Brown Sign: Canyon de Chelly

Canyon Overlook

On our last tour through the eastern region of Arizona, Sue voiced a desire to visit Canyon de Chelly, near Chinle, AZ.  She and Charlie had traveled there a couple of decades earlier with Aunt Barbara.  She was curious to see if the Thunderbird Lodge still used the open-bed trucks to haul tourists into the canyon. Yes, they do.  This was our first trip into the canyon.  We are back again, this time with Emily.  May we have the fortune to return this way in the future.  

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de Shay”) is within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, near the Four-Corners region.  When it was designated as a National Monument, the Navajo people, who have lived around and in the in the canyon for generations, were granted the right to use the land in their traditional manner and to provide guided tours.  You may drive the canyon rim roads to stunning overlooks on your own, but you must hire a Navajo guide to enter the canyon.  These guides can be on the flat-bed trucks from the Thunderbird Lodge (full and half day tours), in private SUV’s, on horseback, or foot.  Each of the two canyon forks has a shallow river, depending on the time of year, which you will ford numerous times, so wear something that can get wet.

Every changing views

Canyon de Chelly includes both the canyon of that name on the southern fork, and Canyon del Mureto to the north.  Each canyon has spectacular slickrock walls, free-standing pillars, hidden side-canyons, ancient dwelling places, and pictographs (painted on) and petroglyphs (chiseled into).  This is not a seen-one-(insert any of the features above)-seen-them-all sort of place.  Each turn of the canyon brings another view which could knock you out of the SUV.  Keep the camera clicking and bring extra batteries.

The storm had blown over by Friday morning (5/20/11), when we awoke… at 5 a.m.  However, as the Navajo Nation observes daylight savings time, unlike the rest of Arizona, it was now 6 a.m.   Hmmm.  Did not feel like sleeping in.  Our jeep tour of Canyon de Chelly would start at 3 p.m.  Linda made coffee and I stepped out to check on the weather conditions.  Crisp, but not too cool, air filled the Cottonwood Campsite next to the Thunderbird Lodge.  The campground was full of Airstream campers who must have been on a caravan, as by afternoon they were all gone.  I should have taken DNA samples to test my theory of the genetics of nomadic life.  After a leisurely breakfast, writing postcards, and reviewing drafts of these blogs in anticipation of finding internet access, we headed on the road to check out overlooks into the canyon.

Thursday evening, we had ventured out to two of the farthest overlooks on Canyon de Chelly, as the sun set and the curtains of rain and hail approached.  While this was not as spectacular as two years ago when Linda and I enjoyed sunset over the canyon, the changing clouds brought different light each minute.  Emily had noted this phenomenon in the desert as the light goes from bright spotlights, to filtered shade to steel blues under denser clouds.  We could sit and watch any of these views for hours and see something different every few minutes as the light changed. Friday morning, we headed to the north rim views along Canyon de Muerto, which branches off from Canyon de Chelly.

The first sensation, which aroused our attention, was not the view but the pungent aroma of the pinon junipers.  With the moisture from recent storms these were clear and fresh.  This scent filled the walks out to the canyon rims.  Both canyons glow with the red-orange shades of the Supi Sandstone layer.  This strata sits below a layer of conglomerate

From the Canyon Floor

(pebbles stuck together) and the Chinle Formation that we saw in the Painted Desert.  The elevation of this region is higher, at 5,000’ to 6,000’, than the Painted Desert though.  Geologists theorize that this has occurred because of the uplifting of the Colorado Plateau.  The Supi Sandstone and other layers of rock have pushed up, exposing the softer clays to more erosive forces, which pull the particles down stream to flat washes.  Tunnel Overlook has a good example of this, with an orange layer rising up from the river bed, a tan layer filled with pebbles, and a greenish clay layer smoothing over from the rim edge.

While approaching the overlooks you might not recognize the 600’ to 1000’ foot high cliffs until you are about to step over the edge.  The Park Service has built a number of walkways with railing and brick knee-walls to suggest from where you should view.  You may walk out on several of the curving ledges with caution.  As you approach the canyon, the opposite wall, possibly ¼ to ¾ of a mile away begins to separate you from the horizon.  Then, you can look over the edge at the meandering stream, the cottonwood trees that form green around its edges, the linear farm fields, an occasional hogan and ramada, and some livestock.  What is most likely to overwhelm you is the massive red face of the sandstone cliffs.

As we ate our sandwiches for lunch, we watched an approaching thunderstorm.  It began to rain about an hour before our tour, which was scheduled to be in an open jeep.  We headed over to the meeting location early and found our guide, Sylvia (Canyon Jeep Tours,  She had arranged for a Suburban instead of the jeep because of the rain.  She was our guide for the next

Bried Waterfalls over Desert Varnish

four hours.  While this trip into the canyon was different from our open-air truck two years ago, we were able to see many different features because of the rain.  The rain ran off of the canyon rims deepening the contrast between the sandstone and the desert varnish where the water moistened the surface.  Several ephemeral waterfalls formed as water filled spillways.  Sylvia pointed out many ruins with petroglyphs and pictographs, which standard tours by-pass, and we would not have spotted.  While we missed the grandeur of the panoramas we would see in an open-air vehicle, we learned of details otherwise overlooked.

She told us her standard stories about Massacre Cave, Navajo Fortress, and The Long Walk, she also began to talk about growing up in the canyon.  She pointed out where she and her friends and siblings played along the walls, the trails in and out of the canyon, taking shelter in ruins when thunderstorms broke out,

White House Ruins

and herding sheep.  She talked about how these traditions are fading as children grow toward modern society and not the hard work of subsistence farming.  She talked about her culture and beliefs, filling the periods of rain during our tour with details otherwise missed by those wanting a less personal guide.  She showed us the Hogan where she was born and told a story about an owl at that location.  We came to see a magnificent canyon and discovered details so often overlooked.

Adendum: In the Navajo tradition, you do not photograph someone or share personal information to others.  I have attempted to pass on only the basic outline of our time with Sylvia and only post general photos of the canyon in respect of this tradition.  May you have the pleasure of such a visit some day.


About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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One Response to Brown Sign: Canyon de Chelly

  1. The Vicar says:

    Thanks for sharing the insights on the Navajo culture. With a tradition of not sharing pictures or stories, I’m guessing Facebook may not be an option for more devout followers of Navajo (sounds like I might fit in just fine).

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