Saturday, March 17, 2012

Canyon De Chelly - Chinle, AZ

Ever since I saw that a Jeep Jamboree was held in Canyon De Chelly (pronounced Shay due to a mispronounciation and spelling of the original Navajo name), I've been anxious to drive my own Jeep there with a Navajo guide. The jamboree is in June, so I would not be around to participate so we decided to organize a trip to the northeast of Arizona with Tom and Peg Wilfong for this dream trip of mine. In 3 days and 2 nights we covered Grand Falls, Petrified Forest, Canyon De Chelly, Monument Valley and Antelope Canyon. This post is about Canyon De Chelly.

Canyon De Chelly is a very meaningful and historic location for the Navajo. It is located in northeast Arizona in Chinle on the Reservation. One can tour the canyon in an open truck bed, a private guided tour or in your own vehicle with a Navajo guide. We had taken the open truck tour a few years ago and I've always wanted to go back in my own vehicle. So, we packed bags and headed out early tuesday morning. We had a few stops which I'll blog about later and had our lunch in the Brown Mug Cafe in Winslow (Navajo tacos all around). I put on my ipod and we listened to the last 5 chapters of Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides which deals mainly with Kit Carson and the round-up and relocation of the Navajo Nation. This gave us all some of the historical significance.

I had contacted the Jeep Jamboree people and they gave me the name of the guide they use. His name is Daniel Staley. We arranged to meet Daniel at 9am at the Visitor Center. When he wasn't there at 9:15, we got a little worried. After one of the other guides volunteered to call his son, Leander, Daniel arrived. He had transmission trouble and had to catch a ride with one of his friends. It was a beautiful day so I wanted to take the hard top off so we all could have a good view of the canyon walls. After a bit of a struggle, we pulled the top and left it next to a corral belonging to one of Daniel's friends. I was glad to see it there when we got back.

The canyon is made up of two canyons, Canyon del Muerto and Canyon De Chelly. We (I) wanted to see parts of both canyons. The opening is quite wide and we had to drive through a lot of water to get to the "Y" for the split.

Along the way, Daniel pointed out numerous examples of petroglyphs (carved)

and pictographs (painted) that date back hundreds of years. Some show native signs and tell stories and others show the Spanish soldiers on horseback.

There are many examples of cliff dwellings along the way. The Anasazi lived here over 1000 years ago and built their homes under the overhangs of the canyon walls. Over time the canyon floor has eroded away leaving the dwellings higher in the walls than when they were built. Maybe you can make out the dwellings in the overhang in this photo.

There is a lot of livestock in the canyon. The horses and cattle roam free for the summer. They are branded so they belong to different families who still have property in the Canyon. Daniel has sheep and cattle that he rotates from the canyon floor to the canyon rim to graze.

My goal was to get to two places, Spider Rock and Fortress Rock. We took a right at the "Y" and headed for Spider Rock. Spider Rock is the home of Spider Woman, an important deity to the Dine (Dee-nay or Navajo). The rock is 800 feet high and its erosion began some 230 million years ago. Spider Woman helped the Dine survive when they first came to inhabit the land. She taught the Dine the art of weaving which they still do. Here is a modern Spider Woman with Spider Rock in the background.

Our guide, Daniel, told us the story of Spider Woman. He told us how parents use the fear of Spider Woman to get their kids to behave. Kids are threatened with being captured by Spider Woman and eaten alive if they don't obey their parents. Daniel's mother used this on him when he was young. When he tried the same thing with his kids, his son said he would get Spider Man to help him. So much for tradition. Here he is telling us the stories.

I love this photo.

On the way back to the "Y", we stopped at Daniels' Hogan which the Navajo use to live in and to hold rituals. He built it himself and he spends most of the summer there tending to his livestock. It is sparsely furnished with a chair, a couple of cots, a camping stove for cooking and a stove for heat.

We had to ford a number of creek crossings (we counted 26) which was a blast to power through. None were very deep but some had steep banks that we had to fly down or grind our way up. Lots of fun.

Here I am with Daniel with some of the mud splatter from the creek.

To get to our next stop, Fortress Rock, we had to go quickly so Daniel had me take the short cuts through the water skipping the trail that meandered through the canyon. At one point I felt like the African Queen as we drove through a stretch of the creek with trees on either side brushing against the Jeep. At one point we drove under a huge overhang.

I remember parking under this overhang in the open truck but it was on dry sand. This time it was much more fun in the water. I had to drop Peg off to take a picture while I made a U-turn and tried it again. Wheeee!

Our last stop was Fortress Rock. Fortress Rock is in Canyon del Muerto (canyon of death, canyon of the dead, dead man's canyon, you get the drift). In the effort to round up the Navajo in order to force them to give up their land and march to another location, Kit Carson initiated a "scorched earth" policy. This was put into action to starve the Navajo and relocate/imprison them in New Mexico. The siege laid down by the US Army drove the Navajo who were in Canyon De Chelly to the top of this rock.

During the winter of 1863-4, the Navajo in Canyon De Chelly finally gave in and, along with Navajo from other parts of the region started the "Long Walk" to Bosque Rodondo. In 1868, William T. Sherman realized that this "experiment" was not working and released the Navajo who returned to their original home in what is now the reservation in Arizona.

This was truly a great adventure for us. I think we all got a lot out of the culture, history, scenery and off-road fun. This is an experience I will remember and treasure for a long time.


  1. Sounds like a great trip, Tony! I hope to do that myself some day - with painting gear!

    So did ya wash off all the red Sedona mud?

  2. Michael, it was a great trip. I took lots of photos and am anxious to try my hand at some of the critters and Spider Rock.
    The Sedona Red Mud has been replaced with Canyon De Chelly Brown Mud.

  3. That's an awfully contemporary looking hogan your guide lives in... sliding windows with screens, double cross door that looks like Home Depot. H-m-m.

  4. He only stays there for part of the summer while tending his livestock.
    Originally the Navajo and other Native Americans of the southwest built Kivas with local material (clay blocks, for example). The hogan has replaced the kiva and can be made from modern material. Most every house on the reservation has a hogan next to it that is used for their rituals and can be used as living space if needed.

    Inside you would see that it is less contemporary than the average college student's dorm room. No electricity, no running water, outhouse, rain barrel shower, pretty spartan.

  5. Loved the pictures. We went with Jeep Jamboree two years ago but were hoping to be able to go back on a different date this year. Do you have Daniel's contact info? He was a great tour guide but we were having trouble getting contact info.

  6. Joe,
    Thanks for the comments. We had a great tour of Canyon De Chelly with Daniel. This is the way to go...private tour in your own Jeep.
    Daniel is not that easy to find, but I did get his phone number. As it turns out, I had been communicating with one of Daniel's friends to set up a blog for Daniel. So, I got the phone number and put it on the blog (under construction) on the Contact tab.

    here is the blog link...

    Let me know if you get this.

    1. Thanks so much. We were able to get the numbers off the site. My wife and I really enjoyed looking at your pictures. Been jeeping for two years and we are hooked. Can't think of a better way to explore. Thanks again,


  7. Oh, another thing. His friend said he won't be available via phone for a couple of weeks.