Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Mummy Cave Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

Mummy Cave Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, AZ

After a couple of days at the breathtakingly large Grand Canyon, we were ready for something smaller and more intimate. If visiting the Grand is like going to a huge metropolis (complete with teeming sidewalks), Canyon de Chelly (“Canyon d’SHAY”) feels more like a quaint town. It is so cozy that you can explore the entire area in a single active day.

You access the bulk of Canyon de Chelly via two scenic drives along the North and South rims. You can visit all ten overlooks in about four hours. Budget more time if you want to while away an afternoon basking in the beautiful canyon scenery.

We were immediately struck by the greenery of Canyon de Chelly. Ribbons of lush trees decorate the canyon floor, in stark contrast to the dryness we found both at the Grand Canyon and in the nearby Petrified Forest. It’s no wonder that generations of Navajo have farmed these fertile grounds.

Canyon de Chelly, AZ

But the real treat here are the ancient Anasazi structures still standing throughout the park. The most impressive are those of Mummy Cave, named for the two mummified bodies found there by an archeological expedition in 1882.

The ruins tucked inside Mummy’s two adjacent caves are the oldest uncovered in the park. Some are believed to have been built around 300 A.D. The magnificent pueblo that bridges the two caves was probably the last structure built in the complex around the 1300s.

Mummy Cave Ruins

Canyon de Chelly is a unique National Monument in that it is entirely comprised of Navajo Nation land. The National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the park’s resources, but because many Navajo still reside in the canyon, visitor access is limited.

The two scenic drives are open to the public and free, but backcountry hiking or driving in the Canyon requires an authorized guide and permit. Visitors can purchase tours and schedule ranger led hikes at the visitor center. We chose to avail ourselves of the one and only self-guided hike at the park instead.

Canyon de Chelly White House Trail

White House Trail, Canyon de Chelly

The trail to White House Ruins descends 600 feet to the canyon floor on a steep, rocky path, through a series of switchbacks. We passed through tunnels and along interesting canyon geology on our way down.

The highlight, of course, is an up close look at White House Ruins, a dwelling that had once been occupied for a millennium. We understand that visitors used to be able to walk inside the ruins. After years of tourist souvenir collecting, the park erected a fence to prevent people from getting too “up close.”

White House Ruins Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

The round-trip hike took us about two hours. We set out early in the morning and are glad we did. Not only did we avoid hiking in mid-day heat, we also missed the jewelry sellers and touts whose folded up tables were as quiet as the ancient relics.

Canyon de Chelly is located in Northeastern Arizona, outside the town of Chinle. Primitive (no hook-up) camping is available inside the park. Other accommodations are available in town.

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65 Comments on “Canyon de Chelly National Monument”

  1. customtripplanning July 11, 2012 at 9:14 am #

    This is one area I never have been to but has been on my list for a while.

    • Brian July 11, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

      It’s pretty convienient to Petrified Forest and also to Monument Valley in UT. Not a bad road trip to hit all three places.

      • Grace July 12, 2012 at 8:55 am #

        That’s exactly what we did when we were there. Great post!

  2. Animalcouriers July 11, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    Trying to get our heads round the size of these ruins. They look like scale models but starting to realise quite how enormous the rock face is. Wow! Beautiful photographs.

    • Brian July 11, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

      It’s true that they look like little toys. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything in any of the frames to give perspective. For the most part, these things are off limits to tourists so you don’t even see people in the shots to get a sense of size. But people really did live in these structures, at one point. So that gives you some indication how big those cliffs are. Wow, indeed.

  3. Bespoke Traveler July 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Been wanting to visit the Canyon de Chelly since I first saw them in Edgar Payne’s paintings. Thanks for sharing. This place is climbing the charts on my travel list. Cheers.

  4. Jenni July 11, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    My husband and I visited both the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly last autumn. We got to the Spider Rock overlook just before dusk, and it was magical. I loved the vastness of the Grand Canyon, but loved Canyon de Chelly even more for its intense history and the rural feel to the place. We got up early one morning and drove to one of the overlooks on the north rim. As we stood there, watching the sun gradually peer into the canyon, a cow started mooing. Right away, three or four other cows in other parts of the valley answered. The sound echoed throughout the canyon. It was humorous, but also gave a sense of the mystery of the place with those rock walls bouncing the sounds up and down the canyon. I loved it. Would happily go back. :)

    • Brian July 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

      Wow. Nice story. Thanks for sharing.

