April, May, September, and October are the best times to visit this Navajo “Place Within the Rock.”
The wide, flat canyon floor is surrounded by red, sandstone mountains of sheer cliff walls, exceeding 1,000 feet high in places.
The scenery is spectacular. This has been the home to Native American clans and tribes for nearly 5,000 years. It is still sacred to The Navajo Nation today, and they inhabit and farm the lands at the foot of the mountains. No one else is allowed to enter the canyon without a native guide, except on the steep foot-path, which is about 2.5 miles round trip, to see the White House Ruins up close.
These are the re-enforced remains of three distinctly different periods of settlement, as this area has been occupied the longest time of any local on the Colorado Plateau.
Chelly (pronounced Shay-ih) Canyon has remains of many ancient manmade structures along its steep cliffs, which were probably food storage places, places of worship, and some living quarters.
They are high up straight cliff walls, most likely for protection of food from animals, and were reached by hand and foot holes in the sandstone and wooden ladders, which could be pulled up at night.
In ancient times the bottom of the canyon was much higher than today, as evidenced by the watermarks on its walls. This broad canyon was created by up rises of land, passing of glaciers, and the path of rushing water after torrential rains. There are many pictographs, which were painted on by ancient people using white sand mixed with urine and tree sap. There are also many petroglyphs, which were scraped into the black water streaks called desert varnish left by cascades of water down the steep canyon sides after a rain. The faded drawings are difficult to see and are the most ancient ones, thousands of years old from the time of “The People,” who wandered into this area from the Bering Straits and Canada. These depict deer, stars, moon, an echo symbol of concentric circles, and a life journey of the soul shown as a spiraling circle. From the Anasazi period are pictures of men with horns, probably a ceremonial dancer with an animal headdress.
Scorpions and snakes are depicted. From more recent history the Hopi left pictures of hunters without weapons on horses, chasing deer. A place in the canyon known as Canyon del Muerto was the site in which Spanish colonists occupying this area in the 1700s massacred 150 Native American people taking refuge and hiding on a ledge from the colonist Spaniards. But these foreigners brought domesticated sheep, goats, horses and orchard trees. After the Spaniard period horses were drawn on the petroglyphs.
Navajo guides, who take you through the canyon in good four-wheel drive vehicles, are well-trained and good drivers. They know the history of their people, their ancestors, and their home “Place Within the Rock,” still sacred to them today. The guide service is pricey but well worth it for a half or whole day. For any backpacking or hiking or camping in the canyon you are also required to hire a guide. This protects the private Navajo farms and homes from intruders and gives the visitors a wealth of information. Restrooms, snacks and beverages and handcrafts for sale are at several stops in the canyon, and the craftsmanship of these talented artisans is exquisite. The designs are ancient and tell stories and customs and sacred concepts.
Along the Rim Drive, an easy 35-mile drive around the top of the canyon on a good paved road, you can stop at various lookout points with parking even for RVs and see spectacular views down into the canyon.
This drive does not require a guide for those who cannot hire a guide or spare the time to go down into the canyon. The National Monument overlooks are at well-chosen places for incredible photographs. Take your binoculars to study the beautiful scenery up close. These unique rock formations are a geologist’s dream and fascinating for anyone who appreciates natural beauty. Be sure to walk out to the lookout point at Spider Rock, with one of the most spectacular vistas anywhere.
Legend has it that Spider Woman, the goddess who taught weaving to The People, was here and Dine (Navajo) parents tell their children to be good or Spider Woman will take naughty children to the top of the 800-foot spire to decide their fate.
Although Chelly Canyon is about an hour detour from Hwy I-40, on 191 North to Chilne, AZ, it is well worth the detour and time. We loved our stay at the Cottonwoods Campground (beside beautiful Thunderbird Lodge, where you can find very nice accommodations and restaurant.) The campground is without hook-ups but has clean restrooms.