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Exploring The Parks: Canyon De Chelly National Monument

White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly NM, copyright Kurt Repanshek
White House Ruin is the main attraction for many who visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Perry Yazzie rapidly works the Jeep's clutch in response to the dips in the dirt track, but the clutch nevertheless complains loudly from time to time, gnashing its metal teeth as we head deeper and deeper into Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

The Jeep forges on as Yazzie takes us deeper into the past in a canyon that overflows with human history, reverence, and despair. Though you can gaze down into the canyon from the monument's road, to reach the inner sanctum you must rely on one of the local Navajo tour guides. Although the monument was added to the National Park System in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover, the agreement left most of the landscape as the property of the Navajo Nation.

Tribal members such as Mr. Yazzie, whose family is one of about 40-50 Navajo families that own land on the canyon floor, continue to farm that land, raise livestock there in summer, and guide tours.

"Usually by the end of April is when the families come down here," he says over the Jeep's roar as we bounce and buck our way into the inner gorge. "Traditionally, there is a summer house and a winter house."

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Navajo guides drive visitors through the monument's canyons. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Corn, squash, tomatoes, cherries, pears and apricots are some of the crops they grow. Cattle and horses roam some of the fields.

It's early, just March, when I found myself in Mr. Yazzie's care, and the canyon floor is draining water that comes down out of the Chuska Range -- the Tunicha Mountains, specifically -- far to the east. The streaming water actually is an unexpected benefit to our trip; it prevents clouds of dust that can envelope visitors in mid-summer when the sun glints off the canyon walls and pushes temperatures into the mid-90s. But the drainage also generates mud sops and even quicksands that can swallow vehicles.

"Somebody got stuck in the quicksand there," Yazzie says as we veer left around two mucky ruts. "There's quicksand and mud and dry mud back here." Overhead, the morning sun is bright, the sky blue, and the air crisp, but not freezing.

A Visit Can Run 3 Hours To All Day

You can tour Canyon de Chelly in as few as three hours and snap off dozens of photos of rock art and ruins, but that would be an injustice, and only in part because of the effort it takes to reach Chinle, Arizona, the gateway to the canyon.

The human history contained within the reach of the canyon and its branching arms and on its wash bottoms reflects a vital, tenacious period of settlement in the history of the Southwest. For nearly 5,000 years the main and side canyons of Canyon de Chelly have been occupied, the longest continual stretch of habitation on the Colorado Plateau, according to the Park Service.

That's pretty impressive, particularly when you consider the settlements at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. But it has not been without hardships beyond simply trying to survive in this demanding landscape. In fact, the ancestral Puebloans left the canyons in the middle of the 14th century in a search for more arable land. Hopi then moved into the region and used the canyon sporadically, until the mid-1700s, when the Navajo arrived, driven out of other areas of the Southwest by Utes.

More pressure on the region came a century later, as exploration of the Southwest by whites accelerated beyond the fur-trapping endeavors in the late 1800s, in part as a result of efforts to find ways west. We know they arrived at Canyon de Chelly at least by the mid-1800s, evidenced by a lithograph of the canyon made by Richard Kern in 1849.

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Pictographs from various cultures that have lived in the canyon down through the centuries can be found on canyon walls. Kurt Repanshek photo.

Drawings transformed into photographs by the 1870s, when a grainy, somewhat distant photo of White House Ruin on a north wall of Chinle Wash by Timothy O'Sullivan appeared in Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian. One of the darkest chapters of the canyon falls between that Richard Kern lithograph and the Timothy O'Sullivan photo.

Near the end of the Civil War, In 1864, troops in the Southwest led by Kit Carson were assigned the task of putting down raiding tribes. To wrest control of the region from the Navajo, the tribe was "to be harassed through the summer and fall, crops were to be destroyed, livestock captured or killed, and houses burned," notes Campbell Grant in Canyon de Chelly, Its People and Rock Art, a book many canyon guides use as a primer.

In early spring of 1864 troops descended into Canyon de Chelly on a scorched-earth mission, cut down thousands of fruit trees, and rounded up the Navajo to drive them on "the Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico where a reservation had been carved out. Yet just four years later a treaty allowed the Navajo to return to much of their homelands, including Canyon de Chelly.

That's a greatly abridged version. For a deeper understanding of this period of conflict, and for a great history of Canyon de Chelly, be sure to pick up a copy of Mr. Grant's book at the Visitor Center.

Navajo Guides Lead You Through Canyon de Chelly

There are quite a few guides (see list below) ready to take you into Canyon de Chelly. The Thunderbird Lodge, the only accommodation that's right at the mouth of the monument, offers daily treks into the canyon. But if they don't get a minimum number of riders, the tours don't launch, and so you can be left wondering through the night if you'll be able to explore the canyon.

Rather than wait until morning to see whether enough had signed on, I bump into a quartet from Flagstaff that had arranged a tour with Mr. Yazzie, who works for Canyon de Chelly Tours, and am welcomed into their small group.

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A reclined kokopelli is an unusual sight in the canyon. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The next morning we meet Mr. Yazzie and his weary looking red Jeep at the monument's visitor center and head off into the canyon. When we pass the Changing Woman Cafe and enter the floor of the national monument, the canyon walls are far apart and uninspiring.

