Place in the Rocks: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ

From the mesa east of Chinle on the Navajo Reservation, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”) is invisible. Then as one approaches, suddenly the world falls away—1,000 feet down a series of vertical red walls.

Sliding Rock Overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sheer walls, shaped and smoothed by thousands of years of rain and wind, provide a dramatic backdrop for those who still live and farm within the canyon. People have lived here for more than 5,000 years, archaeologists believe, making it the longest continuously inhabited area on the Colorado Plateau. Ancient ruins are tucked along its cliffs, as are centuries-old pictographs.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, occupies a unique place in the heritage of native American Indians. You can drive the park rims by yourself and hike on one trail, the White House Trail. Otherwise, there is no entry into the canyon without a permit and Navajo guide. A popular choice is riding down the canyon aboard a 20-passenger tour truck.

The word ‘de Chelly’ is a corruption of the Navajo word “Tsegi,” meaning “the place in the rocks”.

The word Chegui was found in Spanish diaries referring to the canyon and was probably spelled according to what was heard. As American settlers moved to the Southwest they also adopted the Spanish name, Chegui. Once again, settlers mispronounced and misspelled Chegui, assuming it was the Spanish word for canyon, hence Canyon de Chelly.

The town of Chinle, on the other hand, was named for its location. The Navajo chief, Ch’inli’, referred to the mouth of the canyon where the water flows out. As with many towns around the reservation, Chinle began as a trading post in 1882. Traders influenced missionaries, schools, and government agencies to set up near trading posts as that was where people gathered. Chinle’s first mission was established in 1904 and the first government school in 1910.

Anasazi, who are believed to be the ancestors of modern Hopi and Pueblo Indians, built intricate homes here between 1100 and 1300, using adobe bricks carved from the soft red sandstone. Some of the dwellings were up to five stories high and housed 30 to 40 families. Several sites include kivas—large round rooms dug into the ground, used for ceremonies.

Face Rock Overlook. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After seeing the amazing cliff dwellings, and the beautiful canyon itself, we would definitely return in a heart-beat, and there’s no question about putting it high on our ‘Top 10 List’.

Canyon de Chelly far exceeded our expectations.

Self-guided drives

Driving the canyon rims and viewing the canyon from the overlooks is an excellent introduction to Canyon de Chelly and gives you an idea of how else you might want to explore the canyon.

To assist you, a motoring guide and a trail guide are available at the bookstore in the visitor center.


Did You Know?
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is comprised entirely of Navajo tribal trust land with a resident community within the canyons. A backcountry permit and authorized guide are required to enter the canyon except for the White House Trail.

To be continued tomorrow…

Worth Pondering…

Beauty before me I walk,

Beauty behind me I walk,

Beauty above me I walk,

Beauty below me I walk,

Beauty all about me I walk.

In beauty all is restored,

In beauty all is made whole.

—Navajo Blessing Way

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