Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ
By Ron Goulet and George Joe
Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, Arizona, and the center of the Navajo Nation, was established in 1931 and is one of the most-visited national monuments in the U.S. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de shay) is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation. It is the only National Park Service unit that is owned and cooperatively managed in this manner.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument covers 83,840 acres and encompasses the floors and rims of the three major canyons: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. These canyons were cut by streams, with headwaters in the Chuska Mountains just east of the monument. Views from the canyon rim are stunning due to the carving of rocks and canyon walls over millions of years.
For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons. The canyons once served as homes for ancient Puebloans, who settled in the region but left for more fertile farmlands by the mid-1300s. In the place called Tseyi, their homes that remain and their images tell us their stories. Today, approximately 40 Navajo families make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in these canyons.
Descendants of the Puebloans, the Hopi migrated into the canyons to plant fields of corn and orchards of peaches. Although the Hopi left this area to permanently settle on the mesa tops to the west, the Hopi still hold on to many of their traditions that are evident from their homes and kivas.
Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to raise families and plant crops just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims.
Reflecting one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America, Canyon de Chelly National Monument was authorized in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover in large measure to preserve the important archeological resources of human occupation.
The monument encompasses approximately 84,000 acres of lands located entirely on the Navajo Nation with about 40 families residing within the park boundaries.
The park’s distinctive geologic feature, Spider Rock, is a sandstone spire that rises 750 feet from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. Spider Rock can be seen from South Rim Drive. According to traditional Navajo beliefs the taller of the two spires is the home of Spider Woman. She chose the top of Spider Rock for her home. It was Spider Woman who taught Navajo ancestors of long ago the art of weaving upon a loom.
Pick up a park map at the Visitor Center that features a park store, orientation video and activity schedule. Visitor Center and parking lot gates open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Free. Drive the two paved rim drives to the overlooks that provide excellent views of the canyon below. Allow 2 hours to visit 3 overlooks on the North Rim Drive; best for morning photos. Allow 2 hours to visit 7 overlooks on the South Rim Drive; best for afternoon photos. Overlooks open year round.
At each of the overlooks you will find Navajos selling their artwork. Their prices are quite reasonable.
Hike to the Spider Rock overlook on a gentle trail. This distinctive sandstone spire rises 750 feet from the canyon floor, an important feature in Navajo culture.
Access to the canyon floor is restricted, and visitors are allowed to travel in the canyons only when accompanied by a park ranger or an authorized Navajo guide. The only exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail.
Hike the one public trail into Canyon de Chelly starting at the White House Overlook on the South Rim. Allow two hours to hike 600 feet down and back up the switchback trail to the White House Ruin. Restrooms at overlook and bottom of trail. No pets allowed on trail. The hike back up from the bottom of the canyon is arduous! Take plenty of drinking water to avoid dangerous dehydration. Temperatures in the summer can be very hot.
There are also other hiking opportunities that are not on the map, which only a local would know about.
Free. Enjoy a Ranger Program including hikes and talks from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Check at the Visitor Center for current activity schedule.
- Some trailheads are off road and require high clearance vehicles; NPS staff cannot transport hikers.
- Hikers are required to stay together during hike with Park Ranger.
- Hikes are moderately strenuous to strenuous.
- Hikes can involve some climbing; hiking down/up uneven slick rock; and through sand, mud and water.
- Be prepared and dress in layers, wear comfortable shoes (no flip flops), bring a hat, and carry a pack with water, snacks, first aid kit, and insect repellent.
- Weather can be unpredictable; prepare for heat, dust storms, rain and snow.
For the safety of visitors, the protection of park resources, and the privacy of canyon residents, travel into the backcountry of the park is permitted only with a backcountry permit and an authorized guide. Out of respect for the canyon residents’ privacy and property, recreational vehicles such as off-road utility vehicles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and dirt bikes are not permitted in the park.
Canyon tours are generally available all year round; however, the Superintendent may close or restrict visitor access into the canyon due to hazardous conditions or for the protection of resources. Inquire at Visitor Center for updates on canyon closures.
No at-large camping permitted; camping is permitted in designated campgrounds only.
Canyon de Chelly holds many important clues to the past that need to be protected and preserved for future generations. Help protect yourself and your park by following these rules:
- Do not enter, alter or deface archeological sites.
- Do not enter private property without landowner’s permission.
