Canyon de Chelley National Monument


Arizona, Apache County, the closest town is Chinle. Area: 131 square miles. Off Hwy. 191 and Route 7 (at Chinle). Defiance Plateau region. Chinle Wash separates the north and south rims.

Considered the last stronghold of the Navajo when forced to leave their land in 1864, this three-pronged canyon represents a riparian (streamside) sector with desert terrain ideal for farming and raising sheep. With its swirly looking pink or orange sandstone, Canyon de Chelly's (pronounced "de-shay") chasm is hidden in the plane of its topography until viewed from either rim. Most famous landmark: the Spider Rock monolith jutting from the canyon floor. Most famous ruins: White House, a cliff dwelling inscribed into sandstone walls above the canyon floor.

White House ruins:

The Iconic Spider Rock

Canyon de Chelly NM is a unit of the NPS, while the governing body is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The monument and its lengthy setting preserve ruins of the early indigenous tribes that once lived there, mainly the Ancestors. The monument encompasses the floors and rims of three canyon annexes: de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. The name (de) Chelly is Spanish in origin and comes from the Navajo word Tséyi’ meaning canyon(literally, inside the rock). The most distinctive feature of this setting, apart from its attractive geology, is the twin sandstone spire, Spider Rock. Its stunning column rises totem-like some 800 feet (240 m) from the canyon floor at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. According to Navajo legend, the taller of the two spires is also the home of Spider Woman. Canyon de Chelly remains in the ownership of the Navajo Nation, while matters pertaining to its natural features are administered by the Department of the Interior (under the auspices of the NPS). Visitors entering the canyon complex must be authorized by either a park ranger or a Navajo guide. However, the famed White House Ruin trail is accessible to visitors without a guide. The setting’s status as a national monument was made official in 1931.

Guided Tour Essentials
Canyon de Chelly is three canyons in one, all with towering walls overlooking the main stream, the Rio de Chelly, that indolently flows in the middle of this wide, spacious chasm. The key to the geologic formations is the direct connection with the regional Defiance Uplift (an uplifted region extending from the Four Corners region to the E-W I-40 corridor and just inside Arizona’s border). The uplift itself trends north-south along an anticline (a convex up fold in the planet’s crust with the oldest layers at its core) for over 100 miles. Here in the canyon, the youngest geologic rocks of the Paleozoic Era overlap the more ancient Precambrian foundation, representing millions of years of so-called unconformities (missing rock layers). Like all canyons, this impressive canyon domain cut and carved near Chinle, Arizona could not have been accomplished without the geophysical force of an uplift and the consequent downcutting of water. In this case, three gentle and shallow streams followed by erosion. Apart from the gorgeous and commanding view of the canyon itself, the de Chelly Sandstone (deposited sometime roughly between 230 and 250 million years ago) is not the usual horizontally deposited type of sandstone. Instead, it is windblown and cross-bedded, meaning there are many depositional surfaces, all highly inclined to the horizontal. The deepest layer is composed of numerous wedges, with steeply dipping angles greater than thirty degrees. The result is a facade of petrified sand dunes, whose swirling contour still seems like a petrified desert landscape.

The Settings Exquisite, Swirling Sandstone:

The trinity of canyons making up Canyon de Chelly were each cut by streams with headwaters in the regional Chuska Mountains (east of the monument). The Rio de Chelly originates close to the Arizona-New Mexico borders, winding its way westward where it empties into Chinle Wash just west of the canyon. In this sector, the tortuous and usually wide stream is enclosed by high vertical walls ranging in depth from an average of 1,000 feet to about 30 feet at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. The canyon is on the northwest slope of the Defiance Uplift and ends in the west, where the de Chelly sandstone formation plunges under the surface just east of Chinle, Arizona. The elongate Defiance Uplift (a/k/a/ an "upwarp") during the Laramide period is the deciding factor regarding the geology and topographical features in this region. (This orogeny marks a lengthy period of intense mountain-building in western North America that roughly began 71 to 81 million years ago and ended roughly between 35 to 55 million years ago.)

As is the case of all canyons, the original landscape was common and featureless. Then came this pivotal uplift event, where the land rose above regional seas on several occasions. As a result, Permian rocks of the Paleozoic Era directly rest atop Precambrian rocks, which represents millions of years of unconformities (missing rock strata from the tapestry of time). Steeply inclined on its eastern flank, but sloping more gently on its western side, the uplift has eroded down and into older rock layers (notably de Chelly Sandstone). Other than the entire Colorado Plateau even that raised the Four Corners region, the Defiance Uplift is the secondary geophysical force that initially elevated the Canyon de Chelly region. This upwarp effect of the earth’s topographical features extends from the Four Corners region to I-40 just inside the Arizona border. This specific and regional uplift also typifies a north-south anticline extending over 100 miles. Think of an immense physical force pushing up a gently uplifted island in the midst of the already elevated Colorado Plateau. That’s precisely what happened here.

