Explore Arizona: Canyon de Chelly

After our last road trip to the Petrified Forest in Northern Arizona, we became inspired to explore more of this great state.  (See my post: Explore Arizona: Sunrise Park and Navajo County.)  Over Easter break, we drove north again, this time to the Navajo and Hopi reservations, namely to explore Canyon de Chelly and the Hopi mesas, two of the longest continuously inhabited areas in the US.  Many areas, in fact, are without access to electricity, water and sewage (by choice).  It is a land of contrasts, a land at times vast and barren, of incredible beauty and history, that lies a mere 300 miles north of one of the largest metropolitan cities in the US.

What is Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de Shay”) and where is it?

Located near the town of Chinle in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly is a sandstone canyon containing many ruins of early indigenous tribes, including the Anasazi and the Navajo.  It offers a unique insight into the present day life of the Navajo, who still inhabit and cultivate the valley floor (approximately 40 Navajo families live in the canyon).  In fact, Canyon de Chelly is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation and is the only National Park Service unit that is owned and cooperatively managed in this manner.

Why the funny pronunciation?

The name chelly (or Chelley) is a Spanish adaptation (of sorts) of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ, which means “canyon” (literally “inside the rock”).  The Spanish word de Chelly was then given a French-like twang that resulted in the pronunciation of “de-Shay”.  This is per our Navajo guide, Adam (see more about Adam below).

How do you get there?

Driving from Phoenix, Santa Fe or Albuquerque would be your best bet.  Depending on where you started, expect to drive 4-5 hours.

Where do you stay?

To get the full experience, you should stay in the town of Chinle.  There is a Best Western and a Holiday Inn from which to choose.  Alternatively, you could stay at the Thunderbird Lodge, which is the only lodging inside the park.  The Thunderbird Lodge was built in 1896 as a trading post and is owned and operated by the Navajo.

How do you gain access to the canyon?

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.  Private Navajo-owned companies offer tours of the canyon floor by horseback, hiking or 4-wheel drive vehicle.

The only exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail, a 2.5 mile round trip trail from White House Overlook to the White House Ruins.

While horseback riding looked fun, we opted for the 4-wheel drive tour.

Driving up into the canyon.

The White House Ruins (see the white house top right?).

Most park visitors drive along both North Rim Drive and South Rim Drive. Ancient ruins and geologic structures are visible in the distance from turnoffs on each of these routes.

We hired Navajo guide Adam Teller and his father, Ben, to drive us up into the canyon floor.  Adam grew up in the Canyon and was extremely knowledgeable about the natural history, the prehistoric record, and the recent history of the canyon.  He has been giving tours for over 30 years and has a wonderful way of spinning the history of the canyon with his own childhood experiences.  You can find him at:

www.canyondechelly.net

Pictographs along the canyon walls.

With our Navajo guide, Ben Teller, at First Ruins.

Checking out kachinas at Antelope House Ruins.

Kachinas.

With our guides, Adam and Ben Teller.

Spider Rock.

Where did texAZtaste eat?

Good question.  We took a couple of coolers of food as we were on the go.  It came in handy when preparing cheese plates for sunset cocktails at lookout points.  It was a bit windy, but we managed.  En route to Chinle, we stopped in Ganado and were told to eat at the “flea market” where there were several vendors of Navajo burgers and tamales.  Other than that, we did try the cafeteria at the Thunderbird Lodge, but they seemed a bit overwhelmed.  That’s me being very diplomatic.  I am all about staying positive.  Therefore, I recommend you take a cooler.

Navajo burger at the Ganado flea market: hamburger inside fry bread or, in this case, a homemade tortilla.

When is the best time of year to go?

High season is April to October.  Some say the best time would be between mid-September and mid-October. We went in early April, and it was lovely, if a bit windy.  I would imagine that during monsoon season (late summer) the water levels may restrict access to certain parts of the canyon.  It is very important to note that Daylight Savings Time is observed on the Navajo reservation, while the rest of the state does not.  This is not an issue from November to March, but the rest of the year the Navajo reservation will be an hour ahead of the rest of AZ. Don’t ask me…I don’t make the rules.

So, what are you waiting for? Fill up your coolers, gas up the Chevy and explore Arizona! Xo M

More of the Anasazi Ruins at Antelope House.

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