Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly: An Unforgettable Trip to the Land of the Diné

One of the first trips through Arizona, over two decades ago, took us to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, one of the most spectacular National Park sites in the state. In the middle of the Navajo Indian Reservation, this place is one of the most impressive works of art of the Colorado River.

The Diné, or Navajos, as we call them, who live there, named it Tseyi, meaning “inside the rock”. It is not as deep as the Grand Canyon, and not even half as wide, but still spectacular.

Camping in the High Desert

As we set up camp, and activity that was becoming second nature to us, we thanked our lucky stars and our sense of adventure we could find a campground so close to the canyon. Shaded by large cottonwood trees, in a quiet place, it seemed like paradise to us. Especially after the previous night, when we camped in Monument Valley and thought the intense wind would whisk us away to the land of Oz.

The weather was perfect at Tseyi Canyon when we arrived, warm without being hot, with sunshine and no wind. After setting up our tent under the trees, we relaxed and pondered one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever created by the Colorado River.

Later on, we left the tent and went into Chinle, the closest town, to get supplies for our dinner. That’s when we encountered our first dust storm.

My First Dust Storm

We thought we would escape the winds! No such luck. Suddenly, the wind got so strong, gathering so much dust, that we had to stop the car in the middle of the road. The street in front of us disappeared in the dust.

We saw tumbleweeds rolling across the road, and the dust was blowing everywhere. I’ve experienced nothing like it before and enjoyed the spectacle from the safety of our car. I’ve only seen anything similar in movies before, and it all seemed surreal.

A few minutes later, the storm was over, as fast as it started.

The sun came out, and it seemed we imagined it all. However, when we got back to the campsite, we knew it had been real. Not one tent was standing in the whole campground. They all rolled away in a corner of the site.

It took a while to find ours, untangle it from the others and set it up again. We had fun though. It was our first adventure in Dinétah (Navajoland).

Campfire Show – Ranger Talk

By sundown, there was no sign of the earlier wind. So we attended the ranger talk at the campground’s amphitheater. All National Parks have ranger talks, and Canyon de Chelly is no exception. But while in most parks the Rangers only talked, illustrating their stories with slide shows, the Navajo Rangers put on a show for us.

Ceremonial Fire

The Ranger talk started with lighting a ceremonial fire, that would burn until the show was over. William, our ranger, explained this to us, and talked about the history of the place, while a younger member or their community was rubbing two pieces of wood together until they smoked, to light the fire the old-fashioned way. He took a long time, while his companion teased him, but he succeeded and the show could begin.

After the ceremonial fire was lit, two pairs of dancers entertained us by showing Diné traditional and social dances, while the ranger was singing for them. They apologized for not showing us all the dances used in their rituals. Those are secret, they said, no one except people of their own nation can see them. Instead, Wiliam talked to us about their hogans, where they hold those sacred dances.

Hogans

Hogans are the traditional homes and ceremonial centers for the Navajos. These days, though, since most of the people live in modern houses, they use them for ceremonies only.

We have seen plenty in the surrounding villages since there is one in every backyard. They are round buildings, with no windows, only one opening on the East side and on top. The entrance is always in the East, the kitchen with the fire is in the middle, so the opening on top serves as a chimney.

You always have to walk through the hogan counterclockwise. Traditional Diné families celebrate the Sun and Earth through ceremonies held there.

The Creation Myth

In compensation for not being able to see their ceremonies, we learned about the myth of creation according to the Diné people. They believe that all living creatures, including us, humans, are the children of our mother Earth, and our father, the Sun.

While listening to the ranger talk, I learned about the history and way of life of the Diné nation and their myths and traditions.

Who Built the Cliff Dwellings?

William talked about the cliff dwellings in the walls of Canyon de Chelly. Their ancestors didn’t build them, he said. The People (Diné) migrated from Canada, only a few hundred years ago. When they arrived here, they found the place abandoned, though noticed signs of earlier occupancy. They liked the area, so they settled here, preserving the ancient dwellings and petroglyphs the way they had found them.

Since they knew nothing about them, they called the people who lived here before them, the Anasazi, the “Ancient Ones”.

