Getting to Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly, located in the northeast corner of Arizona 3 miles (4.8 km) from Route 191 in Chinle, AZ. Map. It is about a 5 hour drive from Phoenix.
Visiting Canyon de Chelly
First, it helps to know that Canyon de Chelly is pronounced de SHAY which rhymes with “hay.” It is also important to know that Canyon de Chelly is on the Navajo Reservation and is home to quite a few Navajo families. So, it differs from the typical National Park.
You can visit year round. The Visitor Center is open daily all year from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Navajo Time), except for Christmas Day. The North and South Rim Drives and the White House Trail remain open all year. However, watch the weather. A rain can fill the canyon washes with water. Be aware that there may be flash flooding.
According to Wikipedia, the name Canyon de Chelly is a Spanish modification of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ, meaning "canyon" (literally "inside the rock" < tsé "rock" + -yiʼ "inside of, within").
The Navajo people settled in Canyon de Chelly long after the Anasazi (ancient ones) had vanished. Kit Carson used Canyon de Chelly as a base of operations in 1864 when he and his troops drove out the Navajos, and forced them on the horrific “Long Walk,” 300 miles to the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico. Half of the people, including women and children, died on the march. It was four years later that the Navajo returned to the area and settled in Canyon de Chelly.
What to Do at Canyon de Chelly
We arrived at Canyon de Chelly fairly late in the afternoon which was, we were soon to find, a really good time to visit and photograph the canyon and ruins.
We pulled up to the Thunderbird Lodge and Visitor Center parking lot. There were tour trucks there and we met our guide, a Navajo man whose family lives in Canyon de Chelly and have grazing rights there.
Activities, like ours, center around enjoying the beauty of the canyon and learning about the ancient peoples who lived there. Auto tours, hiking, rock art viewing, interpretive exhibits and talks, horseback riding (by prior arrangement), picnicking and photography are the primary activities.
Tours In Canyon de Chelly
At Canyon de Chelly, with the exception of hiking the White House Ruin trail, travel in the canyons is permitted only with a park ranger or other authorized Navajo guide. You most likely will find yourself on an open air truck with school-bus type seating. Many of the tour vehicles are retired troop carriers. They are strong enough to get you through the sand, rocks and mud and provide you with great views and photo opportunities.
Tour prices (2007) are $66.95 plus tax for an all day tour with lunch and $40.95 plus tax for a half day tour. There are discounts for children on the half day tour. We chose the half day tour so we could go to White House ruins. These tours last about three and a half hours and will take you into the lower half of both Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly.
Smaller tours are available via jeep and, if you arrange ahead of time, a Navajo Guide can accompany you in your own 4 wheel drive vehicle.
You can catch a guided tour at Thunderbird Lodge.
Guides Add to the Experience
It is valuable to go with a guide to visit any of the sites in and around the Navajo reservation. You will gain insight into the life of the Navajo and their love for the land and their traditions. Often guides will share a bit of family history as you drive along.
What You Will See on a Canyon Tour
The canyon was lined with high red walls contrasting with the green trees and brush lining the still-wet washes. It had rained the night before and so we had the fun of riding through running water. It was nice and dry high up on the truck bed. As we rode along we saw Navajo families in pick-up trucks heading in from their outlying farms.
Most of our group wanted to photograph the walls of Antelope House, other pictographs and the ruins in good light. For photographers, the early day or late afternoon is the best time to get canyon photos. The shadows produce great contrast. A bonus for going on the later tour was that the horses in the canyon were out grazing and made for fantastic photo subjects. In fact, as we headed back to the lodge, a couple of horses moved out into the middle of the wash and posed for us!
When the tour vehicle stopped, we were amazed by how quiet it was in the canyon. You could hear the calls of the birds circling overhead. It is well worth taking a moment to silently survey the beauty of the canyon.
It was fun traveling down the sandy washes, past little fields of corn and squash, and down rocky roads to see the evidence of Anasazi, who pre-dated the current Navajo people. On our tour, the destination was White House ruins, dating from about 1200. They are some of the oldest in the canyon and are beautiful to view and photograph.
With all doors facing East (by Navajo custom) and isolation from the local towns, Thunderbird Lodge, right in the park, is a wonderful place to stay. We enjoyed the comfortable one-level rooms and stood outside at night to marvel at the stars and moon. The lodge is modern, even has Wi-Fi and makes for a perfect place to relax and acclimate to the culture and pace of the area.
When we arose, it was a just a short walk through the crisp air to the warm and inviting cafeteria/restaurant. Although you go through a line at the restaurant, you can order everything from steaks to chicken, which will be cooked to order and delivered to your table. The fare was typical American, varied and hit the spot after a long day out in the canyon. Thunderbird Lodge website.
Next door was the Thunderbird Lodge gift shop, a great place for authentic Native American jewelry, rugs and arts. The lodge used to be a trading post and the shop keeps up the tradition of selling locally produced arts.