Today, Canyon de Chelly (d’shay) in northeastern Arizona still offers respite to the road-weary traveler who might want to just relax for a couple of days and recover from the more crowded tourist attractions of the Southwest.
The Navajos, who call themselves the Dine (the people), still live and work here, tilling the land and raising heritage crops of squash, corn and beans. They also now grow peaches, apples and other tree fruits. About 80 families live in the broad, sunlit bottomland of the canyons. They also raise cattle, horses and sheep.
Cottonwoods and Russian olive trees grow wild, along with lavender-flowered tamarisk and bushy salt-cedar. In spring, blooms burst forth on the prickly pear cactus, as well as the omnipresent yucca, along with various other wildflowers. It appears there’s no water here, but a stream does run through the canyon and rain washes off the steep sandstone walls to provide moisture to crops below.
It’s the perfect pastoral place for a laid-back kind of vacation. Here are some quiet, relaxing things to do:
· Contemplate the world: Though visitors can only tour the canyon with a guide, there are other things they can do. Sit on a rock in the sun and watch a lizard forage for … whatever lizards forage for. Watch an eagle soar over the canyon, or the mule deer graze. Listen to the wind and observe the clouds rolling overhead, if there are any. At night, look at the stars. Pack binoculars. (Visitors are glad they did.)
· Tap that inner artist: Amateur or even advanced artists may want to unpack their pencils and drawing pad. Great artists have won reputations by reproducing a yucca flower or a rock formation in paint or pastel.
· Be a shutterbug: Anyone can get great photographs of the spectacular landscape with its softly colored walls and exotic plants. Just remember: Do not photograph the residents of the valley without their permission. Most of us would not like it if someone came into our back yard and took a picture of us tending the garden.
· Drive the rim: There’s no charge to drive the rim road and make stops to admire the changing scene. No exertion required.
· Take a walk. Not a hike, just a walk, leisurely stopping to examine a wildflower (but never picking it). Or, for the more energetic, there is one hiking trail – the White House Ruin Trail – open to visitors without a guide.
· Take a tour: If you want to tour the canyon, Thunderbird Lodge makes visiting the canyon easy by offering authorized group half- and full-day tours in six-wheel drive touring vehicles operated by experienced and knowledgeable Navajo guides. See the highlights such as cliff dwellings of ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) tucked high in the rock walls, historic sites and ancient petroglyphs and pictographs.
· Explore the museum: An on-site museum – closed for renovation and the installation of new exhibits – reopens in July 2011.
· Read a book: Pick a good mystery by Tony Hillerman or James Doss, set in this part of the world and with Navajo characters, then look at the landscape and the people who inhabit it in a whole new way.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is within a day’s drive of many major Western cities. It is a four-hour drive from Albuquerque, N.M., five and ½-hours from Phoenix; seven hours from Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and approximately nine hours from Denver.
The only accommodations inside the monument, Thunderbird Lodge sits on the site of a trading post built in 1896, and its cafeteria-style restaurant is located in the trading post’s original building. The Thunderbird Lodge gift shop and rug room offer some of the region’s finest examples of Native American jewelry, rugs, artwork and crafts.
For reservations, call 1-800-679-2473. For more information on Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Thunderbird Lodge, go to www.tbirdlodge.com.