Located right off of Highway 191 near Chinle, Arizona, Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited places in all of North America.
People have lived in these canyons for nearly 5,000 years. First the Basketmakers lived here, followed by the Anasazi (ancestors of today’s Pueblo and Hopi Indians). This latter group moved out of the canyons some 700 years ago, but the Hopi migrated to the area after that and settled in the canyon during the summers. The Navajo followed. Today, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which was established in 1931, encompasses nearly 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation, and many Navajo families still live in the canyon.
There are several cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly, which can be viewed from scenic drives and overlooks on both the north and south sides of the canyon. Though this provides a good overview of the area, if you want to get into the canyon, your options are fairly limited.
Because the land in the canyon is inhabited by people, visitors to the park are not able to freely climb into and out of the canyon at their leisure. There is one exception and that is the hike to the White House Ruin, which is 2.5 miles round trip. Beyond that, there are only a couple ways to get into the canyon:
1. Take a private guided tour with a Navajo guide. You can go hiking, backcountry camping, horseback riding and four-wheeling in the canyon, but you have to do so with a guide. Arrangements are made through Thunderbird Lodge, which is in the park near the Cottonwood Campground. When we were there, the price was $20 per hour per person for a minimum of three hours.
2. Take advantage of the free guided hikes given by national park personnel offered in the summer. On the weekends throughout the summer, there is one guided hike a day into the canyon. Stop by the visitors center when you arrive in the park to find out where and when the hike will be happening, and get your name on the list to go. These early morning hikes lead to one of several of the ruins in the canyon and take between three and four hours.
Canyon de Chelly is a no-fee park and located very close to Chinle, a good-sized town. As a result, there is a lot of traffic running through the park that is unrelated to the park itself. There are frequently people who park and hang out in Cottonwood Campground, which is reminiscent of a state campground rather than one run by the National Park Service. It was a bit curious and unnerving to be observed by people sitting in their vehicles while we put up our tent and ate our meals, but it seems to be a common occurrence.
- Pack binoculars. In order thoroughly appreciate the dwellings in the canyon from above, you’ll want to use a pair of binoculars to spot and observe them.
- Don’t feed the wandering dogs in the campgrounds. Though some of them are strays, many are not but they continue to spend time in the campgrounds begging for food because people feed them. Help break that cycle by ignoring them instead.
- Car thefts at overlooks are common so lock your valuables up. Be mindful of what you leave behind at your camp as well.
- This is a no-fee park and camping is first-come, first-served. There were plenty of spots at Cottonwood Campground over the weekend during the summer when we visited.
- Cottonwood Campground is called that for a reason. If you have allergies, bring plenty of meds to combat the floating cotton in the air.
- Take advantage of the ranger-led hike if you are able. If you choose to hire a guide, I would suggest you make sure it is in the best interest of the environment. The four-wheelers really tear up the land.
- Drink lots of water—it’s a desert out there!
- The Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Time but the rest of Arizona and the Hopi Nation does not. When you visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument during the summer, it is one hour ahead of the rest of the state.
- Once you reach the bottom of Canyon de Chelly, it is either a wet or dried up wash. Expect to hike through water or slog through deep sand.