The Anasazi inhabited the area some thousands of years ago. They built their homes on the canyon’s walls, harvested their corn, bred their sheep and goats near the water, the same way the Diné do it today. Then they disappeared, at least that’s what historians thought for years. In fact, they migrated. They are the ancestors of other tribes in the Southwest, the Hopi and Zuni among others.

Respect for Mothers

We also learned that Navajos are a matriarchal society. They have the highest respect for their women, the mothers of the families. In traditional families, when a young Diné marries, the groom moves into the bride’s family. Most of the time he lives with them, too.

Rain

It rained during the ranger talk, which gave William the opportunity to tell us about the way his people think about rain. We experienced the nice, quiet, steady female rain. The stormy rain, accompanied by thunder and lightning would have been the male rain.

A Dance of Friendship

While he was talking, we were watching traditional dances and listening to songs that were imitating the sound of the wind. The only light around us was the one from the fire lit in the beginning, left burning until the end of the show.

Before putting out the light and warm giving fire, William and his companions invited us, the spectators, to a dance of friendship.

We all shared their traditional dance through which they celebrated harmony in nature. It was a pleasure to dance with these people, Diné, French, Spanish, German and American, together, no matter where we came from, no matter what language we spoke.

For a few minutes, we were all like one, celebrating life and nature with our hosts.

Hiking into Canyon de Chelly with A Diné Guide

The next morning we hired a local guide for a hike inside the Canyon. You can only explore one trail without a guide, the one to the White House Ruins, one of the best ancient ruins of Arizona, and we have done it the previous day.

Canyon de Chelly. White House Ruins
White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly. (photo credit: Aline Dassel. Creative Commons CCO -pixabay)

For any other trails, we needed a guide. People live in the canyon, with their sheep and goats, and they don’t have fences or any other sign to tell us where their private land starts. Without a local guide who knows where people live, a visitor could wander inside a family’s backyard.

To protect the privacy of the people living there, and to protect the hiker from getting lost (there are no designated trails other than the one to White House Ruins), they only let you hike down with a guide. They used to be available to hire at the visitor center.

Our Guide Suggests a Hike to Spider Rock

We found Perry, a Diné about our age, young, and fun, excited to show us some of the most beautiful places in his native land. After he asked about our hiking skills and how much time we wanted to spend on the trail, he suggested we hike to Spider Rock, through one of the most remote trails in the southern part of the canyon.

We were all excited about the hike, my husband and I because we would see places we have never seen before, our guide because he found visitors willing to hike and not just take the “shake-and-bake tour”, as he called the the jeep tours, into the canyon.

We Learn about the Death Hogan

Driving to the trailhead, Perry noticed a death hogan and wondered out loud who had died. Since we were with him and looked lost, he explained what he meant. and pointed it out to us. He pointed out the hogan that had an opening on the wrong side, on the west, while the original opening, facing east, was closed up. It was a warning to stay out.

While we were driving, he told us about the traditional Diné beliefs regarding a death in a hogan. When someone dies, everything good in them leaves for a better place. But their chindi, personifying everything bad about them stays behind, trapped inside the death hogan.

To prevent others from getting corpse sickness from this, they close the main entrance and open a small hole in the West side where they take the corpse out. No one ever enters or uses a death hogan again. Not a traditional Diné, anyway.

Getting to the Trailhead

The trailhead was so hidden, we could never have found it by ourselves. We drove about a mile on a narrow dirt road after the turnoff. The road seemed to end, and we were still driving, on top of the red rocks. I thought we’d drive right down into the canyon, but we stopped. I stepped out of the car and the view took my breath away.

We stood on top of some smooth rocks and under us lay the canyon, with its gorgeous rock formations on the bottom.

My husband and our guide were busy making their way down, but I had to stop after a few steps. It was so beautiful, so majestic! I was just standing there, speechless, trying to lock this magic into my mind, so I would never forget it. My companions stopped when they realized they have lost me. Perry told us the name of every single rock formation, canyons we saw in the distance and the sacred mountains that were even farther away, against the clear blue sky.

Reaching Spider Rock

We descended further. Our trail got narrow as it was winding down through a pine forest. Time to time we found ourselves on a ledge, a huge gap under us. We had to watch our steps, careful not to slip, and end up taking a short way, “flying” down into the canyon.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off the canyon walls, comprising millions of different shapes of stones, all tied together, forming one imposing piece of rock.