The Enduring Effects Of Down-Cutting
Regarding the catalyst behind Canyon de Chelly's downcutting process, all three canyon sectors were carved by streams (Rio de Chelly, Tsaile and Whiskey Creeks), which come together to form Chinle Wash. The Rio de Chelly is the primary stream that drains the canyon. The soaring walls of the canyon, including Canyon del Muerto, are higher eastward as the de Chelly Sandstone formation rises toward the summit of the Defiance Plateau. Because of the erosional process, Canyon de Chelly became not only a classic and highly picturesque canyon backdrop, but also provided an ideal and natural protection for both ancient and modern Native Americans. (Perhaps the classic 1904 archive photograph of just how attractive the canyon's setting is this diary's Edward S. Curtis opening photograph largely known as Seven riders on horseback and dog trek against the background of canyon cliffs.)

Fetching Rocks
The orange-tinctured de Chelly bedrock is not the usual horizontally deposited kind of sandstone. This unique sandstone is heavily cross-bedded, revealing a number of depositional surfaces highly inclined to the horizontal, and composed of wedges with steeply dipping angles greater than thirty degrees. In short, there’s an obvious tilt of this very noticeable formation. Its structure also indicates a windblown (aeolian) origin for the individual rock layers. This de Chelly sandstone’s cross-stratification is very typical of wind-blown dune deposits that attained a depth of some 50 feet. Laid down as sediments during the Permian Period (roughly, 90 to 250 million years ago), you don’t have to know too much about geology to know this foundational material comes with a unique flair of its design. Capping this material is the harder and more resistant Shinarump Conglomerate. A member of the Mesozoic Era's Chinle Formation (roughly, 210 to 230 million years ago), its base material is a mixture of coarse sand and rounded pebbles of Precambrian rock (notably, chert, a fine-grained silica-rich microcrystalline sedimentary rock). The exposed upper surface of this conglomerate rock is also scoured by wind and rain. Scored with myriad shallow potholes, its veneer provides ideal nesting places for canyon wrens, swifts and swallows. From most of the vistas on either side of the canyon, the sharp contact between the Shinarump Conglomerate and de Chelly Sandstone is clearly exposed, representing some sixty years of erosion or non-deposition.

Famous Ansel Adams Canyon de Chelly photo:

Another striking feature of the canyon’s attractive walls is the sweeping laminae (a thin layer) of the sandstone's wind-deposited origins, which is especially noticeable above White House Ruin. The artistry of the cross-bedding effect forms the sloping ceilings of numerous recesses and alcoves. Many canyon walls are also streaked with shiny stains of manganese and iron oxides commonly called desert varnish (a/k/a/ "patina"). These engaging ribbons of carbonaceous plant material either originate from overlying soils or were formed in place as algae, lichens, and mosses that typically grow on damp surfaces.

Classic Patina Stripes (White House Ruins):

Human History
Found in the gaping fissure of Canyon de Chelly are numerous archeological resources on both rims, walls and bottomlands. Typical of the Colorado Plateau’s climate, the ruins have been preserved largely due to aridity and the natural shelter of these caves and overhangs. Among the ruins are a wide variety of delicate artifacts and organic remains. These have been preserved and represent over 1500 years of human occupation. Scores of petroglyphs represent the ancient human presence of this protective fortress-sanctuary and its popularity with the Ancestral Puebloans. Most of their villages were built between 350 and 1300. The earliest known occupants constructed individual circular pithouses, so called because the lower parts of the dwellings were hollowed pits dug into the ground. Initially, the chief weapon of these aboriginal people was a spear-throwing device called an atlatl. (The bow-and-arrow was not a viable tool until centuries later.) They were hunters and so-called dry farmers who made excellent baskets, sandals and other woven articles for clothing, as well as mats for sleeping on the ground.