- Do not write, draw or carve on rock walls. Defacing the canyon walls is prohibited.
- Do not hunt, feed or disturb wild or domestic animals. Animals may charge or bite.
- Do not touch, collect or remove natural features. Leave rocks, plants, animals, artifacts or rock art undisturbed.
- Do not sit, lean, walk or climb on boulders or on walls. Rocks or walls may collapse or cause damage.
- Do not wander away from your group, especially in the backcountry. Guides must remain with group at all times.
- Do not take photographs from the rims or in the canyon of Navajo people, their homes or animals without permission.
- Leave no trace of your visit. Carry out and dispose of trash properly.
- Pets are not allowed on hiking trails or on canyon tours. Pets must be leashed at all times in the parking lots or campground. Owners are to pick up after pets.
Penalties for violations under Section 6 of the Archeological Resources Protection Act include up to $250,000 in fines and/or up to 5 years imprisonment.
Fees required. Contact a private company for a tour in the canyon by hiking, horseback or vehicle. Tours require a backcountry permit and hiring an authorized guide. No pets allowed on tours.
To capture the detail of the rock walls and canyon floor, minimize the bright sky when composing your photographs. The sky is much brighter than the canyon. Too much bright sky and automatic exposure cameras will render the canyon details too dark. Dramatic images can be captured when monsoon season (July and August) thunderstorms loom large on the horizon or as soon as they pass, however, stay safe from lightening! When there is lightening in the area get to a low spot – do not remain standing out on the rocks at the edge of the canyon. You are also safe inside a vehicle. As with many locations in the Southwest, the most dramatic images are captured early or late in the day or at sunrise and sunset.
Why is Canyon DeChelly pronounced “day shay”?
The belief is that it is a corruption of the Navajo word for the canyon “Tseyi” (pronounced say-ee) which is translated in English as “rock area.” The Spanish added “Canyon De” in front of the Tseyi spelling, which then ended up as “Chelly” pronouncing it as “shay ee”, with two “L’s” sounding like a “y”. The spelling was never corrected in English.
Getting to Canyon de Chelly Canyon National Monument: The recommended route to the national monument is from Highway 191 in Chinle then turning east on Route 7. The park entrance and Visitor Center is less than 3 miles from Highway 191.
Canyon de Chelly Hours:
The Visitor Center is open 8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily, but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Pick up a brochure, browse the park store and watch an orientation video. Visitor Center telephone: (928) 674-5500.
Weather: While you may see water running at the bottom of Canyon de Chelly, with lush vegetation, the climate in general is arid (very dry). Summer average high temperatures in June, July and August are around the 90 degree mark on the canyon rim. Descending into the canyon is another thing altogether. Prepare for increased temperatures, protect yourself from the sun, wear a hat and use sunscreen. Carry plenty of water. While it may seem easy hiking downhill to White House Ruin, climbing back up the trail is strenuous. Take breaks and drink plenty of water!
During July and August the majestic cumulous clouds on the horizon can turn to thunderstorms with heavy rain. These are the wet months of the year on the Navajo Nation and in the surrounding region. Thunderstorms often dissipate by sunset.
Spring and Autumn daytime temperatures are more moderate, with overnight lows going down as low as the mid-30s.
Winter daytime high temperatures are generally in the 40s, with overnight lows averaging 20 degrees. There is snow from time to time at Canyon de Chelly but accumulation is slight, averaging no more than 2 inches of snowfall in any given month.
Do be prepared for abrupt changes in the weather during any season of the year, and dress in layers so you can adjust to the changing temperatures during the day.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument Weather Forecast
Spider Rock Campground is privately operated, 12 miles on the South Rim Drive.
Nightly fee. No hookups. Hogans available. Dumpstation and water available for guests. Contact (928) 781-2016 or P.O. Box 2509, Chinle, AZ 86503
Motels in Chinle include Best Western and Holiday Inn. Contact motels directly for prices and availability. Reservations are recommended from March through October.
Best Western – (928) 674-5875 or 1-800-WESTERN; P.O. Box 295, Chinle, AZ 86503; www.canyondechelly.com; Gift shop, restaurant, indoor pool, and internet access
Holiday Inn – (928) 674-5000 or 1-800-HOLIDAY; P.O. Box 1889, Chinle, AZ 86503; www.holiday-inn.com; Gift shop, restaurant, outdoor pool and internet access.