J. Dawg Journeys

Canyon De Chelly – A Place Like No Other

Canyon De ChellyWe left the mining towns and cool mountains of Colorado to travel south and then west into Arizona. Our journey took us from Durango, down to Gallup, and then over to Chinle. The drive took us down through the heart of the Navajo Reservation. It’s a stark contrast to the mountains of Colorado.

Our entry to the reservation was at Shiprock, which is named for the huge 7,000 ft monolith of a rock that juts out of the earth like the giant prow of a ship. Traveling south on Route 491, the land is a gentle rolling plain of sage and juniper bushes, with views of far off mesas and buttes. We passed through small villages like Sheep Springs and Naschitti that just have a gas station, convenience store, and a few odd buildings.

The Navajo, or the Diné (The People) as they call themselves, don’t seem to live in theses villages, but are scattered out in the plain in small clusters (clans). The houses are all small single story ranch style houses that have the look of inexpensive manufactured type housing. Unlike Colorado, this is not a land of prosperity.

Navajo Hogan

Traditional Navajo Hogan

Many of the houses seem to be in need of repair. Many have old tires on the roof to protect the shingles and roof from the wind. Next to many of these houses are traditional Hogans.

The Hogan is the traditional Navajo home. It is a small 8 sided building with conical roof. The Hogan is used for ceremonies, healing, and rituals. The entry door to the Hogan, as on many of the houses, faces to the east. The Navajo’s face their doors east to catch the morning light and blessings that come.

I’ve read some about the Navajo history and culture. Hampton Sides book Blood and Thunder is an excellent read about the clash of the Navajo with the white settlers. Also, as a fan of Tony Hillerman, I’ve read about the Navajo and envisioned their land through his murder mystery stories. Seeing the land with my own eyes helped to bring me more understanding of the people and their culture.

We made a brief stop at the Hubble Trading Post near the town of Ganado. The Trading Post is a National Historic place. It’s still operating as a store and supply stop for the Navajo and looks much like it did when JL Hubble started it in 1878.

  • Inside the Trading Post
  • Barn at Hubble Trading Post
  • Hubble Trading Post

The destination on this journey was Chinle to visit Canyon De Chelly. This is a unique and sacred place. It is the ancestral home of the Navajo. The Diné came to this place about 400 years ago and continue to live in the canyon and along the canyon rim. It’s also a National Monument. The US Park Service runs a small visitor center and provides maps and info, but it’s Navajo land and operates under Navajo rules.

The main way to see the Canyon for most visitors is along two canyon rim drives. There’s a south rim drive along the southern edge of Canyon De Chelly and a north rim drive along the northern rim of Canyon Del Muerto. Each drive has scenic turnouts that give spectacular views of the canyon below.

  • J. Dawg at Tsegi Overlook Canyon De Chelly
  • J. Dawg calling to the Dine
  • Spider Rock
  • Cav at Massacre Cave in Canyon Del Muerto
  • Antelope House Canyon Del Muerto

The canyon is unlike any others I’ve seen. The canyons twist and turn with towering sand stone and red rock walls that have been scooped out and carved by millions of years of erosion. The bottom of the canyons are lush with trees, pastures, and cultivated fields. It looks like an oasis with horses grazing, groves, and a winding stream. So unlike other canyons that are uninhabited or narrow.

Many Navajo still live in the canyon or have summer Hogans in the canyon. A Navajo man that I met while buying some of his jewelry, grew up living in the canyon. His family has a summer Hogan near Sliding House ruins and a winter Hogan in the north rim. His mother and brother were photographed by Ansel Adams in 1942.

It is possible to enter the bottom of the canyon, but only if you are accompanied by a registered Navajo guide. There’s no camping in the canyon and only one hiking trail to a specific ruin. There are several tour guide services that offer tours of the canyon bottom.  We didn’t take advantage of these tours and just did the rim drives.

We stayed at the Cottonwood Campground right near the visitor center. The campground is run by the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation. There are no hook ups or showers but there are basic restrooms, a dump station, and water filling station. All the sites are paved and the setting is in a nice quiet grove of cottonwood trees. It’s pretty much the only campground around and a good deal for $14 per night.

Cottonwood CampgroundCottonwood Campground

Cottonwood Campground

Canyon De Chelly (pronounced de SHAY) is a little off the beaten path and doesn’t get many visitors. The Navajo’s don’t seem to promote it and don’t make it easy to explore it. My guess is they want to preserve it as their home and not turn it into a mega tourist destination like some of the other National Parks. Seeing it from a distance was just fine with me.

The people I met while in Chinle (mostly vendors at the visitor center and the scenic turnouts) were all friendly, humble, and soft-spoken people. It’s the way of the Navajo. All seemed to enjoy explaining and telling the stories depicted in their art work. It was a great experience to be able to see their homeland and interact with a few of the Diné.

And, just a footnote on my visit in the reservation.  When we entered the reservation, my son Cavin, came up with a Navajo name for me.  Based on my “parking infraction” in Ouray, my new Navajo name is “Jimmy Two Spots”.  That’s what he’s been calling me for the past couple of days.

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5 thoughts on “Canyon De Chelly – A Place Like No Other

  1. Melinda

    We visited Canyon de Chelly several years ago and it has had a lasting impression on us. We camped in Cottonwood Campground and took the ranger led tour in the bottom of the canyon. During the tour a very old man driving a very old pickup truck drove by us and stopped to talk with the Navajo ranger who was leading the tour. As it turned our he was the tour leaders uncle and was one of the last of the living Code Talkers. What an honor to meet him.
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    1. J. Dawg Post author

      That’s a nice story. I had a similar experience talking to a local artist. He grew up in the canyon and drew me maps showing me his summer and winter homes in the canyon. He also helped me speak some Navajo expressions. It is a special place where you can experience a different culture.

  2. Louis Goldman

    This is a very special place. We went into the valley on horseback with a Navajo guide. Our other special place was Chaco Canyon.