Canyon de Chelly National Monument


If rivers could talk, Chinle Wash would squeak. A thin, shallow trickle of suspended grit, it begins in the Chuska Mountains of eastern Arizona and flows southwest across the desert, makes a U-turn at the town of Chinle and heads north for its meeting with destiny, the roaring Colorado River. Yet over a time beyond imagining, this thin, brown squiggle of water has gouged a great gash through the sandstone mesa of the Defiance Plateau and the result is Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’Shay), a serrated, 30-kilometre crevasse of red rock stretched out across the desert floor like an eagle’s claw.

The name – “Chelly” – is a corruption of the Navajo “Tsegi”, which means “rock canyon”, and for at least 4,000 years Canyon de Chelly has provided a refuge for the native people of the Southwest. On the rich alluvial soil on the canyon floor, the Anasazi – “the ancient ones” in the Navajo language – farmed corn and squash and chiselled the symbols of their religion into the rock. It was the Anasazi who built the first permanent settlements, and the remains of their communal stone and adobe buildings are still plainy visible tucked into crevices in the steep canyon walls. The Anasazi were followed by Hopi and Navajo, and Canyon de Chelly is impregnated with spiritual significance for the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation of native people in the United States.

There are several options for touring Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The easiest is to take one of the 30-kilometre roads that leaves the Visitor Centre and climbs alongside the canyon across the top of the mesa – one along the south rim of Canyon de Chelly, the other along Canyon del Muerto, which branches to the north. Viewpoints perched on the rim offer a series of changing vistas of the canyon below, each a variation on the theme of tortured red rock. In some places, giant pillars of more durable rock have been left stranded on the floor of the canyon as the walls eroded. In others, the canyon has been domesticated with ploughed fields, green meadows dotted with grazing horses and solitary hogans, the distinctive octagonal houses of the Navajo people, smoke curling from their chimneys.

Another option is to take one of the Navajo-guided tours that ferry visitors on open trucks along the bed of the river – a journey which provides an insight into Navajo traditions as well as a close-up look at the Anasazi pueblos. A third alternative is one of the various walking tours that parallel the river, and for anyone looking for a more intimate contact with tribal culture – as well as a deeper appreciation of the physical dimensions of the canyon itself – a walking tour is the way to go. The only walking trail that visitors may take without a Navajo guide is the White House Trail, which zigzags some 200 metres down from the south rim to the valley floor. At the bottom, a short stroll through a cottonwood grove alongside the river leads to the White House, probably the most photogenic of all the canyon’s pueblo dwellings.

Comparisons with the Grand Canyon, which lies some 220 kilometres due west, are inevitable, yet Canyon de Chelly is barely a pale shadow. While the Grand Canyon delivers a knockout punch with its sheer, imponderable size, Canyon de Chelly seduces with its intimacy. While the trek from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River is a full-day slog, the White House Trail will take you from the top of Canyon de Chelly to the river in under an hour. There is also the tangible presence of the native American people. Peering down from the heights of the canyon rim, I was not at all surprised to see a boy emerge from the cottonwoods, leap onto a bareback pony and canter off with a whoop that echoed off the canyon walls.

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