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.

Canyon de Chelly

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.

Canyon de Chelly

A permit is required to enter the canyon floor, and on this morning there were already two tours ahead of us

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.

Canyon de Chelly

It’s a good thing they only allow guides with 4-wheel drive vehicles into the canyons; our CRV would have become mired in the deep, wet sand very quickly

Canyon de Chelly

Cliff walls are streaked with “black varnish” where mineral-rich water cascades over

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.

Canyon de Chelly

How did those folks get up there to do their work?

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.

Petroglyphs on Canyon de Chelly

Here’s a zoom of the spot Steve is looking at above.  These petroglyphs are scratched into an area where water runs down the wall.  Pictographs wouldn’t last long in this exposed location.

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.

First Ruins

First Ruins

First Ruins

Close up of First Ruins.  It’s hard to imagine the effort it took just to get the construction materials up there!

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.

White House Ruins

White House Ruins – a 2-story pueblo built into a 500 ft. tall cliff wall

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.

White House Ruins

Zooming into the White House Ruins

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.

Navajo home inside Canyon de Chelly

The home of our guide’s aunt and sister. He was raised here as well, and he knows his stuff!

Canyon de Chelly

Our guide’s sister raises sheep and goats here

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.

Rock Art, Canyon de Chelly

Only trained eyes can spot this rock art high up on a cliff wall

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.

Canyon de Chelly

The Cottonwoods gave us a show of late Fall colors along the way

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Canyon De Chelly

Wind-swept arches

Canyon de Chelly

We were told this is the Dog Rock formation, but I think it looks more like the Sphinx.  What do you think?

Canyon de Chelley

Dead duck or Sleeping Duck formation.  OK, we agreed with the resemblance on this one!

Canyon de Chelly

Many centuries of sandblasting has taken place here

Canyon de Chelly

To me, the best time to visit the canyon is late October or early November.  It isn’t so busy, and of course there’s the Fall colors!

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.

Tunnel Overlook

At the Tunnel Overlook

Canyon De Chelly

Another wind-blown wall

Canyon de Chelly

Amazing wind sculptures

Antelope House Ruin

Sheer cliffs above Antelope House Ruin, along Canyon del Muerto

White House Ruins

White House Ruins as seen from the overlook

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Canyon De Chelly

Chinle Wash, where our jeep tour went through in the morning.  Note farmlands on the lower right.

Junction of Canyon del Puerto and Black Canyon

Junction of Canyon del Muerto and Black Canyon, with Navajo Fortress at the center

Spider Rock

Spider Rock is an 800 ft. sandstone spire that rises at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon.  We just couldn’t get enough of this view!

Chinle Valley at the confluence of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto

I had a great day with my personal tour guide, my honeybunch!

 

Next up:  More cliff dwelling up-close – Walnut Canyon