You can see it from deep within, or drive along the edge. From the approach through Beautiful Valley to the edge of the Canyon of Death (Canyon del Muerte), a drive along the north and south rims of Canyon de Chelly (prounounced de-shay) stores up images to last a lifetime. In my humble opinion, it is the most beautiful drive in Arizona, along the edge of the most beautiful canyon in Arizona.
Unlike grander canyons, de Chelly has an endearing human scale. Drive across the flat, sandy level space of the plateau called Defiance and look down into green pastures and a cottonwood-lined stream and you feel like an intergalactic traveler who has just discovered life in a hostile universe.
Chase the sunset along the edge of the canyon and watch tall spires sketched in shadows separate from the canyon walls and fade into a solid black mass. Stop along the way to see the ancient vertical trail that people living in the canyon still use-nimble as the goats they lead. Look across at White House Ruins (top photo), testimony to ancient occupation. If you are truly blessed, as you gaze down at the rural scene of life in the canyon, you’ll see horses running free, splashing through the stream, whirling like spirits blessing the day.
Most people who visit Canyon de Chelly ride trucks through the bottom of the canyon,splashing through the stream, craning their necks up at the curved red walls. Because the canyon is on the Navajo Reservation and people live in the canyon, you cannot just wander in on your own. You can climb aboard the old troop trucks at the historic Thunderbird Lodge near the campgrounds in the Canyon itself. Or you can go to the Park visitor center and hire a Navajo driver to take your own vehicle into the canyon. The Navajo guides will tell you tales–some true–like the one about the mesa where people starved rather than give in to Kit Carson who had been sent to relocate them. They will tell bad jokes, like the one about the tall formation leaning into the chasm. “Martini rock” the guide will say, “One drop will kill you.”
This ride into the canyon ranks as a trip of a lifetime, but while you’re there, don’t forget the rim drive. Unfortunately, many people miss that alternative view. From the information center along the north rim in the early morning, and along the south rim to Spider Woman Rock at sunset, a canyon rim tour turns the canyon inside out.
Vera Marie Badertscher writes travel articles and blogs about books, movies and travel at A Traveler’s Library. A long-time Arizona resident, she actually prefers the human-scale of Canyon de Chelly over that other famous Arizona attraction, The Grand Canyon.
Leigh Spigelman is a photographer experienced in travel, nature, wildlife photography and architecture imaging. He is based in the Southwest United States and travels extensively in his digital pursuits. See his photography website at http://www.imaging123.com and check out Leigh’s blog.