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


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


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!




  1. What a great tour:) Too bad everything is so far above. I guess that is a great demonstration of erosion over time. Dog Rock works if it is a St. Bernard! Dead Duck is easy to see:)

  2. Love that last photo of the two of you. I’m always awed by such stunning and unique scenery. So glad you were able to enjoy it during fall colors.

  3. What an incredible tour and awesome images of a gorgeous place. I really enjoyed your post ML. And, I am glad Steve revisited Canyon de Chelly with you.

  4. Your photos from the overlooks are especially stunning! I’ve only ever seen Canyon de Chelly from above, and have always wanted to return. When we go, we want to book a tour with a guide to go into the canyon, as you did. Even better that you had a guide who grew up in the canyon! Great photo of the two of you. 🙂

  5. Great pictures of a beautiful area that just got added to our bucket list. I choose sphinx over dog.

  6. Your photographs are simply fantastic. What a great tour you had. Canyon de Chelly is one of my most favorite places visited ever. I just loved Spider Rock and the stories about Spider woman associated with it. Perfect closing picture of the two of you. What a great day!

  7. We took a tour of Canyon de Chelly with a local guide several years ago when we lived in AZ, and loved it! I think it is the best way to experience the canyon.

Comments are closed.