Canyon de Chelly, Arizona: Navajos, Anasazi Ruins, Scenery!

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-shay) is in the heart of the Navajo homeland/ reservation. East of the Grand Canyon, its walls and spires rise dramatically from the floor of the canyon, and make it worth hiking through just for the scenery. But there is a lot more here than natural beauty! The Sierra Club runs a week long trip here each October (the best month of the year: best chance of no temperatures over 90 degrees, no snow, no floods--though any and all are still possible! During our week, we got to mid-80's many days in the sun, then dipped below freezing the last night). A truck carries your tent, sleeping bags, the kitchen/food setup; all you need to carry is 3-4 quarts of water a day (!), lunch, extra clothes….

The Navajo are matrilineal, and the traditional farms that occupy the floor of Canyon de Chelly and its neighbor, Canyon Del Muerto, once had orchards and corn and crops sufficient to completely support the population. Until the good old U.S. calvary burned it all at the end of 19th century and sent the survivors on a "long walk" to New Mexico that killed a lot of them. The farms are passed down to the women in the family, for use by them and their husbands and children. Each generation has the right to use and the responsibility to preserve the land. It has been kept fairly traditional. There is no electricity in the canyon, and thus no water from wells, and no roads except for a sandy track with lots of stream fordings that can only be negotiated by four wheel drive, horseback, or by foot. Most dwellings are traditional hogans. Sheepherding, in recent decades supplemented by cattle, is the main "crop".

There are no "public" lands in this canyon, and you must go in with a Navajo guide, who will arrange permission to camp on private properties. "Day tourists" go in on what the natives call the "shake and bake:" chairs strapped down on the back of an open truck. Walking and camping are the only way to see the "real" canyons! The guides are excellent. If you spend a week there, as we did, you will learn about Navajo history, culture, religion, dances, songs, and you will probably buy a lot of jewelry from the artisan-vendors who find out from the "Navajo telegraph" where the tourists with money will be each day. Bring cash or traveler's checks-- no Visa equipment here! Harmony with nature and the centrality of family obligations seem to be the dominant values, and you will undoubtedly become an admirer of traditional Navajo culture after enjoying their hospitality.

For the fantastically fit, there are lots of opportunities to use hand and foot holds to climb up sheer cliff walls a couple hundred feet high. For those who don't like steepness combined with height, there are many moderately difficult ascents you can make to ledges and caves with fantastic views. And for those who would rather walk than climb, you can stay on the valley floor and spend more time seeing the flora, ruins and scenery rather than watching every hole in the rock walls as you inch along…(Our group had 3 guides; walks varying from about 7 to 15 miles were offered as options each day).

Canyon de Chelly is actually best known not for its scenery or its chance to become immersed in Navajo culture, but for its over 900 (known) sites of ancient Anasazi ruins. The dwellings are generally built into caves in the canyon walls, and one must climb up to them. (This provided coolness in summer, warmth in winter, protection from rain and snow and floods and wildlife and not so friendly visitors…) These are 1000 and more years old, and several still have cave dwellings 2-3 stories tall standing. (Doubt if most of our dwellings will last 100 years, let alone 1000…) Cave walls and floors around these dwellings are full of rock paintings and petroglyphs (carvings) of astonishing interest and beauty. There are pot chards littering the ground and lots of other ancient artifacts too, just lying around. You may look but ideally not touch… and certainly not move anything! Hopefully in the future the archeologists will have the funds and the equipment to make sense of these sites. Unfortunately, there has been substantial looting despite the signs posted about $20,000 fines for damaging or removing anything.

Sitting in some of these cave dwellings, especially on the benches of the round kivas, perhaps chanting a Navajo song, one can almost feel the spirits. The stars blazing at night are truly "awesome". It is a very powerful place!

Now if there were only some way to get a bath and wash your hair...…

To arrange private guides: Try David Wilson, Tsegi Guide Association,
Box 1174, Chinle Arizona 86503

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