In Pursuit of Wildness: Canyon de Chelly National Monument
The rain is hard and relentless. The gas station ahead, a few miles from Window Rock, AZ, offers shelter. In seconds, the parking area is flooded, but my motorcycle is safe and dry.
“Do not go out further just yet,” the old Navajo man says. “The roads will be full of mud, and it will be very dangerous.”
I nod in agreement, wet from the quick downpour. The rain intensifies, and many more people seek shelter. The gas station has a small market, and to my surprise, sells tamales. I love tamales, so I buy three. There is a very old Navajo woman who is taking a long time getting into her pickup truck. I want to help but hold back. She has likely done this a thousand times; as she makes the final push, she sends a smile my way. Without hesitation, she starts the truck and leaves. The rain stops, just like that. Several of the other Navajo begin to leave as well, and I do the same.
The road is full of mud, and the four-wheel-drive trucks slosh forward while I move cautiously slower. Indian Route 112 takes me north and crosses into New Mexico. The scenery is spectacular, especially along Wheatfields Lake as I head for Tsaile and the north rim of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. At my first overlook, there are two young Navajo boys selling jewelry. “I like these earrings,” I tell them.
“My grandmother made them,” one of them says, quietly. “She lives over there,” pointing his arm toward the south. He adds proudly, “She is 80 years old and still rides a horse.” The turquoise pair of earrings pack easily in my saddlebag. I know that my wife, Denise, will love them.
A Sacred Place
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a place that my brother Leo has always talked about: “It is a sacred place. You easily go back in time.” He said that the town of Chinle has food, gas, convenience stores, and ample lodging but encouraged me to find the Cottonwood Campground inside the park. The campground, operated by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department, is perfect for the night. I normally lay out my camping tarp and sleep on the ground. Not tonight. There are millions of small red ants everywhere. Most of the other campers are in RV trailers. There are several cottonwood trees, so I rig up my hammock for the night. I make a mental note to stay at the Thunderbird Lodge, located inside the park, on my next trip.
The White House Trail (2.5-mile round trip) is the only trail that one can take without a Navajo guide. It winds down from the top of the parking lot to the canyon floor in the open sun. The trail is easy and brings you to the White House Ruin, which was built and occupied centuries ago by the Pueblo Indians.
I am thankful for the sweeping views with water flowing before me. The high canyon walls often have horses roaming freely along the cliffs. Tomorrow, I’ll hire a Navajo guide and travel on horseback into the canyon. I’ve ridden horses extensively in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, in California, and I’m looking forward to this particular horse ride. Stanley, an authorized horse tour operator, greets me warmly at 9:30 a.m. John, from Alabama, joins us, and the three of us trot off into the canyon. A Navajo guide adds so much history to the ride, and Stanley seems to love what he does. He begins by telling us that, in Navajo, Chinle means “water flowing out,” a reference to water leaving the canyon. I’m seeing the towering canyon walls from a new and wild perspective. We ride into history that time seems to have forgotten. The horse beneath me is a big part of the experience, and together we are one within the moment. I feel alive.
In a quiet moment, Stanley’s horse bolts left, then right. After getting the animal under control, Stanley leads his steed back to where it got spooked. He speaks calmly to his horse in Navajo, telling it, “Look: It is just a stick.” Laughing, he tells us that they’ve been up here thousands of times, but his horse still thinks that the stick is a snake. This ride into Canyon de Chelly was magical. I know that I’ll return another day.
The Navajo reservation is huge, and I am on small roads. Approaching the community of Leupp, I spot a van selling tamales. “They are freshly made and hot,” a Navajo man tells me. I find a tree with some shade and enjoy three delicious tamales—one red and two green. I tell him that I just came from Canyon de Chelly, loved it, rode a horse, connected with nature, and I’m returning home to California. He nods and says: “The canyon is a sacred place. One is taken back in time.”
Planning a Visit
Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931, primarily to preserve and protect its rich archaeological sites, and, to this day, the homes and farms of many Navajo. The monument is located entirely within the Navajo Nation reservation, in northeastern Arizona. The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation share resources and work in partnership to manage this unique place. Mid-September to mid-October is a good time to visit.
On the North Rim Drive, approximately 34 miles round trip, you’ll see some of the most beautiful cliff dwellings (Antelope House, Mummy Cave, Massacre Cave overlooks). If you have time, take the South Rim Drive; it’s 37 miles round trip and offers panoramic canyon views at seven overlooks. Spider Rock Overlook, an 800-foot sandstone spire, provides spectacular photos ops. Private hiking, backcountry camping, horseback riding, and four-wheel-drive vehicle tours are available with authorized Navajo guides who have a deep understanding of the culture and history of the area.
The visitors center, in Chinle, is open every day except for major holidays. It’s best to check operating hours before you travel, however, to ensure there aren’t any unexpected closures or restrictions.
There is no admission fee to enter Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The Navajo Parks and Recreation Department operates the Cottonwood Campground and charges a fee to camp.