Airstream Thanksgiving, Part III: Deep Into Canyon de Chelly

Sunset/moonrise over Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Katie Arnold

[This is the third in a series about roadtripping around the Southwest. Read parts I  and II here.]

On our first morning in Chinle, I woke full of hope for Canyon de Chelly. We’d slept deeply in the Thunderbird Lodge, and it was one of those glittery late fall days in the high desert, when the air is so clear and dry it makes everything look sharper, more angular. Out in the parking lot, the Airstream gleamed with frosty promise. We unlatched the door and looked inside: The fridge had slid out of its plywood cabinet, but the table was still bolted to the wall; the closet door was on the floor, but all windows were intact. A few stove knobs lay scattered at our feet, but at least the heater hadn't fallen off. This was cause for minor celebration, so we sizzled up eggs and bacon in our frigid little kitchen, and then carried our plates into our hotel room to eat next to the heater—one last little luxury before camping again.

Located entirely within the Navajo land, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is managed by the National Park Service but it’s under the jurisdiction of the Navajo tribal government. It’s a complicated arrangement, but for the typical visitor it boils down to this: You can’t enter the canyon without an authorized Navajo guide. Because it was low season and we hadn’t bothered to hire one in advance, so we unhitched the Airstream at Cottonwood Campground and drove the quarter mile to the visitor center, where a ranger gave me a list of outfitters. On my second call, I found Adam at Antelope House Tours, who agreed to take us into the canyon in our truck for $30 an hour.

Riders near the mouth of Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Katie Arnold

We'd arrived after dark the night before, but even in broad daylight, the mouth of Canyon de Chelly is underwhelming. From the visitor center and campground, you wouldn’t really even know it’s there. There’s no gaping chasm to fall into or head-spinning Grand Canyonesque views—just an unmarked dirt road past a couple of horse stables. The road petered out in a sandy wash, and the walls didn’t look like walls but crumbly berms, no more than 30 feet high. Adam, wedged next to me in the front seat, pointed to tire tracks in the deep sand. “Welcome to Canyon de Chelly,” he said.

We drove up the arroyo, and within a few minutes it magically transformed itself into a canyon and the lumpy sides became magnificent, 300-foot red sandstone walls. Every few minutes, Adam motioned for Steve to stop and we’d all pile out to gape at thousand-year-old pictographs and the weathered foundations of mud-brick homes built into alcoves 100 feet off the canyon floor. A trio of tourists and their guide clopped by on horseback, and far above us, we could make out the tiny stick-figure silhouettes of people standing on the rim. But down here at the bottom the only sound was ravens squawking against blue sky and the wind whooshing down the cliffs.

Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Katie Arnold

Humans have inhabited Canyon de Chelly canyon continuously for nearly 5,000 years: ancient hunter-gatherers, followed by the Basketmaker people 2,500 years ago, and then the Ancestral Puebloans who built multistoried villages in the cliff walls. Now it is home to the Navajo—or Dinéh, as they refer to themselves (it means "the people")— who maintain modest homesteads on the canyon floor, where they farm and raise livestock and lead tours. Adam grew up spending summers at his grandmother’s house in the canyon—much the same as it is today, without electricity or running water. We passed tattered, faded scarecrows lording over rows of corn, a family harvesting firewood, and a young Navajo woman selling turquoise jewelry on a blanket she’d spread out on the sand.

The best way to explore Canyon de Chelly would be slowly, on foot or horseback, but with a two-year-old and a four-year-old in the mix, going by truck meant we could cover more ground in less time. And driving the sandy canyon bottom was oddly mesmerizing. The sandstone walls, stained black in places from water and glossy and almost mirrored with desert patina in others, kept getting taller, steeper, more sheer. It was a little like floating downstream on a raft on a wilderness river, only we were going upstream, in a truck. During heavy summer thunderstorms, the canyon will flash flood, but never long enough to float a boat. Still, I kept turning around to try to picture what these walls would look like from a river that didn’t exist, drifting lazily past ruins and pictographs.

Lunch with Ben (left) and Adam (middle) at Antelope House Ruin. Photo: Katie Arnold

Adam’s dad, Ben, who is in his 70s, started Antelope House Tours more than 30 years ago, and still guides several times a week. The day we were there, though, he was up at his camp just below Antelope House Ruin, raking cottonwood leaves into tidy piles and setting them on fire. It was a peaceful spot, at the base of an enormous alcove and next to the remains of a small village dating back to the 1300s. Ben had set up a little picnic area, with tables and a stand selling Crackerjack, soda, and Ramen noodles. One of Ben’s grandsons fixed the girls hot chocolate, and we sat at a picnic table under the cottonwood trees with Ben and ate peanut butter sandwiches we’d brought. Across the wash, a few of Ben’s other relatives were selling handmade jewelry and flutes. Two tourists and their guide, also related to Ben, arrived in their Jeep and wandered over. Pretty soon the high, melodic notes of a flute rose in the air, haunting and beautiful.

Impromptu Navajo flute concert, Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Katie Arnold

It had taken us three hours to drive six miles into the canyon, and now it was time to turn back. Past the homesteads and pictographs and ruins and scarecrows, past the wide junction where Canyon de Chelly veers east and Canyon del Muerte menaders north. In the backseat, Maisy's head lolled on her shoulders and Pippa stared glassy-eyed out the window. “Keep your eyes out for bear,” Adam told her. “They like to hide in shady corners behind the rocks.” The walls were shrinking now, the sand deeper and rutted with tire tracks, past the horse stables to the mouth and back again to the visitor center, where we said goodbye to Adam.

