Ancient Cliff Dwellers – Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Chinle, AZ
Steve knew I would really like to experience the places he visited solo while I was in the Philippines, so he offered to take me on a road trip to see the ones that were located in Arizona. It’s too late to revisit his Colorado excursions, as the fall colors and weather are past their prime. We’ll just have to go back there another time!
On this trip he took me to the Meteor Crater (his post here), the Petrified Forest (his post here) and finally to Canyon de Chelly. Today’s post is an addendum to his Canyon de Chelly story, as we took a more thorough tour this time – spending two nights at the canyon and taking an excellent jeep tour in addition to our own excursion.
The labyrinth called Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) comprises several canyons that include Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, Monument Canyon and Black Canyon. The monument was established in 1931 to preserve the record of human history that has existed here for more than 5,000 years.
Encompassing nearly 84,000 acres, the monument is managed by the National Park Service. The canyons are located within the heart of a Navajo reservation and are home to many of its people. Except for the White House Hiking Trail, they can only be entered by visitors accompanied by a Navajo guide or a park ranger.
Our 3-hour guided jeep tour took us about five miles into the canyons, to the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. At our entry point the rock walls were only 30 feet high, but as we progressed they rose dramatically until we were looking up 1,000 feet to the rim on each side.
Throughout the trip, our guide pointed out several ruins of cliff dwellings and petroglyph carvings of men, animals, and handprints – visual remnants of the Ancient Pueblo peoples (Anasazi). Many of these ruins are visible only from this vantage point on the floor of the canyon and cannot be seen from the rim overlooks.
We learned the difference between a pictograph and a petroglyph. Pictographs are symbols which resemble what they signify, and they are painted on rock that is not exposed directly to water. Petroglyphs (such as those below) are images scratched or carved into the surface and they can tolerate the elements much longer.
The canyon contains over 2,500 archeological sites ranging from 1500 B.C. to 1350 A.D., and is considered one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in North America.
Our guide, who was actually born and raised in the canyon, pointed out a few barely-visible cliffside dwellings high up on the walls. Most of them face south in order to take maximum advantage of sunlight. One of these Puebloan sites, containing 10 rooms and 2 kivas, is believed to have been constructed sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries. It was reportedly the first ruins studied in 1882, and has been called First Ruins ever since.
The only ruins that visitors can get close to without a guide is the White House Ruins. Except for the jeep tours, it can only be accessed by hiking 700 feet down into the canyon via the 2.5 mile round-trip White House Trail, which Steve did on his first visit.
This is not a Navajo structure; it was built and occupied centuries ago by Ancestral Peubloan people. It’s named for a long wall in the upper dwelling that was covered with white plaster for unknown reasons. Archeologists estimate up to twelve Anasazi Indian families may have lived together in this 11th century, split-level pueblo complex.
There are a few theories as to why these dwellings were abandoned sometime around 1275 A.D. As with other Anasazi structures, no one knows for sure why these people left their homes, but prolonged drought and civil strife are among the most popular speculations.
Our guide showed us the home that his Aunt and sister currently live in. About 40 Navajo families still maintain homes inside the canyon. They consider themselves very fortunate to have land here in this sacred place, and the parcels have been passed down through many generations.
He also pointed out many other hard to find and nearly invisible petroglyphs and pictographs all along the walls of the canyon. It really pays to have a guide with you here, as they describe what all of those images mean and the period in which they were created. Stories about the history, cliff dwellings and artifacts scattered throughout the area made our 3-hour tour go by very quickly.
Because of unusually heavy rains the previous day, driving through the deep sandy wash and across several creeks was a bit bumpy at times. But the beauty as seen from the bottom of the canyon floor was astonishing. We also got to see countless rock formations, some resembling other things in nature – if we used our imagination.
The many mysteriously abandoned cliff dwellings and the breathtaking natural beauty make Canyon de Chelly as worthy of a visit as the Grand Canyon. But wait – there was more! After the jeep tour, Steve drove me along the South and North Rims where we stopped at all of the overlooks for some spectacular views from the top. I will let the pictures speak for themselves.