For nearly 5,000 years, people have made their homes in this spectacular pair of narrow sandstone canyons of remote northeastern Arizona. The Navajos are the most recent guardians of this land; the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) left their mark too, in the giant rock amphitheaters where they created caves, dwelling rooms, and ceremonial kivas. To explore the canyons is to see centuries unfold.
Ancestral Puebloan civilization reached its zenith between A.D. 1100 and 1300, but evidence suggests that these canyons may have been occupied as early as A.D. 300. In the nooks and crannies of the canyons, you'll see ancient dwellings hollowed into the rock walls and the circular sacred rooms known as kivas; the largest and most impressive ruin is the White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly, which was inhabited between 1040 and 1275. You'll also see ancient tombs -- the Tomb of the Weaver near the Antelope House Ruin, and the Mummy Caves, both appropriately enough in Canyon del Muerto, or the Canyon of the Dead.
While most tourists simply drive along the two scenic drives -- the 15-mile North Rim Drive, which overlooks Canyon del Muerto, and the 16-mile South Rim Drive, which overlooks Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "duh shay") -- hire a guide and you can take the kids right down into the canyons, where they can poke around these fascinating ruins. Navajo guides or local tour companies will lead you either on foot or in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. The hike down is fairly demanding, so with kids you'll probably opt to drive -- there'll still be a bit of walking to reach the various ruins.
Because you'll be seeing both Navajo and Ancestral Puebloan relics, make sure the kids learn the difference between the two kinds of rock art. Look for dark slick streaks on the canyon walls, created by water seepage reacting with iron oxide -- ancestral Puebloans chipped away at this so-called "desert varnish" to expose the lighter-colored rock underneath, forming pictorial designs we now call petroglyphs. Pictographs are similar designs made later by the Navajos, applying colorful paints directly to the sandstone walls to commemorate important tribal events. Urge the kids to take time to decipher the stories told by the rock pictures -- they're windows into an ancient way of life.
Nearest Airport: Flagstaff Pulliam, 222 miles.
Where to Stay: $$ Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly, Indian Rte. 7 (tel. 888/HOLIDAY [465-4329] or 928/674-5000; www.ichotelsgroup.com). $$ Thunderbird Lodge, Indian Rte. 7 (tel. 800/679-2473 or 928/674-5841; www.tbirdlodge.com).