When we did the Canyons de Chelly a few years back we never expected to have a snowstorm hit us half way through, but the trip was memorable in spite of the weather.
Established in 1931 and located in Arizona, this National Monument includes an option near the entrance to do the north rim drive or south rim drive. You would need a full day to do both as there are multiple overlooks along the rims. On top of this, going down into the canyon would add three or more hours to the visit.
We stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge located within the park and did the Canyon as a couple half day trips. It is easy to drive around the rims, although descending into them was only possible in a few places. We decided to do one side of the canyon rim on the afternoon of our arrival and do the other side the next morning.
Fun fact: The Canyon de Chelly is not pronounced Canyon de SHELLY, but Canyon de SHAY, something we quickly learned when we heard the locals using it. The name is actually a Spanish borrowing of a Navajo phrase that was adapted into English in a French manner. Language can be very interesting sometimes!
The drive started with a series of viewpoints to stop and check out the canyon walls and floor. One thing we liked was the absence of railings or other barriers in many places along the canyon. It requires the visitors to be careful but allows much clearer views of the canyon.
Apart from visiting the overlooks, we wanted to take the White House Ruin Trail as it was the only public trail on the south rim. All other trails on this side must be done with licensed Navajo guides. So before it got too late in the day we made our way to the parking lot near the ruins trail.
As we walked towards the trail entrance we could see something in the distance along the walls of the canyon. As we got closer we made out the ruins of a settlement under the sheer cliff walls. This was the White House Ruin, but to see it up close we had to go down the canyon using a series of switchbacks on the White House Ruin Trail.
The path down to the canyon floor was generally gradual and straightforward. There were a few places where steep drops were close to the trail but nothing too taxing on the trail itself. It took awhile to get down but we enjoyed the journey.
After we arrived on the floor of the canyon we were mindful of the fenced off areas as a number of Navajo families live in the canyon and still farm there. The entire park is owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation, unique among the National Park Service lands.
The canyon has been inhabited for 5,000 years, though the ruins there are more recent. The people who lived in the area were called Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) and they farmed in the canyon. They built the White House around 1060. It was used until the 1300s when they abandoned it, possibly in search of better farmland.
Eventually we reached the White House Ruin. It was given this name by the Navajo–Kinii’ ni gai (White House). The reason is due to the colour of the plaster inside some of the rooms. There about 80 rooms in total in the structures but the site is not open to the public so we weren’t able to see them.
Eventually we made our way back up the to the top and continued along the south rim drive. Each stop off gave us great views across the canyon.
Spider rock is a unique feature composed of two sandstone spires extending 750 feet (229 m) from the canyon floor. According to Navajo mythology, the spires represent Spider Grandmother, an important figure in their traditions.
We were nearing the end of the viewpoints when the weather started getting worse. Clouds had been coming in since the early afternoon, but by late afternoon it was completely clouded over and darkening. As we drove towards a final viewpoint the snow started falling.
At that point it looked like things weren’t going to get any better and we had seen most of the south rim, so we went back the motel for the evening.
North Rim Drive
The next morning we did the north rim drive. The weather was clear and much of the snow had vanished where the sun was shining down. There were a number of nice overlooks to do on this side as well.
Near one overlook was a series of massive pieces of flat rock that we walked across for other viewpoints.
We saw the ruins of one more ancient village from afar before we finished our tour of the north rim. Both drives were great, but if we could only choose one we would take the south rim, especially when the trail down into the canyon is included.
Late December was a cold time to visit the park, but the sunlight warmed things up. It was also quiet and easy to get around. If you are looking for a canyon experience that is less daunting than heading down into the Grand Canyon, and one filled with history at the bottom, the Canyon de Chelly is a good choice.