Spiderwoman Rock, Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Nik Schulz
After leaving Taos we headed northwest across New Mexico toward Arizona. About 200 miles into that day’s drive, something loomed up over the edge of the horizon. It was Shiprock, the massive remains of an ancient volcano’s innards that rise 1,500 feet above the high desert plain. It was an otherworldly sentinel marking our entrance into the Navajo Nation.
Update: Here’s a quick video of the trip.
Shiprock looms ahead. Photo: Natalie Menacho
We come across a small herd of cattle roaming free in Navajo country. Photo: Nik Schulz
The Navajo Nation is spread across the northwestern corner of New Mexico and the northeastern corner of Arizona, where it reaches to about the middle of the state. Near the center of Navajo land was our next stop, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de Shay”).
Canyon de Chelly is actually two canyon systems. The northern branch is known as Canyon del Muerto while the southern branch is Canyon de Chelly proper.
Our first glimpse of the canyon came via Route 64, the northern rim road. We followed the sign to Massacre Cave Overlook (the first of three overlooks on the northern rim road) parked, walked to the edge, and looked over.
We found ourselves atop an 800 ft. high vertical cliff face looking down into beautiful Canyon del Muerto. A thin, two-track ribbon of road snaked along the canyon floor. Perhaps only 50 yards from us, in a cliff face alcove, were the ruins of ancient building. We felt like we’d stumbled across a lost world.
Looking down into Canyon del Muerto. Photo: Nik Schulz
Ancient ruins in the Canyon del Muerto cliffs. Photo: Natalie Menacho
According to a pamphlet at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument visitors center, Massacre Cave got its name in 1805 when a Spanish Military expedition, intent on retaliation for Navajo raids on New Mexican settlements, discovered a large group of Navajo hiding in a cave, high on a canyon wall. The expedition’s commander sent some of the party to back track and take up firing positions on the canyon rim. Before the day ended, over 100 Navajo, many of them women and children, were dead.
The tragic, the everyday, and the extraordinary seemed close at hand here.
At another overlook, we peered down into the canyon and saw the remains of Antelope House at place where the cliff face angles back on itself, forming a natural alcove. There, among farm plots still tended by the Navajo, we saw people setting up a tent. Their voices, focused by the curving cliff face, bounced up towards us and we could hear them as plain as day, even though they were perhaps 600 feet below us on the canyon floor.
Looking down onto to the ruins of Antelope House. Photo: Nik Schulz
The next day we arranged for a guide to join us in our vehicle for a tour of the canyon. Visitors aren’t allowed in the canyon without a Navajo guide. Many companies offer jeep tours but, if you want to explore the canyon in your own vehicle, you’ll need to hire a “step-on” guide. A list of these guides is available from the National Park Service visitors center. The going rate seems to be about $25/hour. We spent 4-1/2 hours in the canyon and explored about half of Canyon de Chelly (to Spider Rock) and a tiny bit of Canyon del Muerto (to Antelope House). See map below.
We met our guide in the parking lot of the local Holiday Inn, drove to the mouth of the canyon, aired down the tires, and headed in. The entrance to the canyon is wide, perhaps 150 yards across, and consists of deep sand. In the rainy season, which starts in mid-July and runs through the end of the summer, flash floods may submerge this entrance to a depth of four feet.
After driving to the point where the two canyons split off, our guide pointed out some petroglyphs. In the second photo, you’ll see a flute player lying on his back. A petroglyph guide book I bought defined this glyph as meaning, “the spirit has left the land.”
Petroglyphs in Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Natalie Menacho
Driving toward the canyon split. Photo: Natalie Menacho
Navajo ruins in Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Natalie Menacho
I like the way Natalie's hat gives her sunshine freckles. Photo: Nik Schulz
Our guide told us a story of a woman that used to live at the base of spider rock. She was a weaver and would weave spiderweb patterns into her fabrics. We explored the rock from the ground but when we looked at it through the binoculars from the southern rim road we could actually see the ruins of a small building at its base.
Heading towards Spider Rock. Photo: Nik Schulz
Spider Rock as seen from the southern rim road. Photo: Nik Schulz
Heading up Canyon del Muerto. Photo: Nik Schulz
When we asked how Navajo accessed the caves near the top of the canyon, he said they would climb down on notched poles. The next day, on our way out of town, we stopped and had one last look at Canyon de Chelly from Spider Rock Overlook. There, across the canyon, I spied with my binoculars a notched pole leaning against a cave on the other side. How long had it been there? Was I seeing some ancient artifact or had someone climbed down to the cave recently using traditional methods? It was amazing to ponder.
I snapped this shot through the binoculars and we were off to our next destination, Sedona, Arizona.
Notched pole leaning against a cave roof, Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Nik Schulz
Overland Journal: Summer 2010, page 80, “Canyon de Chelly” by Scott Brady
Canyon de Chelly is also covered briefly this Expedition Portal post: The Top 10 Southwest Overland Trails
Cottonwood Campground: This is where we camped. It’s right behind the visitors center and quite pleasant. Campsites are $10/night.
Contact the National Park Service visitors center for a list of guides: 928-674-5500
In his Overland Journal article, Scott recommends Cynthia Hunter: 928-675-0403
To see where Canyon de Chelly is located, and to trace our route, see the Google map below.
Here’s a quick video of the trip.
And here’s the full image gallery.