Undiscovered America #7: Canyon de Chelly
July 27, 2017
Arizona is famous for sandstone canyons and ancient ruins, but Canyon de Chelly in the northeast corner of the state is the best place to find incredible examples of both. This complex ruin-filled canyons intersect in a maze of towering orange cliffs. Waterways created these canyons with the help of elevation and gravity. The Colorado Plateau is a high desert region that covers the four corners area of the southwest. The roughly mile high elevation makes the soft sandstone more susceptible to erosive forces than at sea level. On a geologic timetable these sandstone canyons were cut fairly quickly as the plateau rose to its current heights.. Each of these interconnected canyons holds a number of Anasazi cliff dwellings that display 2,000 years of continuous habitation that has lasted through today.
An indigenous population of Navajos still live in the canyon, so tourists have limited access. The easiest way to experience Canyon de Chelly is from the scenic drive and the viewpoints it provides. A series of spectacular, sweeping vistas give a vast but intimate experience with the canyon and ruins at the bottom of their walls. The lands in and around the canyon belong to the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation but is co-managed with the National Park Service to allow visitors to enjoy the scenery and history.
The canyon itself is mostly off-limits to tourists unless accompanied by National Park Service rangers or authorized native guides. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, as it is currently designated, allows the NPS to provide interpretive information through park overlooks and a visitor center located outside of the monument boundaries. The only exception for visiting the canyon floor without a guide is the White House Ruins Trail which leads from the canyon rim, 560 feet to the riverbed below. The three-mile round-trip trail takes hikers down a set of switchbacks before reaching the river and ruins below.
Because of it’s scenic beauty the canyon has been featured in several film, including How the West Was Won (1962), Contact (1997), Wild Wild West (1999), and the Lone Ranger (2013). While these movies may have helped the canyon gain some visual recognition, few people know where it’s located or what it’s name is.
As a result of the unique Navajo-NPS partnership, the monument is a model for the inclusion of several deserving American Indian reservation sites into the NPS. This kind of cooperatively managed park would provide equal weight to similarly spectacular, but lesser-known natural areas. Creating new parks with this co-operative management would bring higher visibility to Native American sites, and with greater awareness comes greater protection.