Your first stop should be the visitor center , in front of which is an example of a traditional crib-style hogan, a hexagonal structure of logs and earth that Navajos use as both a home and a ceremonial center. Inside the visitor center, a small museum explores the history of Canyon de Chelly, and there's often a silversmith demonstrating Navajo jewelry-making techniques. Interpretive programs are offered at the monument from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Check at the visitor center for daily activities, such as campfire programs and natural-history programs.
From the visitor center, most people tour the canyon by car. Very different views of the monument's system of canyons are provided by the 15-mile North Rim and 16-mile South Rim drives. The North Rim Drive overlooks Canyon del Muerto, while the South Rim Drive overlooks Canyon de Chelly. With stops, the drive along either rim road can easily take 2 to 3 hours. If you have time for only one, make it the South Rim Drive, which provides both a dramatic view of Spider Rock and the chance to hike down into the canyon on the only trail you can explore without hiring a guide. If, on the other hand, you're more interested in the history and prehistory of this area, opt for the North Rim Drive, which overlooks several historically significant sites within the canyon.
Taking Photos on the Reservations -- Before taking a photograph of a Navajo, always ask permission. If it's granted, a tip of $1 or more is expected. Photography is not allowed at all in Hopi villages.
The North Rim Drive
The first stop on the North Rim is the Ledge Ruin Overlook. On the opposite wall, about 100 feet up from the canyon floor, you can see the Ledge Ruin. This site was occupied by the Ancestral Puebloans between 1050 and 1275. Nearby, at the unmarked Dekaa Kiva Viewpoint, you can see a lone kiva (circular ceremonial building). This structure was reached by means of toeholds cut into the soft sandstone cliff wall.
The second stop is the Antelope House Overlook, which is the all-around most interesting overlook in the monument. Not only do you get to hike a quarter-mile over the rugged rimrock landscape, but you also get to view ruins, rock art, and impressive cliff walls. The Antelope House ruin takes its name from the antelope paintings, believed to date back to the 1830s, on a nearby cliff wall. Beneath the ruins of Antelope House, archaeologists have found the remains of an earlier pit house dating from A.D. 693. Although most of the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings were abandoned sometime after a drought began in 1276, Antelope House had already been abandoned by 1260, possibly because of damage caused by flooding. Across the wash from Antelope House, an ancient tomb, known as the Tomb of the Weaver, was discovered by archaeologists in the 1920s. The tomb contained the well-preserved body of an old man wrapped in a blanket of golden eagle feathers and accompanied by cornmeal, shelled and husked corn, pine nuts, beans, salt, and thick skeins of cotton. Also visible from this overlook is Navajo Fortress, a red-sandstone butte that the Navajo once used as a refuge from attackers. A steep trail and system of log ladders led to the top of the butte, and by hauling the ladders up behind them, the Navajo could escape from any pursuers.
The third stop is Mummy Cave Overlook, named for two mummies found in burial urns below the ruins. Archaeological evidence indicates that this giant amphitheater consisting of two caves was occupied for 1,000 years, from A.D. 300 to 1300. In the two caves and on the shelf between are 80 rooms, including three kivas. The central structure between the two caves includes an interesting three-story building characteristic of the architecture in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Archaeologists speculate that a group of Ancestral Puebloans migrated here from New Mexico. Much of the original plasterwork is still intact and indicates that the buildings were colorfully decorated.
The fourth and last stop on the North Rim is the Massacre Cave Overlook, which got its name after an 1805 Spanish military expedition killed more than 115 Navajos at this site. The Navajo at the time had been raiding Spanish settlements that were encroaching on their territory. Accounts of the battle at Massacre Cave differ. One version claims there were only women, children, and old men taking shelter in the cave, but the official Spanish records claim 90 warriors and 25 women and children were killed. Also visible from this overlook is Yucca Cave, which was occupied about 1,000 years ago.
The South Rim Drive
The South Rim Drive climbs slowly but steadily, and at each stop you're a little bit higher above the canyon floor. Near the mouth of the canyon is the Tunnel Overlook, where a short narrow canyon feeds into Chinle Wash, a wash formed by the streams that cut through the canyons of the national monument. Tsegi is a Navajo word meaning "rock canyon," and at the nearby Tsegi Overlook, that's just what you'll see when you gaze down from the viewpoint.
The next stop is the Junction Overlook, so named because it overlooks the junction of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly. Here you can see the Junction Ruin, which has 10 rooms and a kiva. Ancestral Puebloans occupied this ruin during the Great Pueblo Period, which lasted from around 1100 until shortly before 1300. First Ruin, which is perched precariously on a long narrow ledge, is also visible. There are 22 rooms and two kivas in this ruin. Good luck picking out the two canyons in this maze of curving cliff walls.