We were descending for about an hour, and still, we were the only humans around. Everything was so peaceful. I could stop and listen to the wind, the trees, the birds. I had a strong feeling of being part of nature. We all must have felt the same way because none of us was talking. There was no other sound than the birds singing, lizards crawling in and out of the bushes. I couldn’t imagine that there were people living close by, in this canyon. Then a loud sheep call echoed against the canyon walls, breaking the spell.

Chinle Beach

As we descended to the canyon floor, it became easier to walk and look around at the same time. We talked now, and I found out that the locals call the canyon Tseyi, meaning “inside the rock”. I found it fitting since the Colorado River was flowing inside the rock until it cut it in two.

Now, it flows between the two rocks, in the wet season. Looking at the dry riverbed, I found it hard to imagine this place as “Chinle beach” as Perry called it. In the wet season, when water flows through it, he said, this is the place where they spend a lot of their time playing volleyball, bathing or just lying in the sun.

When we were there, in the dry season, the place seemed ancient and deserted. I found old pieces of pottery, just lying on the ground, untouched by humans for thousands of years. “Don’t touch it,” said Perry, who noticed me looking at it. People walk by thousands of pieces, leaving them in their original place, where they are waiting for the time to flow.

It was getting late in the day and horseflies annoyed me. They were diligent to find a place on my body they could bite. “Now you know why we always wear jeans and long sleeves, no matter how hot it gets,” laughed Perry.

Petroglyphs and Cliff Dwellings

We were passing by magnificent ruins and ancient dwellings, some of the best of the ruins of the Four Corners. We noticed lots of petroglyphs on the canyon walls almost everywhere we looked. Perry told us they were Anasazi. We found even of them more with the binoculars, perched high on the canyon walls.

One of them was close to us so we climbed up the wall to a little cave to inspect it. Perry pointed out drawings of wild turkeys. He told us that in the old days there were lots of them the canyons and they were a main food source for the Ancient Ones. Now most of them are gone, but they still see them now and then.

I recognized a lizard and some human figures in another part of the cave. The human handprints reminded me of the ones we’ve seen on ancient Maya temples in the Yucatan.

Spider Rock

We arrived at our destination. Spider Rock was rising in front of us like a huge red tower.

Spider Rock - Canyon de Chelly
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Laughing, Perry told us about a Jeep commercial he saw being filmed on top of the rock. They flew a jeep with a helicopter to the top of the rock, in the commercial saying it could drive up there. “Can you imagine anything driving up there?” We couldn’t.

Then he got serious and told us a few Spider-Woman stories the rock got its name from. She is one of the Diné people’s ancestors, the first woman in this world who knew how to spin wool.

There are many stories about Spider-Woman in Navajo mythology since she is so important to this nation. She was the one who taught humankind how to spin. She lives on top of the rock, spinning all her life like an ever working spider. And she’s there, protecting the people when they need her.

Back at the Campsite

It was getting hot as we were making our way back. I had more trouble climbing the canyon walls. I had moments when I felt I would not make it. As embarrassing as it was, we had to stop often for me. But then again, maybe the guys needed the breaks, too, but they wouldn’t admit it. After lots of water breaks, we reached our car on the top.

It was a good feeling to be back at our campsite, our temporary home, shaded by large cottonwood trees. This time, we found our tent still standing, no dust storm came by while we were on the bottom of the canyon. We were leaving the next morning, but I knew we would be back many times.

More Visits Over the Years

Since that first time, over two decades ago, we’ve been back in Chinle and Canyon de Chelly many times. We never hiked into the canyon with a guide since though. At some point, when I was about six months pregnant with my first child, we hired a guide to drive with us in our SUV into the canyon.

On that occasion, while we saw a different side of the canyon and more petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, we also learned what to do when our car gets stuck in the sand. That was a whole other adventure, with the local Diné driving our car out, after spending what seemed like hours getting ourselves dug deeper and deeper into the sandy bottom of the Canyon.

We Noticed Changes Over the Years, but the Basics Are Still the Same

Like everywhere, some things change, and some remain the same.

The town of Chinle has grown, and they built more hotels close to the Canyon. But the campground is still there, in the same spot, in the shadow of the cottonwood trees.

