Canyon de Chelly National Monument (AZ)

Spider Rock

Spider Rock, where Spider Woman taught the Navajos the art of weaving, towers 800 feet above the canyon floor. Many television commercials were filmed here, notably ones with cars precariously parked on top. It’s arguably the most spectacular physical feature of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, one best appreciated by driving to the overlook along South Rim drive.

While Canyon de Chelly provides plenty of geologic interest , visitors mostly come here to see the impressive cliff dwellings, especially the complex known as White House ruins. If they didn’t know it already, visitors will come away knowing that people still live here. Like Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly is located on Navajo land and is occupied and farmed by Navajo families. The National Park Service has a presence here, but only performs an administrative function within the national monument boundary.

Vistas of the spectacular valleys are only possible on the rim drives. The North Rim Drive affords views of ruins along Canyon del Muerto. The South Rim Drive, which we took, follows Canyon de Chelly. Ruins, including White House, can be seen from the overlooks. The Spider Rock Overlook is the terminus of this drive. While the rim roads, both North and South, are open to the public, the valley floor may only be explored on Navajo-led tours or in a private 4WD vehicle if accompanied by a park ranger or Navajo guide. Even hikes require a guide (except the one down to White House Ruins from the overlook).

White House ruins

We took a half-day tour organized through the historic Thunderbird Lodge. Our guide has been leading tours for 40 years, but has been preparing for retirement. The guide maneuvered our transport vehicle — an old converted flatbed truck, definitely not 4WD — over washes, mud flats and parts of the stream that meanders through the valley. We thought we were stuck in mud early in the tour, but he got us out pretty skillfully.

Guided tour through the valley

The guide pointed out some petroglyphs and ruins left by those he termed the “ancient ones,” talked about the fact that Navajos still live here, including the family to which he was born, and the origin of the Navajos. Regarding this last point, the guide pointed out that Navajos are related to the Athabascan peoples who populate the Pacific coast and not to the neighboring Puebloans, like the Hopi and Zuni. An interesting story he told us involved a Chinese man who took one of his tours and found that each could understand words in the other’s native tongue, a possible clue that the Northwest coast Indians originally came from Asia.

On the tour, we were able to spend a little time at White House Ruins, the most photographed place in Canyon de Chelly, before heading back to the lodge.

White Ruins up close

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