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Inside Canyon de Chelly

canyon-de-chelly-tunnel-trail.jpg In the interest of exploring further the mysteries of Canyon de Chelly, we got up before dawn for a ranger-led hike down the Tunnel Trail. Normally the trailhead is gated and locked, so the only way to hike it is with a guide or ranger. It’s an easy hike into the canyon, about 300 feet of total descent/ascent, with a short steep section.

About 80 families live in the canyon, according to our ranger (who is herself Navajo and a resident of the canyon). They live seasonally, farming in the summer and heading up to the mesa or into the town of Chinle during winter because ice and snow in the canyon can be a problem. Although guidebooks like to portray the Navajo of Canyon de Chelly as “living in the historical past” and imply that they are like Amish and eschew modern conveniences, it’s really not true. They run tours and travel through the canyon in late-model pickup trucks. They are educated people, attending the K-12 school in Chinle and in many cases going on to college, as our ranger did. They speak English as well as Navajo.

canyon-de-chelly-sand-wash.jpgBut on the other hand, in the canyon they tend to live agricultural lives, raising sheep and corn, living without TV (there’s no usable signal in the canyon), and relying on generators for electricity. The really obvious difference, to me, was that the Navajo have lived in this canyon for hundreds of years, and in all that time they have respected the many ruins, human remains, petroglyphs, and pictographs left behind by the Ancient Puebloans (Anasazi) so that all of those things are still right out in the open to be seen by tourists today. The Navajo regard all of those remnants of their ancestors as being protected, not by National Park Service rules, but simply out of respect for those who have been here before.

canyon-de-chelly-first-ruin.jpgWe hiked through the sandy wash that runs through the canyon for about a mile to reach “First Ruin,” another good cliff dwelling site located high above the canyon floor. There is an ongoing debate about the reason the Ancient Puebloans lived in cliff dwellings, and why they suddenly abandoned them around A.D. 1300. From listening to rangers at Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Capitol Reef, Grand Canyon, Navajo, and now Canyon de Chelly, I can assure you that the debate is far from over. The theory that these were defensive structures seems to be dying out because nobody can find evidence of violence. Same with the theory that invaders drove out the residents. The top theories we’ve heard are: extended drought (supported by tree-ring analysis, or “dendochronology”), crop failure due to over-farming, normal migratory patterns, and “who the heck knows?”

canyon-de-chelly-newspaper-rock.jpgcanyon-de-chelly-petroglyphs.jpgOur second stop on the hike was “Newspaper Rock,” so-named because it was a place where later natives, including Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and other tribes, stopped to write messages in petroglyphs. The variety of petroglyphs here is amazing, and with a guide to rock art symbols (obtainable at most visitor centers) you can take a guess at what some of the messages mean. Often over the cliff dwellings there are clan symbols, but at Newspaper Rock there are no dwelling ruins, so it seems to be just a place to post a message.


At the end of the hike, the oldest person on the hike (age 76) asked for a picture of herself with the youngest person on the hike (age 8). Our ranger, Geri, also joined in — and of course, Zoe the cat who goes on all hikes.

Our exploration of the canyon lasted for several hours, so once again we really felt like we’d gotten a great ranger tour. Unfortunately, when we returned Eleanor opened her bag and realized she dropped a plastic sleeve containing her driver’s license, three credit cards, a few less important cards, and $70 in cash. This wasn’t discovered until we had returned to the Airstream later in the afternoon. We searched the car, the Airstream, and tried the visitor center’s lost-and-found, but she concluded it was lost in the Canyon de Chelly wash. We shut down all the cards with three quick phone calls, and then in the middle of the night she woke up and remembered where they were. Too late — new ones are on the way. But at least she didn’t lose the $70, and our plastic is not littering the bottom of a National Monument.

There is currently some discussion about whether the Navajo should reclaim the canyon from the Park Service and run it themselves. They have that right, under an agreement struck in 1931 when the park was first opened. Most people (including Navajo) seem to feel that the Park Service has done a good job at protecting, interpreting, and managing the canyon. It has a good visitor center, cooperates well with the locals, maintains the infrastructure (campground, roads, trails, signs, fences), provides law enforcement, promotes the canyon nationally, etc.

If the Navajo run it as a tribal park (as is done with Monument Valley), it’s not clear what will happen to it. Right now everything is free, supported by the National Park Service’s funding. I would expect that fees would be instituted for everything, including guided hikes, camping, and the visitor center. It would also likely be struck from the NPS list of parks, which might reduce visitation. From what I’ve heard, reducing visitation is not the goal of the proposal.

There was an open forum for the Navajo in the campground amphitheater yesterday afternoon on the subject, but since we were busy looking for credit cards, we couldn’t go. I’ll be interested to see if the idea goes further.

A few weeks ago I was thinking that we had excess time in the schedule before going to the Balloon Festival, but now time has run short on us. We need to meet everyone for a caravan into the Balloon Festival on Friday, and between now and then we wanted to visit several more parks in New Mexico. Chaco Canyon will have to be skipped this time, and we may also miss Petroglyph National Monument. This week I have to be in locations where I can make reliable cell phone calls, which may even make it impossible to visit El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments. Plus, on Thursday night we need to be somewhere with a dump station, so we can arrive at the Balloon Festival with empty holding tanks. That rules out some interesting boondocking possibilities I would have explored later in the week.

We don’t have a firm plan, as usual. We’ll wing it this week with a combination of whatever works. We are in our last two weeks of full-timing, and there’s no point in getting rigid about the schedule now, after three and a half years.

761 Responses to “Inside Canyon de Chelly”

  1. Zach Says:

    Hello Rich, Eleanor, & Emma –

    Is it still possible to hire horses and ride into the Canyon de Chelly with a guide? In the ’70’s my family took me on a great trip via horseback that I still remember fondly!


    P.S. The only positive to your missing Chaco on this loop is that you will be able to set aside more time to really do it right in future!

  2. Judy Hazen Says:

    In reference to collapse/abandonment here is the statement from my script on “Chaco Canyon-A Window Into The Past” power point slide show: “Was Chaco Canyon abandoned because of environmental or culture change? There is no definitive answer to this question but complicated, intertwined reasons were probably behind the final exodus from Chaco Canyon and other cultures from most of the San Juan Basin. Among them were: adverse climate; over population of some of the more favorable places; breakdown of organized agricultural, commercial, social, and religious patterns.”

    Final script conclusion: “We may never all the whys: but at least we know the whens on the time line history of the structures construction, occupation, and abandonment through the archaeological work and history of Chaco Canyon”

    In reference to evidence of violence, Craig Childs in “House of Rain” describes the evidence of violence at Sleeping Ute Mountain and other sites that are not really talked about by archaeologists.
    Fred Hazen

  3. Rich Says:

    Zach, we didn’t see anyone using horses, but there was some horse manure along the White House Trail. Most likely that was from horses used by the residents of the canyon. Most visitors take a Jeep tour or drive their own 4×4 vehicle with a guide. I think the days of horse tours in the canyon are over.