A short distance east of CHINLE, sixty miles southwest of Kayenta 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 thousand-foot 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.
Into the canyons
Into the canyons
Tours of the canyon floor, organized by Thunderbird Lodge, zigzag along the washes, which vary from two or three feet deep during the spring thaw to completely dry in summer. For most of the year, the bone-shaking tours are in open-top flatbed trucks that lurch over the rutted earth and the heat can be incredible; in winter they carry on in glass-roofed army vehicles with caterpillar tracks. To reach as far as Spider Rock, you have to take the full-day tour ($79; no reductions for children), but the half-day trip at $49 (under-13s $38) still enables you to see a wide variety of sites and terrain, including the White House Ruins.
Other tour operators can be contacted via the visitor centre, which also arranges highly recommended 4.5-mile, four-hour group hikes ($15/person). The precise schedule varies, but usually includes a morning trip via the White House Trail and an afternoon hike in the Canyon del Muerto; separate night hikes last just two hours but cost slightly more. Tsotsonii Ranch (t 928/220-5204, w http://www.totsoniiranch.com) organize horseback trips for $15 per person per hour, plus $15 an hour for a guide.