Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Set within the Navajo Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona is the spectacular Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "de SHAY") National Monument. This network of canyons combines dramatic scenery, ancient Native American archeological sites and working Navajo farms.

The National Monument is actually a series of canyons that converge near the town of Chinle, Arizona. The largest of these canyons – and the one from which the park takes its name – is Canyon de Chelly. To the north is Canyon del Muerto ("Canyon of Death"), which is joined by the smaller Black Rock Canyon. To the south, Monument Canyon joins Canyon de Chelly at the spectacular 800 foot (240 meter) spire known as Spider Rock.

Rim drives along the northern edge of Canyon del Muerto and the southern edge of Canyon de Chelly offer many scenic overlooks where visitors can enjoy grand vistas looking down into the canyons. At many of these stops – especially along the North Rim Drive – visitors can also see ruins and artwork that date back hundreds, if not thousands of years.

While it is easy to enjoy Canyon de Chelly NM from above, entry into the canyons themselves is strictly regulated – but it is well worth the effort. There are several options for entering the canyon: joining up with a group in a vehicle operated by the Park Service; hiring a Navajo guide and taking a private (perhaps your own) 4WD vehicle; and obtaining hiking permits from the National Park Service visitor center. If you are driving, the local guide is absolutely essential, not just as a matter of protocol, but because much of the driving in the canyon is done in the river. Only an experienced guide knows where the river is shallow enough to allow passage without flooding the vehicle. (On one trip I saw a Land Rover get stranded in the river even with a guide.) A trip into the canyon also allows close-up views of the ancient White House Ruin cliff dwellings and the petroglyphs and ancient paintings scattered throughout the canyons. Finally, visitors are permitted to hike unattended on the White House Trail, which leads from the South Rim Drive to White House Ruin.

Another advantage of entering the park is an opportunity to see the traditional Navajo farms that have worked the canyon floor since the 1700s. The Navajo (or Diné as they call themselves) are the latest of a series of Native American cultures to inhabit what is now Canyon de Chelly NM. Indeed, archeological evidence reveals that people have lived in these canyons for at least 5,000 years – the longest continuous habitation on the Colorado Plateau. Farming in the canyons was introduced some 2,500 years ago by a group now known as Basketmaker. They were followed about 1,250 years ago by the ancient Puebloans, ancestors of the present-day Pueblo and Hopi cultures. (The ancient Puebloans are sometimes referred to as the Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning "ancient ones" or "enemy ancestors".) Many of the multi-story structures that can still be seen in the canyons date from the Puebloan period. For reasons that experts are still debating, the Puebloan culture came to an abrupt end about 700 years ago throughout the southwest, including the Canyon de Chelly area. Around 1300 and for the next 400 years, the canyons were occupied and farmed by the Hopi, a group that still survives in northeast Arizona.

Sometime in the late 1600s or early 1700s the Navajo began moving into the area and gradually took it over. The Navajo, however, did not enjoy complete peace in the canyons. By the late 1700s warfare erupted between the Navajo, other Native Americans and Spanish settlers. Canyon de Chelly became something of a fortress as the Navajo built stone walls, stockpiled food and water, and occupied defensive shelters high in the cliff walls. While the Navajo were able to survive these initial onslaughts, once the region passed to the United States, Colonel Kit Carson was ordered to clear the Navajo out of Canyon de Chelly. During the winter of 1864, Carson and his well-armed troops started at the eastern ends of the canyon complex and methodically drove the Navajo toward the western end, destroying farms and homes along the way. Those not killed in the process were rounded up and forced to walk more than 300 miles under brutal conditions to Fort Sumner, New Mexico – an atrocity that is remembered in Navajo tradition as the Long Walk. The captives were held in Fort Sumner under appalling conditions for four years, before being released and allowed to return home. Hundreds of Navajo died during the forced march and subsequent incarceration.

Today, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is operated as a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. While the land still belongs to the Navajo – and sovereign Navajo law and law enforcement govern the area – the National Park Service maintains most of the visitor-related infrastructure. I have visited the park on three separate occasions and the photos in the slide show above date from March 1995, April 2007 and August 2007. It is particularly interesting to notice the difference between the March photos, when the drab colors of winter predominated, with those taken in April and August, when the vegetation was decidedly greener and more lush (at least by desert southwest standards).

And how did Canyon de Chelly get its name? The Navajo call the area Tsegi (SAY-ih), which means "canyon" (or literally "inside the rock"). The Spanish, the first of European descent to enter the region, heard the Navajo word as "de Chelly" (CHAY-yi, with a "Ch" as in "church" and the double "L" being the traditional "Y" sound in Spanish). Thus, though somewhat different, it was still recognizably close to the Navajo original. Then, for reasons lost in the mists of time, the Spanish pronunciation gave way to a "Frenchified" version – "de SHAY" (even though there is no indication that the French had any influence in the matter). But, no matter how you say it, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is well worth a visit.

For other magnificent scenery in the state of Arizona, check out: Grand Canyon and Other Spectacular Sights in Arizona. For photos and information about Native American cultures, past and present, go to: Native Americans, Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde.

For more information about U.S. National Parks in general, visit the web site of the National Park Service.