/room service from the adjacent Garcia's Restaurant.

    Check rates at the Holiday Inn Canyon De Chelly

    Holiday Inn Canyon De Chelly (Chinle)
    Holiday Inn Canyon De Chelly (Chinle)

    Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn - The Best Western hotel in Chinle is a mile or so further west, at 100 Main Street, 1 block from US 191. The hotel and its rooms have a distinctive Southwestern style, and the Native American culture of the region is reflected in both the decor and cuisine of the in house Junction Restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch & dinner. The hotel offers clean, spacious lodging in the care of friendly staff; it was partially renovated in 2007, and also features an indoor pool, hot tub, steam room, guest laundry, and a gift shop selling a wide selection of locally-made jewelry.

    Check rates at Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn

    Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn
    Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn

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