Four Corners National Parks
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly is an extraordinary place. "It's hard to imagine narrow canyons less than 1,000 feet deep being more spectacular than the Grand Canyon," writes Frommer's." Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that, except for the Nile Valley, no place on earth more perfectly embodied the essence of antiquity than Canyon de Chelly.  "It's overall effect," writes GORP, "is a lasting sense of peace. Its beauty is subtler and more profound than that of other parks in the U.S." Folklore and religion scholar Joseph Campbell called the canyon, "the most sacred place on Earth." The Canyon was the home of one of the most enigmatic Native American people and a holy place to another.

The human history of the Canyon is the history of two cultures separated in time by five centuries. The Anasazi arrived in the 4th century and disappeared in the 13th century. For the next four hundred years, the canyon was vacant, except for the Hopis, who occasionally visited and a few at times fleetingly lived here. Then the Navajos arrived, and remain today.

The name "Anasazi" was given by these Navajos to those earlier stone-age people. It means "Ancient Enemy" in Navajo. The reason for this name is not clear. The term "enemy" seem to imply coexistence. Yet the Navajos and Anasazi never coexisted in Canyon de Chelly nor do the two appear to be related in any fashion at all. The last Anasazi had long disappeared from the pages of Canyon de Chelly history before the first Navajo arrived on the scene. Is it perhaps that the Navajos believed malevolent ghosts of the Anasazi continued to haunt this land? 

Sunup at Thunderbird Lodge
Behind me is the dining building where I just had breakfast. The stone walls are I  imagine meant to be reminiscent of the stone work for which the ancient Anasazis who first settled here are known. 
(Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Thunderbird Lodge Today

Of the three places to stay when visiting Canyon de Chelly. Thunderbird Lodge is the only one inside the ParkThe cottonwood shaded, pueblo-style lodge is a typical, sprawling Western motel complex, with guest rooms, dining facility, gift shop, and tour headquarters. (The trees were planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s ).

To see Canyon de Chelly, you are required to get a Navajo guide. While you can use your own 4WD, most tourists take one of several tours. One run by the Lodge uses 20-passenger 6WD vehicles. Others use 4WD vehicles that take 4 people. We took the large group tour because the timing was better. That was a mistake. Jeeps can accommodate individual questions and stop as desired. The large tours can't, so it is packaged from start to end. Also, we got a guide with an attitude. Bad decision all around. 

Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto

The Monument is actually a complex of canyons. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY), Canyon de Muerto, and Black Rock Canyon are the largest.

About the time Emperor Augustus was bringing Pax Romana to the ancient Roman Empire and Pompeii was being destroyed, the first Anasazis started settling in Canyon de Chelly. It is one of the longest, continuously inhabited place in North America.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is unique in that it is entirely on Navajo Tribal Trust Lands and the home of a Navajo community. And it is also a National Monument run by the National Park Service to preserve the archeological ruins and "their important record of human history."

Map of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto

Map of Canyon de Chelly
The ancient Anasazis here were heavily concentrated in the area shown on the National Park Service ma
p above. 
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Western portion of Canyon de Chelly at Sunset

Canyon de Chelly from White House Overlook
This late afternoon picture shows the floor of the canyon. The tracks are Chinle Wash, an ephemeral tributary of the San Juan River, which serves as a road (of sorts) for tours as well as for scattered residents.
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Canyon de Chelly from White House Overlook

Historically, the first Anasazis relics in Canyon de Chelly date from about 90 A.D. However, they did not arrived in significant numbers until circa. 300 A.D. and thereafter made the Canyon their home until they disappeared from the pages of history around 1275 A.D.

In their early settlements, the pithouse was the state of the art Anasazi architectural style. These were dug three to five feet deep with four corner posts to support a slanting roof of close-set poles and branches covered with a heavy layer of adobe-like mud. In the center was a fire pit and a sipapu.

The Anasazi farmed the canyon, growing beans, maize and squash, raising cotton, domesticated turkeys and dogs, and hunted animals throughout the canyon, including antelope, deer, elk, sheep, rabbits and wild turkey.

Pueblo Cliff Dwellings

Around 700 A.D., the Anasazi abandoned the canyon floor and built immense cliff dwellings on the south-facing canyon walls. These stone and mortar structure provided year-round lodging. They were shaded in in the summer by the overhanging ledge and warmed in in the winter by southern exposures. The cliffs may also have provided protection.