  5. penta July 12, 2012 at 4:51 am #


  6. APOML July 12, 2012 at 7:36 am #


  7. marialla July 12, 2012 at 8:33 am #


  8. yourbrainonbooks July 12, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    My family and I went on a vacation out West when I was younger – Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Canyon de Chelly was my favorite place that we visited!

    • Brian July 12, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      Tons of great stuff in those states, and throughout the U.S. We’re glad to have the opportunity to get out and explore so much of it.

  9. earthriderjudyberman July 12, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    The scale and beauty of that site is just impressive. Thank you for sharing, Brian.

  10. Carlie Chew July 12, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    Amazing! I have been dying to go there for years. Your pictures were gorgeous!

    • Brian July 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      Thanks for the complement and for stopping by our blog.

  11. Mikalee Byerman July 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Breathtaking — I’ve never heard of this place! Of course, I’ve also never been to the Grand Canyon…which is inexcusable, considering I have kids and live on the West Coast. I need to plan a trip…

    • Brian July 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

      Don’t just plan a trip, take one . . . or maybe several. Trust us, they’re good for the soul. ;-)

      • Mikalee Byerman July 12, 2012 at 12:26 pm #

        Good point — and critical distinction.

        You’re right. I’m taking a trip. Soon!

  12. fireandair July 12, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

    I would trade ten years off my life to go back in time and watch those people BUILD that town.

  13. hnMom July 12, 2012 at 1:02 pm #

    Beautiful images. Canyon de Chelly NM is one of my favorite destinations in the Southwest. Isn’t it just amazing there!

  14. Constance V. Walden July 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm #

    Fantastic scenery. Thanks for sharing. Connie

  15. reluctantmediumatlarge July 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    As a “professional” wanderer for many years, I like your blog very much. Feet, don’t give out on me now!

  16. carolblonder July 12, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    My favorite place in Arizona-great capture of the scale.

  17. allcancerfightingfoods July 12, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Impressive! Pity Americans had to kill them all off to make parking lots :)

  18. Michelle July 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I love Canyon de Chelly…we hiked down one January day, crossed the frozen creek and to the base of the White House. Same trip we hit Chaco Canyon, Arches, and Shiprock.

    Beautiful pics.

  19. theteenagejournal July 12, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

    Breathtaking pictures. Never quit doing what you love to do, you’re truly inspiring!

  20. Kathleen Neal July 12, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    Beautiful! I have vague memories of visiting as a kid, and I’m pretty sure we were able to go into the buildings then, although I may have conflated it with other canyons in my mind (it would have been c. 1982-3). Thanks for reminding me. :-)

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

      Yes, I think you probably could tour the ruins back then. But there are several similar cliff dwellings throughout the Southwest so it’s also possible you remember someplace else . . . memory is funny that way. In either case, these are pretty special places.

  21. antarabesque July 12, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Very impressive, the colours are so amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Grumpa Joe July 12, 2012 at 9:22 pm #

    I’ve never been there and will probably never make it. Your pictures are my only view into the canyon. I have a watercolor painting of the Pueblo between the caves hanging behind me on my office wall.
    Your photos are outstanding.

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      Thank you. And we’re delighted to offer you some armchair travel.

  23. broadsideblog July 12, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    I visited the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly in June 1994, and will never forget it. The Canyon de Chelly is such an intimate experience and mysterious. I loved it. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed — and for introducing people to it.

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:20 pm #

      Yeah, we really liked the more “intimate” size of CdC. Especially after coming from the Grand Canyon.

  24. Joe Labriola July 13, 2012 at 12:45 am #

    Wow. Reminds me of Mesa Verde. Amazing engineers.

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

      It’s quite similar, although Mesa Verde is far larger. We’ll have some stuff to say about that National Park soon too, so stay tuned.

  25. Susan Alexander July 13, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    What I will never forget about Canyon to Chelly is the silence. No car sounds, no birds, no machine or people noises. Absolute silence.

