Arizona’s Grand Canyon may possess its majestic size and overwhelming awe, but in Northeastern Arizona there is a canyon on the Navajo Indian Reservation that matches the beautiful color spectrum of sandstone cliff walls. From pale shades of pink through tans and browns and into deep red, Canyon de Chelly (d’SHAY) National Monument meets the Grand color for color. Plus it provides this with an intimacy not found in one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Above the canyon, North Rim Drive offers three dramatic overlooks in a 34-mile round trip while South Rim Drive presents another seven along its 37 miles. These points provide much more closeup views into the canyon than available at overlooks along the Grand Canyon rim drives. Though dwarfed by the 1.2 million acres of the Grand, Canyon de Chelly’s 84,000 acres provide nearly equal stunningly colored formations, steep high walls with lush greenery of Cottonwood trees, plants and grasses along the canyon floor. Enhancing the view, Chinle Creek meanders the length of the canyon.
Hiking into the canyon without a guide is available at only one point, off South Rim Drive, the trail to White House Ruins, a cliff dwelling set in an alcove about 40 feet off the canyon floor. Guided tours into the canyon are provided through either Navajo guides or National Park Service personnel. Permits are required. Hiking, horseback riding, and multi-wheel drive vehicles are all options to explore the inner canyon. These tours take customers to sites that can only be observed from a distance along canyon rim overlooks as well as locations not seen from above. Travel in the canyon is restricted, as many families live in Canyon de Chelly. Their privacy as well as protecting the fragile environment demand these controls.
Departing White House Overlook on the only trail not requiring a guide, White House Ruin Trail breaks away to the south, crossing a short distance over fairly level sandstone formations. Arrows, painted turquoise, have been chiseled into the soft rock, indicating the direction to follow. Cairns are also placed across the open land. As the trail approaches a steep drop off, it hooks back to the north, beginning a round trip two and a half mile hike, descending 630 feet in elevation. The ruins, built into the canyon’s north wall, can be easily seen from the overlook.
Passing through a short tunnel, a steady downward change in elevation begins. Joined on this adventure at just over 6,200 feet elevation by my twin sister, the first group we encounter are four young children with their two mothers, visiting the United States from Italy. Soon a couple passes on their way out of the canyon, one of them climbing the rocky trail barefoot. Next to rush past is a man wearing running clothes, swiftly disappearing around a bend. Listening to voices of fellow hikers, it’s apparent many are from foreign countries.
This outstanding trail has been sculpted out of sandstone walls, steps carved at strategic locations. Square flat stones are also used, easing travel at steep locations.
Steadily losing altitude, the trail crosses back and forth across a cliff wall through a series of gently sloped switchbacks. Though temperatures were 70 degrees at the start, the east-facing trail is warming quickly, foretelling a hot, exhausting return to the trailhead.
Numerous stops are made as the trail guides us downward. Huge Cottonwood trees line Chinle Creek, which is running at slightly more than a trickle. Rains have fallen, leaving the canyon floor a gorgeous deep and lush green. Crops maintained by families of the canyon grow close to their dwellings.
Having descended close to two-thirds of the overall distance, the trail levels considerably, now crossing a more sandy and soft environment. Grasses and flowers sprout in the sandy soil. Juniper trees have also gained a foothold. A few Pinon trees grow in the rocks of a drainage.
Another tunnel, a bit longer than the one near the canyon rim, is passed through, exiting slightly above the floor of the canyon. Fenced for security, a small hogan sits beside and under the shade of a huge Cottonwood tree.
At close to 90 minutes after starting the journey, footfalls land on a level canyon floor. The elevation here is 5,580 feet. A vertical wall, 600 feet high, blocking the horizon to the north, displays a stunning tapestry of Desert Varnish, washing from top nearly to bottom. Found most commonly covering sandstone, this tan to brown to red, sometimes almost black coating, streaks canyon walls in beautiful patterns. Desert Varnish is a thin veneer of clay, minerals and microbes. It can take 1,000 years to lay a coating only slightly thicker than a human hair. Minerals manganese and iron with microbes of bacteria and fungi combine to produce the colorization. Throughout the Colorado Plateau, petroglyphs have been etched and pecked into this varnish coating.
A bridge crossing Chinle Creek delivers hikers safely to the north bank. Cleanly also, as the creek bed is wet and muddy, deep red in color. A short distance around a bend White House Ruins appears, a beautiful and inspiring site.
Built into an alcove about 40 feet off the canyon floor, these rooms were inhabited about 1,250 years ago by ancestral Puebloan people. These ruins get their name from a long wall in the upper dwelling, covered with white plaster. A large petroglyph is etched into the sandstone below the ancient structure. Other buildings were constructed, and still stand, on the canyon floor below White House Ruin.
A strong fence prevents visitors from directly approaching and entering the rooms, protecting this archaeological resource. Unobstructed views allow people to see easily into the alcove and imagine what life must have been for the Puebloan people living during their time here.
Sharing snacks, fruit and refreshing beverages, a relaxing rest period is enjoyed under the canopy of tall trees. Others arrive to share this historical and interesting location.
With temperatures rising as midday approaches, the time has arrived to begin the return to the trailhead, an activity that will test legs and lungs. Heart rates will increase. Shaded benches are provided trailside and each will allow a few moments rest as the ascent continues. Brilliant white clouds are drifting across blue skies, unfortunately in the distance and providing no relief from the beating sun.
Most of this trail has been carved or blasted a secure distance from steep drop-offs, but in a few locations the only option was to chisel a path across a steep stone wall. A misstep here could result in no less than severe road rash, possibly broken bones. Site-seeing in these sections must only be done when not proceeding.
Gratefully resting under limited shade on a welcome bench, three folks riding horseback are observed, beginning the climb. Having entered at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, these guests are led by a Navajo guide. The horses’ relentless pace surpasses ours and they pass just prior to entering the upper tunnel. They will be met near the trailhead and transported back to their starting location.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a labyrinth of canyons winding mainly eastward. Dominated by Canyon del Muerto on the north and Canyon de Chelly to the south, each canyon carves more than 50 miles into Defiance Plateau. Numerous small side canyons break off the two larger ones.
Reaching the mainly level section of trail, soon the adventure concludes. Though exhausting, the climb has been exhilarating, challenging our resolve and our bodies. Time spent along open trails provide much needed escape from city life.
Possibly the most dramatic and impressive feature observed is Spider Rock, an 800-foot-tall sandstone spire rising from the canyon base, which can be viewed via the eastern most overlook along South Rim Drive.
The 34-mile round trip North Rim Drive offers an overlook into Antelope House Ruin, named for the many illustrations of antelope attributed to Navajo artist Dibe Yazhi, who lived in this location in the early 1800’s. Massacre Cave and Mummy Cave, both located in the upper area of dramatically sculpted Canyon del Muerto, are also seen from overlook points.
From the Tucson area, travel time to this beautiful part of Northeastern Arizona compares favorably to Grand Canyon. Viewing these wonderfully colored sandstone cliffs and walls plus exploring the inner canyon is an option to be considered when thinking of a trip north. More information is available at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, 928-674-5500 or www.nps.gov/cach.