Hiking down a 1,000 foot cliff to see a 1,000-year-old cliff dwelling in Canyon de Chelly National Monument I met a woman making the same trek for the fourth time that week. She wasn’t there as a tourist but to exercise. Her family has farmed on land near a similar cliff dwelling further up the canyon for hundreds of years.
I asked her what it is like living in such a special place. She said she wished she had always realized how special her home is. She didn’t understand this until she returned to the area after many years away for school and work. Now she struggles like many others in the community to share that sense of respect and pride with younger generations.
She lives in a place that preserves thousands of years of human history, not just hundreds of years of her Navajo people, but also remnants of the Ancestral Puebloans and even bits from before them. Canyon de Chelly isn’t a deep or wide canyon like the Grand Canyon. It is a series of small canyons and valleys formed by many creeks and streams joining into one river. The canyon has steep walls and low flat expanses on the floor that make it great for sheltered farming, which has taken place there for generations.
One cannot just go wandering into this beautiful and storied place as it is an active home of many families with land where they farm and live. Because of this, to visit the National Monument, you can go to a series of overlooks along both rims and take a single marked trail down to one preserved cliff dwelling. If you want a more in-depth visit, it is possible to go with a Navajo guide into the canyon itself to see more of the archeological sites up close.
North Rim Drive
The north rim of the monument has three overlooks to drive to. Two of them offer views into the canyon with Anasazi cliff dwellings. The other has a more recent significance from Navajo history with the conquering Spanish. This rim is less visited than the south side since there are fewer things to see.
I drove out to the furthest overlook first, which is Massacre Cave Overlook. This is where a group of women, children and elderly tried to seek refuge from Spanish conquerors and ended up being slaughtered where they hid on a cliff-side ledge. At the same turnoff for this sobering overlook is another for one of the more interesting Ancestral sites. It is called Mummy Cave.
I found this very interesting because of all of the ancient sites I’ve been to in the Southwest I have never heard of mummies being found or even burial sites. This cave received its name because two mummies were found in the structure by archeologists.
Two other overlooks on this rim drive give perspective into the canyon from above not just of the ancient ruins but also of current life of those who still cultivate the land below.
South Rim Drive
Seven overlooks line this rim drive. I started at the White House Overlook so I could take the one public trail down to the ruin before it got too late. The trail takes you down a nearly 1,000 foot cliff with the trail carved right into the rock at times. It leads down to the canyon floor and across the creek to the ruins at the base of the far wall.
On the hike I was immersed in this special place that was in full bloom for spring. I felt I was a part of it rather than just an observer looking down from the rim. If you have the stamina and time, take the trail and breathe it all in.
After the hike, I made my way to one of the more unique sites and overlooks all the way at the end of the National Monument. It isn’t an ancient ruin but rather a geological feature called Spider Rock. The name has its origins in Navajo mythology as the Spider Woman is who taught the Navajo how to weave. It is a beautiful spire of stone rising from the canyon floor to the height of the canyon walls. If caught in the right light, it is magnificent.
The other overlooks offered wonderful views of ancient ruins and the spectacular canyon itself. At Tsegi Overlook, I sat in a secluded spot on the slickrock overlooking the canyon below as the sun dipped lower and lower casting long shadows across the winding river and wild horses with their young foals grazing below. It was serenity.
Canyon de Chelly is in northeast Arizona in the Navajo Nation just outside of Chinle. The name is a phonetic miss spelling of the Navajo or Dine word for the place—Tsegi. It is a lovely place full of rich history and culture. I definitely recommend a visit.
Unless you’re planning to take multiple excursions into the canyon with tour groups, you don’t need more than a day at this fantastic place. There are many accommodations nearby including two campgrounds (I stayed at the Cottonwood Campground) and many hotels if you need to stay overnight.