  26. amelie88 July 13, 2012 at 2:37 am #

    Ah the American Southwest! Another place I would like to visit eventually. :) Thanks for sharing!

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:17 pm #

      It is really lovely country out here. So jump on in, the water’s fine.

  27. Juraj July 13, 2012 at 8:04 am #

    Really Great Shots!!

  28. leemajors July 13, 2012 at 10:26 am #

    great ! Looking forward to visiting that in August all the way from the Philippines. I might only visit it once, but I’ll definitely visit your site often. Congratulations on making it on freshly pressed, twice !

    • Brian July 13, 2012 at 12:16 pm #

      That’s a nice trip from the Phillipines. We hope to get your way soon, but don’t know exactly when.

      • leemajors July 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

        I’ll be glad to know when that will be, I assure you it will be worth it :-)

  29. Lydia July 13, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Beautiful area. Went there many years ago but would love to take another trip. Love the photographs.

  30. juliacastorp July 14, 2012 at 2:22 am #

    so nice..

  31. GP July 14, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    Excellent Pics..Nice

  32. backpackerina July 15, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    This is breathtakingly beautiful! I’m visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time in about a month, I’m hoping to have a look around and take some similarly beautiful pictures too. Thanks for sharing!

  33. Jack July 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Such a beautiful place. enjoy!

  34. stumblingsommelier August 1, 2012 at 2:23 am #

    I live relatively close and would say this is indeed a magical place. Love your blog and aspire to have as many adventures before the big door closes on me. cheers!

  35. mariannegv August 1, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Wow! The canyon looks amazing! You have great pictures in this post.
    Thanks for the like on my post “Renaissance Stained Glass”
    Kind greetings,

  36. RDoug August 3, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    Looks as though you and I have captured many of the same shots from many of the same vantage points for Canyon de Chelly.

    We must have really good photographic tastes. ;o)

    • Brian August 6, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

      Obviously true. LOL.

  37. mflahertyphoto August 7, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    Great news travelers are coming here, and thanks for reminding me how great this place is. Also check out Mesa Verde, which was the center of the Anasazi Universe. While Canyon de Chelly does get a steady trickle it is WAY behind the famous SW parks. I even took awhile to get here, and I consider myself a “Western guy”. If anybody wants to do a Navajo-led tour, and is okay on a horse, I would highly recommend taking a Navajo-led horse-camping tour in the canyon. We did two nights, which is perfect to explore most of the canyons (there are really two). You are in the company of Navajo guides and you check out places no other tour goes to. We actually chased and tried to catch a wild young stallion on horseback (he escaped at the last minute with a tremendous leap). The Navajos do catch wild horses in the upper canyon, then within a day they have them broke to ride. They’re amazing horsemen. Sorry so long.

  38. denisediscovers August 11, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    Thank you for the beautiful photos! I’ve read a lot of Tony Hillerman books, many of which refer to Canyon de Chelly. Now I can picture in my mind what it looks like when the characters in these books go into this area.

    • Brian August 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm #

      Haven’t read any of his stuff, but maybe it’s time I fix that. Thanks for the reference.

      • denisediscovers August 13, 2012 at 2:43 am #

        It definitely is time you fixed that! Really good page-turning detective stories with Navajo police officers.

  39. stretchingintoinfinity August 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

    Incredible photos! Thanks for sharing.

  40. Penny August 12, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    How “in shape” does one need to be for this hike? Steep to me reads, very good shape!

    • Brian August 12, 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      It’s a 600 foot climb over maybe a half mile of trail. So it’s pretty steep, but also fairly short. It’s a trail I think most folks could tackle, it will just take some longer than others.

      • Penny August 12, 2012 at 5:30 pm #

        Ok. I think I can do it. :)

  41. Rachel Denning December 5, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    Too bad! We missed this one when we drove through AZ last year on our way to Mexico. Looks awesome. Arizona is a great state.

  42. Mike January 18, 2013 at 7:52 am #

    Wow, I had never heard of this place. It seems similar to Mesa Verde yet different, special. Great photos. I have to see this with my own eyes.

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