Magnificent red rock cliffs overlook wide canyons where rivers of trees run along the ground in beautiful green clusters, and mysterious ruins stand tucked into alcoves at the base of rock faces. Two excellent scenic drives take you along the rims of these canyons, offering you numerous brilliant overlooks where you can stand eye-level with such monoliths as Spider Rock. Within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, Canyon De Chelly is a quiet, yet stunning desert scene made up of three different canyons formed by millions of years of geologic events known as uplifts and stream cutting.
The Canyon de Chelly area is one of the most continuously inhabited regions in all of North America. The Pueblo Indians originally inhabited the canyon and utilized the grounds for farming and raising families up to the mid-fourteenth century. Over time, the Hopi Indians gradually moved into the area and grew abundant supplies of corn and peaches until about the seventeenth century when the Navajo Indians began establishing their settlements. There are plenty of artifacts left intact in the canyon evidencing the diverse history of the indigenous peoples of this canyon, and, even today, some Navajo—known as Diné—continue to live, farm, and raise livestock within the canyon. It is interesting to note that Canyon de Chelly is the only US National Park Service unit that is entirely owned and managed by a Native American tribe (the Navajo).
Upon arriving at the canyon, you can choose between the South Rim Drive or the North Rim Drive. The North Rim Drive only has three overlooks, but they are exceptional and include Antelope House, Mummy Cave, and Massacre Cave. For the Antelope House Overlook, you’ll have to hike a short .25-mile trail, but the view will be worth it. Other views in the area require short hikes as well, but, if you bring a little bit of water, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Take time to read the interpretive signs along the way and learn some interesting facts about the ruins. Give yourself about two hours for the thirty-four-mile round-trip drive.
Personally I recommend the more frequented South Rim (thirty-seven miles round-trip) so that you can make it to the Spider Rock Overlook and perhaps do a little bit of hiking. The best time to see this canyon is in the afternoon or evening. The seven overlooks along the South Rim are much closer to the parking lots, so if mobility is a little bit of a concern, you may want to go with the South Rim Drive. If you have the time, I recommend driving straight to Spider Rock and checking out the view there and then working your way back down the South Rim and taking the hike to the White House ruins.
The biggest attraction at the park is Spider Rock, which is actually two large sandstone spires rising as tall as 750 feet. Geologists estimate that the formation’s genesis began approximately 230 million years ago, long before Native Americans made this place their home. According to Navajo folklore, the Spider Grandmother is said to inhabit the taller of the two spires and was believed to be responsible for all of creation. She also apparently snatched up disobedient children and brought them to her rock. The whitish top of the spire is said to be the sun-bleached bones of rebellious children from the past. While Spider Grandmother sounds like someone you wouldn’t want to cross paths with, you can easily observe her lair without getting too close. The lookout point for Spider Rock is located just a short walk on a paved walkway from a nearby parking lot.
There are some great hiking options at this park, but almost all of them are limited since you’ll need a park ranger or authorized Navajo guide to get around. The exception to this rule, however, is the White House Trail, a marvelous 2.5-mile (round-trip) hike that leads you to up-close views of ruins that are discretely built into alcoves in the side of the canyon. The hike can be a little strenuous coming back up the canyon wall, but most visitors agree that the hike isn’t too difficult and is very enjoyable. The White House Trail will take you about two hours round-trip, so it’s definitely doable even if you only have a few hours available on your schedule. And if you see a lot of “hikers” running up and down the trail, don’t worry—Spider Grandmother’s not on the loose. These human roadrunners are normally just locals getting in some exercise.
Another way to experience the canyon is by taking a guided tour. There are hiking tours, Jeep tours, and horse tours to choose from. See the link provided below for information on all the different companies that offer tours. The great thing about these tours is that you can get up close to the clusters of ruins and petroglyphs, and experience what most visitors aren’t able to. The drawback is that these guided tours can be a little pricey at $75 per person. If you really want to see and experience all the history of this park firsthand, a private tour will likely be worth your money since most people seem to be quite satisfied with the quality of their tours. Either way, remember that just driving through the park and doing the White House Ruins Trail is enough to have a memorable experience.
As you can tell, there are ample opportunities for great photographs at all the different overlooks. The colorful canyon walls contrast very well with the bright green trees and open blue skies above, and, if you visit the park at the right time in the fall, you’ll be blown away by the stunning color change of all the trees on the canyon floor. Much like shooting photographs at the Grand Canyon, you’ll be able to move about at the park overlooks and experiment with plenty of foreground opportunities for your out-of-this-world photographs that you will cherish for a lifetime. So get creative with your movements and compositions, and you’ll leave Canyon de Chelly with some great and unique photos.
- Bring cash with you when visiting the canyon. There are usually some local artists up at the rims of the canyon who make some great artwork perfect for souvenirs and gifts.
- If you are visiting during a busier time (like a summer weekend), then the North Rim Drive will likely offer you more solitude at each of the views.
- Many visitors find that the North Rim offers a better vantage point for watching the sunrise.
- Bring your binoculars so that you will be able to see all the ruins from afar.