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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.