The third stop is White House Overlook, from which you can see the 80-room White House Ruin, which is among the largest ruin sites in the canyon. These buildings were inhabited between 1040 and 1275. From this overlook, you have your only opportunity to descend into Canyon de Chelly without a guide or ranger. The White House Ruins Trail descends 600 feet to the canyon floor and crosses Chinle Wash before reaching the White House Ruin. The buildings of this ruin were constructed both on the canyon floor and 50 feet up the cliff wall in a small cave. Although you cannot enter the ruins, you can get close enough to get a good look. Do not wander off this trail, and please respect the privacy of the Navajo living here. The 2.5-mile round-trip hike takes about 2 hours. Be sure to carry water.
Notice the black streaks on the sandstone walls above the White House Ruins. These streaks, known as desert varnish, are formed by seeping water, which reacts with iron in the sandstone (iron is what gives the walls their reddish hue). To create the canyon's many petroglyphs, Ancestral Puebloan artists would chip away at the desert varnish. Later, the Navajo used paints to create pictographs of animals and historical events, such as the Spanish military expedition that killed 115 Navajos at Massacre Cave. Many of these petroglyphs and pictographs can be seen if you take a guided tour into the canyon.
The fifth stop is Sliding House Overlook. These ruins were built on a narrow shelf and appear to be sliding down into the canyon. Inhabited from about 900 until 1200, Sliding House contained between 30 and 50 rooms. This overlook is already more than 700 feet above the canyon floor, with sheer walls giving the narrow canyon a very foreboding appearance.
On the last access road to the canyon rim, you'll come to the Face Rock Overlook, which provides yet another dizzying glimpse of the ever-deepening canyon. Here you gaze 1,000 feet down to the bottom. However, it is the next stop -- Spider Rock Overlook -- that offers the monument's most spectacular view. This viewpoint overlooks the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon. The monolithic pinnacle known as Spider Rock rises 800 feet from the canyon floor, its two free-standing towers forming a natural monument. Across the canyon from Spider Rock is the similarly striking Speaking Rock, which is connected to the far canyon wall.
Other Ways to See the Canyon
Access to the floor of Canyon de Chelly is restricted. Unless you're on the White House Trail, you must be on an organized tour or accompanied by an authorized guide in order to enter the canyon. If you want to see a lot of the canyon and don't happen to be driving your own four-wheel-drive vehicle, the best way to see Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto is on a jeep tour or what locals call shake-and-bake tours. These latter tours are in rugged military-type trucks that have had seats installed in the truck beds. In summer, these excursions really live up to the name. (In winter, the trucks are enclosed to keep out the elements.) Tours, which leave from two area hotels, make frequent stops for photographs and to visit ruins, Navajo farms, and rock art.
Thunderbird Lodge (www.tbirdlodge.com; tel. 800/679-2473), which uses unusual six-wheel-drive trucks for its tours, operates half-day tours costing $70 and full-day trips costing $79 per person. The half-day tours operate year-round with departures at 9am and 1 or 2pm (depending on the season); full-day tours operate spring through fall, departing at 9am and returning at 5pm. A sunset tour is offered from April through October. Similar tours are offered by Canyon de Chelly Tours (www.canyondechellytours.com; tel. 928/349-1600), which departs from the Holiday Inn and will take you into the canyon in a Unimog truck (a powerful four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle). These 3-hour tours, which operate from March to October, cost $75. Reservations are recommended.
For a more personalized experience, go out in a jeep in a small group. My favorite guide is Daniel Staley, who operates Beauty Way Jeep Tours (http://canyondechellybeautywayjeeptours.com; tel. 928/674-3772, text 928/797-0836). Descendants of Chauncey Neboiya, the first Navajo archaeologist, Daniel and his sons continue a guiding tradition that goes back more than 60 years. A 3-hour tour costs $175 for one to three people; a 4-hour tour costs $240; and a 5-hour tour costs $305. Longer tours and overnight camping trips can also be arranged.
If you're physically fit and enjoy hiking, consider hiring a Navajo guide to lead you into the canyon. Hikes can start at the White House Ruin trail, near the Spider Rock overlook, or from near the Antelope House overlook. These latter two starting points are trails that are not open to the public without a guide and should be your top choices. The hike from Antelope House gets my vote for best option for a hike. The monument visitor center maintains a list of guides, and guides can often be hired at the visitor center. The guide fee is usually $15 per hour with a 3-hour minimum.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.