Within minutes, though, they begin to squeeze closer together, and the stories begin to materialize. Some of those stories date to the Anasazi, or the ancestral Puebloans, who arrived in the canyon around A.D. 1, and lived here for about 300 years. Today the drawings of both cultures peer out from canyon walls.

Not far up canyon Mr. Yazzie pulls the Jeep over to show us a panel of rock art, one he says is more than 1,000 years old, and which has a particularly curious image on it -- a kokopelli lying on his back! A snake appearing to slither across the rock face is just below his feet to the left, while a scattering of hand-prints -- some relatively bright white, others fading into the rock, are to his right and below.

"Maybe he's playing his flute for the snake," Mr. Yazzie replies when asked why the kokopelli is reclined.

Another portion of the rockface has a more recent scene, of hunters on horseback appearing to chase a deer. That scene couldn't have been painted by the Anasazi, as "they wouldn't have had horses," says Mr. Yazzi, though they possibly created the kokopelli.

The more your eyes search the rockface, the more images appear -- faint birds, possibly bighorn sheep, a figure-8, or diamond-shaped characters. Around the cliff corner, and much higher up, another series of pictographs appear on the rock. This time it seems to be a hunting scene, with over-sized deer or bighorn sheep, square-shouldered anthropods, possibly some birds, and three human figures holding hands.

"There are four animals running to the right," says Mr. Yazzie, pointing to the cliff face. "Maybe they got away" (from the hunters).

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Navajo vendors can be found throughout the canyon. Kurt Repanshek photo.

While we ponder the images and snap some photos, an elderly Navajo man appears and quickly lays out necklaces and other jewelry he's made. He's just the first of several Navajo artists, young and old, who entice you with their necklaces, bracelets, dream catchers, and more. That's one of the few ways the monument provides an economic boost to the Navajo community that surrounds Canyon de Chelly. Poverty is obvious as you drive the highways that lead to the monument, and seemingly runs right up to its boundaries.

But here, deep in the canyon, it's the past, not the present, that stares silently out at you from the pictographs and petroglyphs, from the ruins of cliff dwellings that once housed a canyon society. Or, rather, societies, as there were ancestral Puebloans, Hopi, and Navajo living in Canyon de Chelly down through the centuries. The dwellings were built into the canyon's north-facing walls to catch the sun, says our guide. Today there are about 60 structures with walls still intact to some degree, according to Mr. Yazzie.

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You can hike to White House Ruin, but watch your step. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The main attraction of these is White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly. You can glimpse it from the White House Overlook, which is about a 10-minute drive from the visitor center, and even hike down to it from the overlook.

But exploring the canyon with a Navajo guide is the best way to experience this monument, both for the running narrative you're provided with and the upclose glimpses of these ruins and the rock art scattered throughout the canyons.

Traveler postscript: For a list of authorized guides, both by vehicle and by horseback, see this page on the park's website.


Traveler footnote: Line up a day-long excursion into the monument and you can view the tower at Mummy Cave in Canyon del Muerto or Spider Rock deeper in Canyon de Chelly itself.

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Canyon de Chelly is a real gem. Thanks, Kurt. I'm gonna have to get back there some day. Soon.

Sounds very interesting. Enjoyed the descriptive writing, Trav. Thanks for the journey.

In addition to having in-depth knowledge of the canyon, the Navaho guides know how to handle emergencies. On July 4th weekend 1999, Canyon de Chelley experienced record heat. While Perry Yazzie led other members of our archaeological fieldwork group to a remote petroglyph site, his wife Irene remained in camp. She and Arizona State Museum conservator Nancy Odergard recognized that I was suffering from heat stroke. Thanks to Irene's ice chest full of ice and their medical knowledge, I recovered fully with no lingering after-effects instead of becoming a heat related fatality in the NPS Morning Report. They are well worth their pay.

Several years ago, I attended an evening campfire program at Canyon de Chelly that was absolutely memorable. I wish I knew the names of the two Navajo seasonal rangers who presented it. It was nothing at all like the evening programs most of us are accustomed to delivering and hearing. These two Navajo mothers had their children on stage with them and told an enraptured audience about Navajo life. They explained how they raise children without scolding (the kids were small, and even though they must have been bored silly, they were perfectly behaved and quiet), they told us of the way they name their children, how Navajo people greet one another with an exchange of clan information. They told of hogans, of grandparents, of details that were fascinating and yet foreign to most of us White Eyes in the audience.

No questions were off limits and there were many of them. It was one of those evening programs that could have gone on all night and no one would have minded a whole lot. The ladies finally had to apologize and explain that they needed to get the kids to bed and themselves ready for another day of rangering in the morning. I think I recall that both of them were teachers in the local school.

Our Navajo driver on our "Shake and Bake Trip" was terrific. Dang, now I'm going to have to pack up and head over that way. Canyon de Chelly is a place no one should miss and a place I need to return to.

Peaches were the most valued crop to the Dinetah. The trees were cut down, but by the time the Navahos returned to Canyon de Chelly from Bosque Redondo, many of the trees were gorwing back from the surviving stumps.

A park ranger told me peaches are, once again, available in the fall.

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