The oldest hotel at the Cayon, the Thunderbird Lodge, is still standing. We ended up staying there a few years ago; far from the other hotels and the main road, it is quiet and pleasant.

During one of our latest road trips through the Four Corners region, we drove through Canyon de Chelly, though had no time to stay overnight. We stopped at the overlooks and enjoyed the day, though being summer, we didn’t hike down to White House Ruins. Still, as usual, we enjoyed a visit to this gem of the Navajo Nation.

In a Nutshell – FAQ

Where is Canyon de Chelly?

Canyon de Chelly or Tseyí Canyon is on the Navajo Reservation, in Northeastern Arizona.

What is the entrance fee?

There is no entrance fee to visit Canyon de Chelly National Park. Visiting the Park is FREE. Though they do accept donations.

What are some of the things to do there?

Take a scenic drive through both the South Rim Drive and the North Rim Drive and stop at the overlooks. The South Rim Drive has seven, the North Rim Drive has three overlooks. Free. Take a self-guided tour to the White House Ruins. Free. Participate in a ranger-led program. Free. Take a tour into the Canyon. Check availability and price. Camp at the Cottonwood Campground. Check the price.

Is there a Visitor Center?

The Visitor Center or Welcome Center is at the entrance to the park. Open daily 8 am – 5 pm. Closed on major holidays. It is a great place to learn about the park and the Navajo Nation.

Do I need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to drive to the overlooks?

No, you don’t. The overlooks, all ten of them, are off a paved road, and accessible by any type of car.

Are any trails open to visit without a guide?

The only trail open is the White House Trail, accessible from the South Rim Drive. If you go, remember to wear a hat, sunscreen and carry water. It’s a high desert, but still desert. And please stay on the trail, do not disturb locals who live in the Canyon. Though steep, the trail is not difficult.

Anything else I need to know?

Between March and November, the time at Canyon de Chelly is different from the rest of Arizona. Since the Navajo Reservation also extends in parts of New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, they follow Mountain Daylight Savings time. The rest of Arizona keeps Standard Mountain Time all year long.

Canyon de Chelly pin 1

10 thoughts on “Canyon de Chelly: An Unforgettable Trip to the Land of the Diné”

  1. Spider Rock — what an amazing sight! You were smart to hike with a guide in this barren but beautiful place. I love the “White House” in the red rocks. What a grand place to see!

    1. Hi, Sharon, You are right, Spider Rock is an amazing sight, my favorite rock formation in the Canyon. It wasn’t hard to pick my destination for the hike – we needed the guide, we would’ve gotten lost in the canyon without him. Besides, visitors are not even allowed in without one, which is a smart rule – both for those living in the canyon and the visitors.

  2. I’ve not made it to Arizona as yet but the terrain looks amazing. The colours in the earth and the amazing natural sculptures are fascinating. Great info. I’ve pinned it for later to keep your tips. 🙂

  3. I enjoyed reading your post, Emese, as we are hoping to visit Canyon de Chelly in a couple of weeks after our current house sit in Albuquerque ends. We usually boondock (camp for free), which is impossible in that area (Navajo Nation), so we might look into other camping options, like the campground you stayed at.

    That dust storm you were in reminds me of several of those storms we witnessed here in Albuquerque. Last year, we swore to never return to New Mexico in the spring, but here we are again. It is much better in April than in February and March, though. And, at least it has warmed up now. 🙂

    1. Hi, Liesbet,
      You will have fun in Canyon de Chelly, though in a few weeks it might get a little warm there. Still, it’s a great place to spend some time in. The campground should be fun; I don’t remember if we even had to pay for the site, though I imagine we must have. I don’t know of any other ones, but this one is right by the Visitor Center, easy access to the Canyon overlooks and White house Ruins hike. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that trail. Hope you have a great experience when you go. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  4. Arizona and Canyon de Chelly are on my travel bucket list! I´ve never seen the dust storm either (only in movies)! It must be such an experience from the inside of your car (wouldn´t wish to experience it otherwise…lol)

    1. I’m not sure I wish for you to be in a dust storm, but if you visit the desert, you might experience one – as long as you are inside (your car or a home), you’ll be fine. But yes, Arizona is definitely worth a visit; let me know when you make it. 🙂

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