According to archaeologists, Canyon de Chelly National Monument (Chelly is pronounced Shay) has held Native American inhabitants for over 5000 years and it is one of the longest continually inhabited places in North America.
Canyon de Chelly is located on Navajo land near the Four Corners area of the Southwest, just outside the town of Chinle, Arizona. Map of Canyon de Chelly
Above photos by Susan Warren
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is administered by the National Park Service and admission is free but, since it lies on Navajo land, access is restricted to overlooks and one trail that leads down to the White House Ruins. All other excursions down into or along the canyon require a Navajo guide.
There is one campground inside Canyon de Chelly, called Cottonwood. It’s run by the park and is located near the visitors center. There is also one private campground just outside the parks boundary along Rt 7 on the southern rim called Spider Rock Campground.
With our new friends Donn Fowler & Judy Kerry (whom we met at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument), we set up camp at Spider Rock Campground. The whole area was flooded a month before our arrival and you could see the damage at Spider Rock Campground. Some sites were deeply rutted and washed away but we found a nice spot to set up camp.
The owner of the campground, Howard Smith, met us and made sure we were comfortable and asked us if we had any questions. Howard is also a Canyon de Chelly guide and one of the most laid back people I have ever met. Not much bothered him with the exception of deviations from the old Navajo ways.
The next day with Judy feeling under the weather Donn, Susan and I toured the overlooks on the southern rim.
All the photo’s above were taken by Donn Fowler.
On the third day, six of us hired Howard for a guided tour.
Howard used a 1993 Chevy Suburban as his tour vehicle. I have to admit that as he pulled up and I heard vroom vroom because he had no mufflers and then I opened the front passenger side door to get in and it creaked and clanked and dropped down 3 inches because the door hinges were worn out, I wondered if we should have chosen a guide with a more modern vehicle. As it turned out we made an excellent choice!
Striking up a conversation with Howard, I mentioned that in another life I use to repair 1993 Suburbans. Later when we were stuck in the middle of the wash with knee deep water rushing by us, unable to move seemingly because of a transmission problem, I regretted mentioning that to him.
Howard told me that he had only owned the suburban for 2 years and that he was not yet “one with it”. I think he is well on his way to accomplishing that undertaking because somehow he got the old girl moving again.
On several occasions Howard compared his Navajo ancestors with the ancient Egyptians. To prove his point he pointed out the image of an Egyptian on the canyon wall.
Howard stopped the suburban once and said to us “You all know that in a National Park you are forbidden to remove any rocks”. I’m ashamed to admit that at this point my first thought was that this comment was directed at Sue. But then he said “That one over there we will let you take home” and pointed his finger. I snapped a picture.
So it turns out Howard also has a keen sense of humor.
A couple other interesting things about the tour that come to mind. Howard mentioned that he had 11 grandmothers. I took this to mean that his grandmother had 10 sisters.
If you Google “How was Canyon de Chelly formed” You’ll quickly learn that it came about after millions of years of land uplifts and stream cutting. Howard had a different take on the subject. He stated that it was formed at the time of the Meteor Crater impact, insinuating that the impact of a meteor 50,000 years ago created the canyon. Interesting.
Howard mentioned that the canyon is always changing and told us a story about one tour he did in 2011. They got to a certain point in the tour and came upon a spot where one side of the canyon wall had fallen down during the previous night and created a damn blocking the road. They had to turn around. They, meaning all the guides, later got permission to detour across someone’s property so the tours could continue.
If I was going to hire a tour guide for Canyon de Chelly, I would make sure the guide used a private vehicle like a Jeep or in Howard’s case a Suburban. In the picture above you can see a vehicle that holds 6 or 8 people. They sit across from and face each other. You can also see the guide standing on the ground talking to his clients. The problem is you can never get out of the vehicle but once at the turn around where there is a rest stop and some Native American vendors. We were able to get out on numerous occasions to walk around, getting as close as allowed to the canyon walls, ruins and rock art. We received from Howard a much more personal tour in my opinion.
More pictures of Canyon de Chelly all taken by Susan.
Someone asked Howard how old he was. He replied 67. Someone else asked how much longer he would be giving tours and he said with a chuckle “until I’m 97”.
Howard stopped the vehicle in front of a small ranch and told us that just recently 3 mountain lions were killed there after they killed some of the owner’s sheep. Surprisingly it seemed that he did not hold the big cats in high regard.
And a few more pictures by Susan.
One last memory before I turn the narrative over to Susan. At one point as we were looking at a set of ruins someone in the group asked Howard if, as a child, he had ever climbed up into any of the ruins. No, my grandmother and my grandfather told me to never go near them, I would only hurt the people if I did.
Susan will write about the rock art, ruins and legends of Canyon de Chelly in Part 2