This quiet national monument, situated on the Navajo Reservation in the northeast corner of Arizona, is home to ancient cliff dwellings and petroglyphs that provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who lived there more than a thousand years ago. And the land in the canyon continues to be farmed today by about 80 Navajo families charged with sustaining the land for future generations.
Because this national monument is considered sacred ground by the Navajo, non-Navajo visitors can only enter the canyon in the company of an authorized Navajo guide. Concessioner Thunderbird Lodge provides half- and full-day motorized tours into the canyon. Navajo drivers/guides teach visitors about the monument’s remarkable human history, geology, architectural ruins and plant and animal life.
Here are some highlights of what Navajo guides discuss during the tours:
The Anasazi – “Ancient Ones” – lived in the canyon for more than a thousand years and left around 1300 A.D. Their homes were impressively engineered using timbers and adobe-style bricks. Most of the homes were built into the canyon walls and faced south to take advantage of the winter sun. Some contained multiple levels that housed as many as 30 to 40 families. The most impressive structures are large cliff houses, built between 1100 and 1300, in the Pueblo period.
The Hopi and Pueblo Indians are believed to be the most closely related to the Anasazi. The Hopi lived in Canyon de Chelly some time between 1300 and 1700.
The Navajo, related culturally and linguistically to the various Apache Indians in the Southwest, moved from northern New Mexico into the area around 1700. In the 1700s and 1800s they recorded the arrival of the Spaniards and the introduction of cows, horses and sheep into the area.
The Navajo fought with the Pueblo Indian villages and Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande Valley. As a result, the Spanish, Mexican, and American governments conducted their own battles with the Navajo, and Canyon de Chelly, as a Navajo stronghold, figured prominently.
In 1805 Lt. Antonio Narbona, later the governor of the Province of New Mexico, led a Spanish expedition in an all-day battle with a band of Navajos fortified in a rock shelter in Canyon del Muerto. At the end of the day, Narbona’s contingent had killed 105 Navajos, including 90 warriors. Today, the rock shelter is called Massacre Cave.
In 1864 Kit Carson led a detachment of United States cavalry to Canyon de Chelly. Carson’s troops defeated the Navajos and forcibly removed more than 8,000 Navajos 300 miles toFort Sumner in New Mexico. At the end of the “Long Walk,” an early reservation that was really a prisoner-of-war camp was designated. After four years, however, the Navajos were permitted to return to their homeland.
Around the turn of the 20th century, a trading post was constructed at the mouth of the canyon and is now the Thunderbird Lodge dining facility. The trading post emphasized the protection of the canyon and its artifacts and was the main starting point for those exploring the canyon.
Visitors can see the working farms and the traditional Navajo houses – six- or eight-sided hogans with the doors facing east to greet the sun every morning. About 80 families live and farm in the canyon today.
The streams of this region flow during the rainy seasons and during the spring runoff of mountain snows; at other times they are dry.Canyon de Chelly National Monument is actually comprised of three canyons on the northwest slope of the Defiance Uplift. The walls of the canyons – as high as 1,000 feet in some places and as low as 30 feet at its mouth – are sandstone formed by sediments during the Permian Period more than 200 million years ago. The canyons were carved by erosion from the Tsaile and Whiskey creeks that join to form Chinle Wash.
Native plants of the canyon include Yucca, Opuntia Cactus, Grama Grass, Juniper and Pinon Pine. Fremont cottonwood, planted to control erosion, is the most abundant tree. Other non-native trees include the tamarisk, Russian olive and peach-leaf willow.
Animals of the canyon include mule deer, black bear, coyote, mountain lion, porcupine, badger, rabbit, squirrel and gopher. Resident and migratory birds include golden eagle, turkey vulture, raven and great horned owl. Five amphibian species and 11 reptiles live in the canyon. Animal species that used to inhabit the canyon but have been removed include grizzly bear, wild turkey, bighorn sheep, beaver, pronghorn antelope and wolf. Beaver and wild turkey have since been reintroduced.
Visiting the Canyon
Visitors may stay overnight within the canyon monument at the historic Thunderbird Lodge. Thunderbird Lodge features 73 modern rooms, dining facilities, gift shop, rug room and tours. The accommodations feature comfortable beds, full bathrooms, rustic-style furniture, Navajo paintings and cable television. The lodge’s pink adobe construction is reminiscent of ancient pueblos with ceiling fans and air conditioners to keep the rooms cool in the hot summer months.
Full-day tours depart at 9 a.m. and return at 5 p.m., taking visitors on a 60-mile round trip through Canyon del Muerto to Mummy Cave and Canyon de Chelly to Spider Rock. Half-day tours last 3½ hours, depart at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the winter and 2 p.m. in the summer, and take visitors into the lower halves of both Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto. During the winter, tours are conducted only if at least six guests participate
With the exception of hiking the White House Ruin trail, travel in the canyons is permitted only with a park ranger or authorized Navajo guide.
Thunderbird Lodge is located within Canyon de Chelly National Monument and is open year-round. The Navajo Reservation follows daylight savings time and is on Mountain Daylight time throughout the summer. For reservations, call 1-800-679-2473. For online information on Thunderbird Lodge, go to www.tbirdlodge.com.