Our Visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
Canyon with a Flat Bottom
Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Northeast Arizona is different than most other canyons. It has steep walls, but a wide, relatively flat bottom with fertile soil. It is located on the land of the Navajo Nation.
The canyon’s mouth near Chinle is only 30 feet deep, but that changes to over 1000 feet further into the canyon.
Three Main Canyons in One
The canyon splits into a major northern branch called Canyon del Muerto, a small middle branch called Black Rock Canyon, and a major southern branch called Canyon de Chelly. A major branch that splits off of Canyon de Chelly is named Monument Canyon.
While these canyons are not especially deep, they are very picturesque. The wide green at the bottom of the canyon sits in contrast with the red rocks of the walls of the canyon, which is unusual. Some canyons in national parks have green at the bottom, but most are narrow, especially in proportion to the height.
People have lived in the canyon for 5000 years. There are lots of archeological remains and ruins in the canyon, including cliff dwellings and other sites of the Puebloans. The National Monument was established in 1931 to preserve these historical ruins.
Some of the more recent history in the 1800s were tragic, when the natives were forced from the land and forced on the long walk to New Mexico. Many died before and during the journey. In 1805, there was a massacre of 150 natives who were trapped on a ledge (Massacre Cave) and shot by Spanish soldiers.
Canyon de Chelly is on the land of the Navajo Reservation. Through a cooperation agreement, it is administered by the National Park Service. There are 40 families that live within the national monument boundary today.
There are two scenic drives in the park, the 34 mile (round trip) North Rim Drive, and the 37 mile (round trip) South Rim Drive. There are multiple stops along the drive for views of the canyon and various significant historical sites.
The North Rim drive has more views of significant historical sites, including the Antelope House and the Massacre Cave where the 150 Navajos were killed. Mummy Cave, the largest cliff dwelling, has close to 70 rooms and dates back 1000 years.
The South Rim drive has 7 stops and better scenery, though views from both rims are stunning. The best view in the park is at Spider Rock at the end of the South Rim drive. It soars 800 feet straight up from the canyon floor.
The best lighting against the red rocks, tour the North Rim drive in the morning and the South Rim drive in the afternoon, when the sun shines directly on the canyon walls, which brings out the bright red color.
Getting into the Canyon
The 2.5 mile (round trip) White House trail is the only way to get to the bottom of the canyon without a guide. The trails goes to an ancient, 1000 year old ruin from the trailhead on the South Rim drive. This trail, however, is closed as of fall of 2022 with no projected reopen date.
The other way to get into the canyon is with a certified Navajo guide. You can do this on horseback, by foot, or on ATVs. The cost depends on length and activity. A list of tour operators is here.
Thought for Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
The grandeur of nature sometimes hides the tragedy of human conflict, like the grandeur of Canyon de Chelly hid the history of the Navajos in the area during the 1800s.
Impressions of Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
Canyon de Chelly is a hidden gem in Northeastern Arizona, a state blessed with nature’s beauty. This park is often overlooked as tourists flock to her more famous cousins such as the Grand Canyon. This park is easy to tour from the rim, accessible via a tour from the canyon floor, human scaled, rich in history with cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. It’s a great way to spend a day away from the crowd.
Have you visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument? Leave a comment below on your experience.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Guide to Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
Top Attractions at Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
- South Rim Drive, especially Spider Rock overlook.
- White House trail, when open.
- North Rim Drive, especially Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave overlooks.
- Guide tour into the canyon floor.
One Day Visit Plan:
- Drive the North Rim Drive. Stop at Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave overlooks. If time allows, stop at Antelope House overlook. Finish before 11 am.
- Then take a half day tour into the canyon from a Navajo guide. Pack a lunch.
- Then drive the South Rim Drive to Spider Rock and stop by a couple of overlooks on the way back.
Practical Info for Visiting Canyon de Chelly National Monument:
- Reserve Navajo tour ahead of time. A list of tour operators is here
- For the best and most colorful lighting of the canyon, tour the North Rim in the morning and the South Rim in the afternoon.
- The town of Chinle has restaurants, gas stations, hotels and campgrounds.
- The park is on Navajo Nation land, which follows different daylight savings time hours than the state of Arizona. Double check the time when visiting during daylight savings time.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument Facts:
- Size: 83,840 acres.
- Visitors: 354,972 in 2022.
- Peak Month in 2022: 41,807 visitors in August.
- Low Month in 2022: 14,409 visitors in January.
- No entrance Fee, but a tour into the canyon has a fee.
Date Visited: 10/23/2022