Southwest trip day 11: Canyon de Chelly, AZ

On my first grand tour of the Southwest, 19 years ago, I visited a place so magical that it has occupied an almost mythical place in my memories ever since. Today we went back, and I’m happy to report that the reality more than matched my recollections.


Tunnel Overlook, our first glimpse of Canyon de Chelly

This place is Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the far northeastern corner of Arizona. It is located in the Navajo Nation, a semi-autonomous territory which encompasses 27,000 square miles (larger than the state of West Virginia and approximately the size of Ireland). Most of the Navajo Nation is in northern Arizona but it spills across state lines into New Mexico and Utah.

26-mile Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d’SHAY”) consists of the main canyon as well as several side canyons, including Canyon de Muerto and Monument Canyon. It has been inhabited for almost 5,000 years. The canyon floor is still dotted with small farms where Navajos grow alfalfa, corn and other crops. Lush cottonwood trees grow near the seasonal creeks, which were swollen with rain water today.

What makes Canyon de Chelly so special for me is its stunning scenic beauty combined with the fact that it only gets a fraction of the visitors the “big name” tourist destinations in Arizona attract. If you ask 10 Americans if they’ve ever heard of Canyon de Chelly, and 8 will probably say no. That’s just fine by me. As much as I enjoyed visiting the Grand Canyon, it certainly isn’t the place you’d go to find peace and solitude. Canyon de Chelly, on the other hand, will give you just that and more.

Be sure to click on the photos to see a larger version in a separate browser window. It’s well worth it, especially with the panoramas.


Tsegi Overlook


Tsegi Overlook


Tsegi Overlook
Ford across the creek from Tsegi Overlook


Junction Overlook


Junction Overlook


Plains prickly pear (Opuntia phaeacantha)


Narrow leaf yucca (Yucca angustissima) growing in seemingly no soil at the base of a juniper


White House Overlook


White House ruins


White House ruins


White House ruins


Swirly rock formations seen from White House Overlook


Cottonwoods growing in the canyon as seen from Spider Rock Overlook


Trail at Spider Rock Overlook


Spider Rock, an 800 ft. sandstone spire rising straight up from the canyon floor


Another view of Spider Rock


Broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) growing amidst the sandstone rocks

As stunning as the scenery is anyway, it was even more special today because there were towering dark clouds above us and you could see curtains of rain in the distance. Toward evening, we witnessed an incredible display of lighting shooting across the sky, and as we were getting ready to leave it began to hail. The hail only lasted a minute or two, but the rain followed us a good part of the way back to Window Rock. The road that goes around the back of our motel was completely flooded as were other roads in the area.


Canyon de Chelly is owned by the Najavo people, some of whom still live on the canyon floor. You can drive along the rim but with the exception of the White House trail you cannot descend into the canyon without a Navajo guide.

There are two campgrounds in Canyon de Chelly. The closest motel accommodations are in the town of Chinle, right outside the park, or in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation about 90 minutes away.




Tomorrow we’ll head towards Four Corners, the only place in the country where four states meet (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico). After that, Mesa Verde National Park in far southwestern Colorado.


  1. I've never been, but I did know of it and how to correctly pronounce it, thanks to my brother. Stunning photos! What I remember most about driving through the Navajo nation last fall was the time difference. I can't remember exactly how it went but we magically gained or lost an hour as they were running on a different time than the surrounding area. Just a little confusing....

    1. I asked a ranger at the Canyon de Chelly visitor center about the time. Arizona does NOT observe daylight savings time so right now the time is the same as Pacific DST. The Navajo nation (incl. the Arizona portions) DOES observe DST so right now it's on Mountain DST (same as New Mexico, Colorado, Utah etc.). In the winter, both Arizona and the entire Navajo nation are on Mountain Standard Time. Whew...

  2. Oooh, this looks like the canyon for me! Stunning, and wonderfully empty. :-)

    1. We encountered tourists from France, Germany and Italy but most of the Americans were locals taking in the sights. Seeing this appreciation for what's in their own backyard was a wonderful surprise. I talked to a high school teacher from Chinle who comes to the canyon a lot to photograph.

  3. OMG that is so cool! I love to see stuff like this! Thanks for sharing your great trip with us Gerhard!


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