Early on in their developing culture the Ancestral Puebloans did not make pottery, because its invention doesn't appear until the Basketmaker III Era (about 500 to 750). Because of their fine basketry, these primal residents are also commonly referred to as the Basketmaker people. In later centuries, the Basketmaker II and III-era people adopted innovative ideas, which were introduced by transient outsiders. It’s also possible they learned these ideas from other tribes during their migrations elsewhere. For example, the art of making pottery, the bow and arrow, bean cultivation, and much later, growing cotton (during the Pueblo IV Era, about 1350 to 1600). The style of their houses also gradually changed over the centuries. Pit-houses fell out of use and were replaced with rectangular houses of stone masonry above the ground. These dwellings also connected to form compact villages. So began the apartment house theme after 700. The dwellers of these stone abodes lived in pueblos, a Spanish word for village. Most of the large and impressive cliff houses were later built between 1100 and 1300, which defines the so-called Pueblo II and III Eras. Sometime during the late 1300s, and possibly close to 1279, a prolonged drought affected what is now the Four Corners region. At this time the people abandoned the area.

Contemporary People
Puebloans of Arizona and New Mexico are direct descendants of the pre-Columbian people who lived in Canyon de Chelly, as well as all other archeological sites throughout the Colorado Plateau. The Hopi may have visited the region, perhaps even sowing and harvesting crops. Somewhere around 1700 is thought Navajos entered the region and began to settle here. Canyon de Chelly was preferred both as a stronghold and agricultural area. Initially, its high-walled domain was used as one of the main staging points for raiding New Mexican villages throughout the Rio Grande region. It’s not known when Europeans first came to this region; however, a Spanish map made in 1776 includes Canyon de Chelly in its drawings. Later retaliatory raids of the Spaniards was sanctioned to protect New Spain's (Mexico) political interests and defend the New Mexicans, while also subjugating Navajo invaders. Raids on the Navajos, either launched by the conquistadors or New Mexicans, were common, just as the Navajos repeatedly raided New Mexican villages or Spanish strongholds. Intended to engage the enemy and quash their relentless raids, the Spaniards and Navajos conducted their respective raiding campaigns until 1805, at which time a large Spanish punitive expedition pushed deeper into Navajo territory, eventually invading Canyon de Chelly’s seeming formidable frontier. Their superior force killed scores of Navajo at a famous rock shelter inside the canyon now called Massacre Cave. This bloody historical account is also depicted in pictographs on select canyon walls. Despite the military strength of the Spaniards, the Navajos continued their raids, for this was a way of life with their culture fairly described as a semi-nomadic and warfaring people.

Glyphs marking the men who wore armor and brought horses to the North American continent:

Even after the Americans, the Anglos, arrived some forty years later with the intention of expanding the federal government's land holdings, Navajo raids persisted. The Union Army, however, was as determined to stop the raiding as the Navajo were in continuing these opportunistic sorties. Essentially, the Navajo offensives amounted to stealing from the New Mexicans to replenish crops and livestock (especially horses). Taking captives (for slaves) was also a common practice on both sides.

The Americans encroachment into the canyon-maze territory of the Navajo realized their forces, like the Spaniards before them, had to concentrate their efforts on Canyon de Chelly. Various dragoons that set out to subdue their enemy were also at loss, for they did not know the location of this rumored abode the desert terrain seemingly swallowed and kept secret. The officers in charge only knew this distant and remote setting was far from the Mexican and American settlements. Consequently, the Army continued having difficulty finding this sizable impression, mainly because of how the secret hideout was nestled in a relatively planed desert topography. Its uncharted location was nonetheless deemed important to find. Ongoing sorties continued creeping closer to, what some soldiers considered to be, a phantom setting cleaved into the ranging desert country.

Then in 1864 everything changed. A detachment under Colonel Kit Carson's assigned cavalry regiment discovered what no other units had discovered. The chance sighting happened only after scouts got close enough to the rim to gaze down into Canyon de Chelly’s stone fortress. Realizing an advantage (due to the box canyon snare), the Army penetrated the canyon from the west (near present-day Chinle, Arizona). The Navajo were left with no recourse other than surrender and sign a treaty with the U. S. Government. To say the least, it was a humiliating defeat. Worse than this was the event and scourge that soon followed.

One of the most famous scouts in the American West:

The Shameful "Long Walk" Saga
The Army's determined campaign, inspired by General Carleton, would ultimately end all Navajo raiding. Some eight thousand Navajos were eventually rounded up and forced to settle in eastern New Mexico's Bosque Redondo, which signifies the Navajo Long Walk saga. This literal concentration camp relocation and exodus was a forced and desperate march to eastern New Mexico. Carleton’s plan for the Navajo’s new settlement was based on staunch idealism, whereby the nomadic warriors would be turned into pastoral farmers. Yet the plan failed after just four years. Eastern New Mexico was a territory the Navajo despised and many of them perished living there. Those who did survive were finally permitted to return to their homeland, not as interlopers bent on revenge, but as peaceful emigrants who would become farmers and sheep herders on their own reservation. This was also the native land and landscape they had originally come to, including Canyon de Chelly’s maze and desert environment where few others would tread. This was also home and now there was an established and lasting peace between the Americans and the Navajos. In time, the Corps of Topographical Engineers ventured into the canyon, not with weapons, but with scientific instruments. There they recorded several archeological sites, including the most famous, Casa Blanca (meaning "White House").

