Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Part 2: South and North Rim Overlooks
Canyon de Chelly National Monument protects over 84,000 acres of the Navajo Reservation, encompassing Canyon Del Muerto and Black Canyon as well, that break off from the longer, eponymous Canyon de Chelly. These three canyons have been continually inhabited for almost 5,000 years dating back to archaic peoples and are home to Diné, the Navajo People, who have lived here since approximately 1700 AD. Attracted by reliable fresh water, fertile soil, and natural protection, people began building seasonal rock shelters here thousands of years ago. Over time as populations became less migratory due to agricultural cultivation, more permanent structures were built above the annual floodplains on the canyon floor and eventually, numerous multistory cliff dwelling were constructed by the Ancestral Puebloans, who sought greater assurance that their houses would not be damaged from rain and floods. The Hopi migrated here next around 1300 AD before moving west 300 years later. Finally the Navajo settled here, interrupted only by the brutal attempted genocide and expulsion of the survivors by the U.S. Government in 1864 that resulted in the 300-mile Long Walk. The canyons were repatriated to the Navajo 4 years later, though their fields had been destroyed, hogans burned, and animals slaughtered. The survivors persevered however, and today many Diné continue their traditions and way of life in the Tsegi, their physical and spiritual home that we know of as Canyon de Chelly.
With millenia of continuous occupation – and an attitude of respect by each new group for the remains of the people that lived before them – the canyons hold an incredible number and variety of ancient remains, from petroglyphs and pictographs to cliff dwellings and historical-era Navajo hogans. Though it is not permissible to enter the canyon unless you are part of a private tour led by a Navajo guide (with the one exception being The White House Ruins Trail), it is possible to see many ruins and numerous examples of rock from the rim overlooks, particularly with the aid of binoculars or a good zoom lens. I would urge even potential visitors who have less of an interest in the material remains to visit however as it is absolutely the most beautiful canyon I have visited. The sheer canyon walls streaked with desert varnish, the swirled sandstone buttes, the ephemeral pools on the rim, and the blue waters of the wash carving into the canyon floor below are just a few of the features that make it incredible.
I visited the overlooks and walked around sections of the rim in the early to mid-morning which was rather unfortunate in terms of photos, but I was able to see through the darkness clinging to the canyon floor and watch as the shadows retreated towards the southeastern walls as the morning went on. I began on the south rim at Spider Rock, an 800-foot monolithic sandstone spire that rises towards the top of the thousand foot sheer cliffs and gradually worked my way towards the mouth of the canyons before driving back out along the north rim. From the overlooks I was able to view multiple cliff dwellings tucked into the canyon walls – though many were in shadow and impossible to see in my photos – as well as markings left by the Basketmaker peoples, the Ancestral Puebloans, the Hopi, and the Navajo. Coincidentally I just made a return trip to Canyon de Chelly this week and will have plenty more (and better!!) photos from that visit up on the blog in a few months. I will say though, that however beautiful the canyon looked dusted in snow, it’s even more fantastic tinged with the green of Spring. I also visited the rim overlooks in the afternoon this time which allowed me to use more natural light into the canyon.