We’re now in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, Arizona. The sun has been relentless, and so has the dust and grit. Water is a precious commodity here and I’ve tried to conserve.
We’re staying at Sacred Lodge, a motel in the park run by the Navajo people. If a park has a lodge, that’s our first choice. It doesn’t have a swimming pool because pools waste a lot of water. Besides, when would we have time to go swimming? We have a canyon to explore.
People have been living in the canyon for nearly 5,000 years. Some Navajo still have summer homes here, without running water or electricity, though they can bring in propane. They farm and graze livestock. The land belongs to the Navajo Nation; it’s been administered and protected by the National Park Service since 1931.
Visitors can’t just wander wherever they want. Still, there was plenty to do for a day and a half.
The star attraction is a hike into the canyon to the White House ruins, the only hike you can do without a guide. Depending on what sign you look at, it’s one mile, a mile and a quarter or a mile and a half down. The canyon walls made of up sandstone and igneous rock are overwhelming. Awesome—inspiring awe.
The walls have been carved by water and wind in fanciful forms. You can see animals and trees shaped into the rocks. We descended 600 feet to the canyon floor to see the remains of cliff dwellings.
The cliff dwellers, known as Anasazi or ancestral Pueblos, are one of several people who lived here. They built their homes into the canyon walls. From the bottom, the homes look like doll houses but 50 families lived in the canyon. Navajo teenagers came down the trail without water or a pack. They seem to use it as their exercise track. Good for them. We huffed and puffed back up, as the sun got seriously hot.
We drove the South rim and then the North rim of the canyon, stopping at every overlook and walking as far as allowed. The highlight was Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone spire that rises from the canyon floor. At every overlook, Navajo vendors peddled necklaces, earrings, and rock drawings. I couldn’t possibly buy from every vendor, so I didn’t buy anything. All those people setting up their stand in the parking areas are a sad indication of the unemployment problem on the reservation.
To get a better look at the canyon, we took a jeep tour in the late afternoon. Other than hiking to the White House ruins, it’s the only way to get into the canyon. The rules were clear. You can’t take pictures of people or their houses. We made many stops and got a feel for the modern summer dwellings. The tour took us back to White House ruins and it looked completely different in the late afternoon light. Through binoculars, we saw graffiti from the 1880s. Defacing ruins is not a new problem.
It took ten years of negotiations before the canyon became a Park unit. Non-Navajos had been coming to Canyon de Chelly to take surveys and probably photograph. A lot of looting was going on; the cliff dwellings and pictographs needed protection. The Navajo Indians wanted to make sure that they could continue to live here and give tours. First, the tours were on horseback and that got expanded to jeep tours.
When I asked the Native American park ranger what the Navajos gave up when they let the Canyon become a Park unit, she was very direct. “Well, they gave up their privacy, for one.” Hopefully, they feel they got something in return.