A book highly recommended that thoroughly covers Kit Carson's life and the so-called Indian campaigns (as well as the Americanization of the West):

Flora And Fauna
Vegetation within Canyon de Chelly is almost entirely within the Transition Zone, ranging from desert grassland in the area of Chinle Wash, to evergreen forest on the Defiance Plateau and Chuska Mountain range. Native plants found in the depths of the canyon are typical in this region: yucca, opuntia cactus and grama grass, and selected small stands of Utah juniper and Mexican pine. Yucca fiber was important to prehistoric peoples for making cords, sandals and baskets. Piñon nuts were also a staple fall and winter food source for cliff dwellers and modern Navajo alike. Wildlife include coyote, raccoon, badger, kit fox, mountain lion, and bobcat. Occasionally, black bear wander into the canyon.

Then there are the other animals the Navajo are famous for herding and shearing (and of course, sheep dig is one of their favorite meals (National Geographic photo):

Bonus Details
Myths are important to the Navajo, and the Spider Woman is perhaps the most famous regarding its theme of possessing supernatural powers. According to their beliefs, the Navajo at the time of Spider Woman's creation (and consequently their own) emerged from a Third World into this, the Fourth World. It was thought that monsters roamed the land and killed many people (who one assumes were not people of the Fourth World). Spider Woman loved her people.

As a protector, she gave power to Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water to search for the Sun-God who was their father. When found, Sun-God showed them how to destroy all the monsters on land and in water. Because Spider Woman had preserved them, the Navajo consider her a pivotal and honored deity. She also chose the top of the designated monolith where she lives, Spider Rock. It was also Spider Woman who taught the people the art of weaving upon a loom. For the children, there's also a special significance regarding Spider Woman: When hearing warnings about their ill behavior from parents and guardians, they know that if they fail to act accordingly Spider Woman will descend her web-ladder and carry them up to her home to devour them! Children also learn that the top of the monolith is white from the sun-bleached bones of Navajo children who did not behave.

There are many fine books written about the iconic Spider Woman. This is one of them:

Beside the fable of Spider Woman, there is Spider Grandmother, the creator of the world in many Native American religions, especially fostered by Puebloan Indians and Navajo. Spider Grandmother is responsible for the stars in the sky, for according to fable she took a web she had spun and laced it with dew, then threw the web into the sky and the dew became stars.

Of course, there are other kinds of legends written about this canyon's setting, and sometimes Hollyweird films a decent yarn. This is perhaps one of the most famous movie with a star-studded cast:

Scenic Drives And Hikes
The South Rim's 36-mile roundtrip drive offers five impressive overlooks, while the North Rim's 32-mile roundtrip drive offers three. If there’s time to spare, both rims should be visited by tourists. The trail to White House ruins on the South Rim side is the only pathway leading into the canyon, which also does not require a permit. Otherwise, four-wheel vehicle and the larger WW II Army surplus trucks, as well as horseback excursions, are all Navajo-led tours inside the canyon. Overnight stays, either by horseback or smaller vehicles, can also be arranged, including lodging in select hogans at the bottom of the canyon. Navajo guides who enjoys backpacking or day hikes can also be contracted for their services.

Take heed! Also, if the sheep are running (being herded), they have the right-of-way, as do the dogs and Navajos escorting the herd. Just listen for the tingling bells and you'll know they're near.

From Kayenta, Arizona, go east on Hwy. 160, then right on Route 59 (toward Chinle), then left on Hwy. 191 (south). Visitor center is 3 miles from Route 191 (in Chinle). Coming From Flagstaff, I-40 East, then Hwy. 191 (north). From Gallup, Hwy. 264 to Hwy. 191 (north).

Parting shots:

Contact Information: NPS/Canyon de Chelly, P. O. Box 588, Chinle AZ 86503. Phone (Visitor Center): 928-674.5500. Fax 674-5507. Email embedded in NPS site’s URL (click on “Email Us”)

As always, your thoughtful commentaries are welcomed.

Happy Trails!