Visiting Canyon de Chelly was a wonderful experience. It is a unique park in that the National Park Service does the administration, but the land is owned and farmed by Navajos. Because the park is mostly private land, you can not wander around the park below the rim of the canyon. This keeps tourists out of people's homes and off their crops. It also adds additional protection for the precious artifacts that have remained in the canyon untouched for thousands of years.
A Brief History
From about 2500 B.C. until 200 B.C. (known as the Archaic period) the canyon was used by people who used the natural formations of rocks and caves as shelter and the natural resources of the canyon for food and water. Some of their petroglyphs remain today.
The Basket makers were the next group of people to live in the canyon. They were the first farmers. Their pictographs (paintings on rock walls) remain today. The Pueblos followed. They formed villages from about 750 A.D. to 1300 A.D. It is their cliff palaces that can be seen from the rim. The canyon was abandoned as a community and those that left merged with other tribes to form the Hopi. The Hopi still visited the canyon for hundreds of years until the Navajos arrived. They came from the north and settled in the canyon with their domesticated animals their agricultural skills around the 1700s.
The history turns sad from 1863 to 1868 when Kit Carson and his troops forced the Navajo from the canyon, destroying their homes, orchards, and livestock. They marched the surviving Navajos 300 miles to Fort Sumner. Like the Jews in the marches in the Holocaust, many of the Navajos died from thirst, hunger, and fatigue- those that survived were prisoners.
In 1868 the Navajos were set free to return to their land. Starting over, they grew fruit trees, began raising sheep, and started putting their lives back together. Today their descendants continue to live and farm in Canyon de Chelly.
Different Ways to See the Park
There are two roads you can drive along that have viewing areas where you can see down into the canyon. This may take about a half of a day. To get into the canyon you have a few options. You can take the hike down to the White House Ruin. Any other access to the canyon is via a Navajo guide. The most frequently used method is the "Shake and Bake", which is an open air vehicle that fits rows of tourists. it takes the group to the sites in the canyon. It is bouncy thus the "shake" and it is sunny - thus the "bake". Another option is to take a private trip with a guide who has their own 4 wheel drive vehicle. The first few hours are usually a bit over $100 and then a small amount is added for additional hours. The final option is to bring your own 4 wheel drive high ride short bed vehicle and hire a guide at the visitor's center. That worked best for us. We got to stop when we wanted to, we got to take our own time, and we had a huge cooler full of water and snacks that were always accessible. We let the guide do the driving though. The terrain is rougher than one expects.
The first set of ruins we saw on our trip was aptly named First Ruin. The photo of this ruin is in the image above with the horses. There are two levels of the cliff ruins in the photo.
The next ruin was Junction Ruin. It is located where the roads in the canyon branch off. This ruin can also be viewed from the South Rim Drive.
Sliding House Ruin is a reminder that even with protection, nature can take its toll on the ruins. The site does show a good example of the painted walls for rooms in the structures that used to stand. The inside rooms were often painted to make the interior more light or more decorative. Sometimes when the ruins fall, the paint remains on the cliff.
The tour may go as far as Spider Woman Rock. The park calls it Spider Rock but it is really Spider Woman Rock. It is a very important tower, especially to women.
A woman used to live at the base of the rock. She made rugs with straight line patterns but not many people bought her rugs. One day she was watching a spider weave its web and thought that maybe she could bring that type of design into her own weaving. She started weaving shapes and patterns into her rugs and they sold very well with the new designs. She taught other Navajo women how to weave complex rugs that would sell well. This gave women the opportunity to contribute income to their families. She became known as Spider Woman, so now you know why the real name of the rock is Spider Woman Rock.
You can see the large pictograph of the standing cow in this photo. These ruins are on the ground so they are not protected from floods like the cliff ruins.
We did the 8 hour tour and were able to see a lot of the canyon. We wished we could have seen more. one thing we missed was Mummy cave and another thing was an area with pictographs with stars and planets. That includes a hike and the guide would need to knew ahead of time since it is on private property. he same situation goes for newspaper rock. That used to be open for everyone to see until a person came down after their tour and chipped a large chunk of it off to take home. Now the landowner does not allow people to waltz on to their property to see it. I can't blame them. It is heart breaking. There is a nice image of the rock before it was destroyed in the visitor's center. Promise us you will not touch anything when you visit! Thanks!