Every traveler dreams about seeing the majestic Grand Canyon someday, but few people know about its little brother – Canyon de Chelly – much smaller, but equally beautiful. This comparatively little-known Canyon may not be as spectacular as others in Arizona or Utah, but it does have sheer sandstone walls that rise up to 1,000 feet, breathtaking overlooks and some of the best preserved Anasazi ruins.
Located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-shay) is entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust. Navajo people still live within the park and farm the fertile valleys the same way their ancestors did centuries ago. Canyon de Chelly is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America. The archeological evidence suggests that people have lived here for almost 5,000 years, using the canyon walls to built shelters and permanent dwellings. These Indian dwellings evolved overtime from pit-houses to multi-story villages.
There are two rim drives within the monument and both of them offer spectacular views of the Canyon. Many of the cliff dwelling can be seen from the rims, but only one of these –the White House ruins– can be visited without a Navajo guide. Most of the other ruins are accessible only via guided tour. If you really want to experience Canyon de Chelly, you should take the White House trail down to the Canyon floor. The trail is incredible from start to finish: beautiful views, man-carved caves, and tall sheer cliffs. The trail leads to the White House ruins, but the Pueblo dwellings can’t be ascended. Accessing the ruins via ladders has been banned since 1951.
You may wonder why is this prehistoric village called “the White House.” Do you see the whitewashed walls of the central room in the upper level of these pueblos? The Navajo mention these ruins in their Night Chant, calling them Kinii’Na’igai (White House in Between), hence the name of the dwelling. At its peak the village was comprised of about 60 rooms that could house about 100 people. The pueblos were built of stone blocks with mud mortar. The Anasazi people who lived here farmed the canyon floor raising corn, beans, squash and cotton.
The White House trail is about 2.5 mile long. It took us less than an hour to descend into the Canyon, although the sign says 2 hours. It was late afternoon so we didn’t stay long, but the scenery was spectacular. The road back to the rim was more challenging due to its steepness and the canyon’s high altitude. But the hike was beautiful, with stunning views and provided very different perspectives of the White House ruins.
There is no entrance fee for visiting Canyon de Chelly or the White House ruins. The park features a Visitor Center, two rim drives, ten overlooks, and one public trail to visit on your own. Private companies offer tours inside the canyon. You can easily spend a day at Canyon de Chelly if want to drive both rims and do the White House trail. The nearest town is Chinle. Here you can find accommodations if you are planning to spend the night in the area.