A series of droughts in the late-1200's took their toll on the Anasazis. For this and other reasons which are still not understood, thousands of cliff dwelling Anasazis left the canyon around 1275 and disappeared from the pages of history. There are many theories as to where they went and why. While many are plausible, none fully satisfies.

Three pueblos of cliff dwellings

Cliff House Communities
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

A Place Called Running Antelope
The cliff at my back is the point at which the Black Rock Canyon joins the Canyon del Muerto and another point at which the Anasazi and Navajo paths meet at different points in time. 
(Photo by Brian Larkin, October 2000)

(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Running Antelope and Desert Varnish

I am standing in the early morning sun at the Antelope House Overlook on the North Rim Drive. On the cliff behind me are broad streaks of desert varnish

At the based of the cliff is Antelope House Ruin (an Anasazi structure) and the famed Running Antelope pictographs (done by a Navajo artist). Not far away are Navajo Fortress and Standing Cow Ruin. Some of Adam Teller's jewelry was inspired by these pictographs. 

[Click here for a picture showing some of the beautiful antelope pictographs]

Spider Woman Rocks

Spider Woman Rocks is part of the Navajo dimension of Canyon de Chelly. These twin spires rise 800 feet above the canyon floor and are associated with the complex patterns that make Navajo textiles famous. One version of their story is that Spider Woman once lived on top of these rocks and first taught Navajo women to weave. A variation adds that she kills and eats bad children and keeps their bones on top. 

A more mundane variation has a Navajo woman living at the base of the rocks. She notices one day the complex patterns being woven by a nearby spider and incorporates these patterns into her work. Her patterns are very popular and sell well, and she teaches other Navajo women how to weave these patterns. Thus she became known as Spider Woman and the rocks where she live as Spider Woman Rocks.

Spider Rock

Spider Woman Rocks
These 800 foot monoliths are associated with Navajo weaving. 
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Antelope House Ruins
This early canyon-floor Anasazi ruin is named for the nearby, famous pictographs of running antelopes. Most later structures were built in crevices in canyon walls and cliffs. (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

The Swastika

The symbol was widely used by Native Americans from Ohio through the Southwest. For the Hopi, it was a symbol of the wandering Hopi clan; to the Navajos it represented a whirling log (tsil no'oli') used in healing rituals.

According to some scholars, the swastika was a common symbol for the land, especially the center of the land,  in Anasazi, Sinagua, Mogollon cultures and other American Indian Cultures. 

The Swastika on the cliff may have been added by later Navajos or Hopis. [To better see the Swastika, click on the image for an enlargement]

Desert Varnish, Diné, and Anasazi

The dark streaks on the rocks above Antelope House Ruin are desert varnish. It was first believed that desert varnish was caused by bacteria growing on the rocks, like moss growing on rocks and trees. Subsequent thinking was that the stains were drawn out of the rocks. Recent microscopic and microchemical analyses show that most of the varnish is clay blown there by the wind. The clay, when dampened by dew, acts as a base that attracts and holds the dark manganese and iron oxide that seeps from the rocks. This is daily baked by the searing Southwestern sun into the "tapestry" we see.

Many Southwestern cultures, including the Anasazi and Navajos, used desert varnish as an easel upon which they chipped and scraped petroglyphs. Among the best known are those at Newspaper Rock State Historic Park near Moab in Utah. Also see The Rock Art Pages.

The Diné of Canyon de Chelly have a legend, perhaps based in part on missionary stories of the Garden of Eden, that the streaks are smoke from the time the gods destroyed the Anasazi. The story says the Anasazi had gown too wise for the wisdom that was allotted to them, so the gods caused a great firestorm shaped like a tornado to rage through the canyon and destroyed all the Anasazi crops and homes..

Desert Varnish
Desert varnish stains the massive cliffs that tower above Antelope House Ruin that sits on the desert floor below..
(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)

Upper Ruin at White House Ruin
Description (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on Image for Enlargement)


After 1300, Canyon de Chelly became vacant except for occasional visits by Hopi Indians who took up temporary residence in walled pueblos. Four hundred years later, the Hopi tribe left and the Navajos came. The canyon has since been part of the Navajo Reservation. 

Today, the Anasazi are gone, the Hopi are gone, and a few Navajos remain.. 

There is no electricity in the Canyon nor phones. But a few canyon dwellers are starting to go into town regularly to check their email. 

The canyon and change continue.