A short distance east of Chinle, 87 miles southeast of Monument Valley and seventy miles north of I-40, twin sandstone walls emerge abruptly from the desert floor, climbing at a phenomenal rate to become the awesome 1000ft cliffs of CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT. Between these sheer sides, the meandering cottonwood-fringed Chinle Wash winds through grasslands and planted fields. Here and there a Navajo hogan stands in a grove of fruit trees, a straggle of sheep is penned in by a crude wooden fence or ponies drink at the water’s edge. And everywhere, perched on ledges in the canyon walls and dwarfed by the towering cliffs, are the long-abandoned adobe dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans.
Two main canyons branch apart a few miles upstream: Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay) to the south and Canyon del Muerto to the north. Each twists and turns in all directions, scattered with vast rock monoliths, while several smaller canyons break away. The whole labyrinth threads its way northward for thirty miles into the Chuska Mountains.
Canyon de Chelly is a magnificent place, on a par with the best of the Southwest’s national parks. Its relative lack of fame owes much to the continuing presence of the Navajo, for whom the canyon retains enormous symbolic significance (although they did not build its cliff dwellings). Visitors are largely restricted to peering into the canyon from above, from overlooks along the two rim drives. There’s no road in and apart from one short trail you can only enter the canyons with a Navajo guide.