Now we wanted to look down at where we'd been, so we drove the South Rim Road a few miles past the campground to a series of scenic overlooks. It’s hard to say which is more impressive: the view from the bottom of the canyon, looking up, or the view from above, looking down. Certainly looking down is more terrifying—a thousand feet of air drop away from your feet, with little more than a metal railing separating you from freefall. The scale of the canyon, so understated at the mouth, was astounding from the rim: red spires glowing in the afternoon light, the twisting meanders far below, cottonwoods still holding onto their last golden leaves.

There’s only one trail into the canyon that visitors are allowed to hike without a Navajo guide. The White House Ruin Trail leaves the South Rim and switchbacks 600 vertical feet in a mile and a half to the base of the White House Ruin, a series of whitewashed structures tucked into an alcove above the canyon floor. It would be dark long before we reached the bottom, but we set off anyway to hike as far as we could and watch the shadows creep up the walls and the sun set over Canyon de Chelly.

On the White House Ruin Trail. Photo: Katie Arnold

Adam had described the trail as “easy” but maybe he’d never hiked it with two rascally preschoolers in tow. Along the rim, the exposure was unforgiving: a sheer drop of 600 feet with no fence, every parent's worst nightmare. We clutched the girls’ hands and kept them to the inside until the trail dropped over the edge and leveled out, if only a little. Once into the switchbacks, I’d never seen Pippa hike with such purpose, as though having spent the morning in the canyon, she, too, was feeling its magnetic pull.

Late afternoon is rush hour on the White House Ruin trail: Navajo artists carrying backpacks and bags traipsed up the path after a long day selling their work at the bottom of the canyon. Visitors, too, emerged huffing from exertion. One couple stopped us to point out a small figure clamoring up a vertical face of rock well off the trail. “We saw him at the bottom,” they told us. “He’s a painter. He said he could climb out in 20 minutes. We didn’t believe him. But now we see how he does it.” Anyone else scrambling up that face would have been roped in, but he scampered up in jeans and white sneakers, picking his way from ledge to ledge like he did it every day.

On our way back up, a large group of several Navajo families caught up to us, and we kept pace with them as the father whooped in encouragement, urging his kids to run. Together Pippa and a four-year-old boy leapfrogged each other, skipping up the trail and cutting corners to scramble across sticky red slick rock. We made it up with no whining and time to spare: The sun was just sinking as we crested the rim, the canyon in full shadow, holding its secrets as it has for millennia.

White House Ruin Trail slickrock. Photo: Katie Arnold

One of the cardinal rules of family adventures is that the first 24 hours are usually the hardest. That’s when you’re settling into your routine, working out the kinks, figuring out your system—or in the case of vintage Airstream road trips, finding out what fell off and broke and needs to be fixed. I try never to judge the rest of the trip by the first 24 hours; there’s always a moment when you want to chuck it all and turn back, sometimes in the middle of the night. My advice is: Don’t. Try to ride it out, no matter how much you want to go home. Because what comes next is almost always better.

By the time we got back to camp, the Airstream seemed rosier, more welcoming, and our woes from the day before forgotten in the excitement of the day. We were in  Canyon de Chelly! We fished out the headlamps and Steve lit the old-fashioned propane wall lantern that we’d failed to notice before but actually generated a surprising amount of heat. Our tin can was cozy and getting warmer, and so far everything was intact. We were finally getting in the Airstream groove. We fixed dinner while the girls sat on the couch and entertained themselves with the iPad (technology does come in handy when you are trying to make dinner in a kitchen the size of a closet). Afterwards, it was the usual pre-bedtime ritual, christened on this trip: fire, hot chocolate, marshmallows. And then Steve and I sat outside reading and talking by the fire, while the stars flickered overhead and the fattening moon arced across the sky.

It was warmer in Canyon de Chelly than it had been in Chaco, which means instead of 17 it was maybe 24. We woke just before daybreak to all bodies warm and accounted for, and stuck our head out into the day to find that the campsites around us had filled while we slept: people sleeping in their cars, with the seats pushed back and the engines running. All night. We had oatmeal on the stove and coffee brewing, and the lantern was kicking off some serious heat. Suddenly the Airstream felt very luxurious.

Before we drove back to Santa Fe, we decided to hike the White House Ruin Trail again, this time all the way to the bottom and back. We made brisk progress down the switchbacks to the sunny, sandy wash at the bottom, where Navajo artists had already set up tables spread with handmade jewelry and stone etchings. The man we’d seen scrambling up the canyon walls the day before was sitting cross-legged against the tree, painting a small slab of sandstone. Steve and the girls stopped to shop, while I wandered over to the White House ruin: as advertised, a faded stone façade, with smooth plaster and tiny square windows—an impressive architectural feat despite a thousand years of glaring sun and hard weather. Then I heard a noise coming from inside the ancient rooms: voices, high-pitched and indecipherable. But that was impossible. The ruins were 50 feet off the ground, on a narrow ledge, uninhabited for centuries. I cocked my head. The voices sounded familiar. They were coming from my own children: an echo, bouncing off the canyon walls, throwing their chattering laughter across space and time.

Rush hour in the canyon. Photo: Katie Arnold

On the climb out, the trail was busier with tourists, most of whom we recognized from the campground. Halfway up, we heard the jingle of bells, and barking. Above us, a small flock of sheep was hopping boulders and cutting switchbacks, the animals kicking up dust on the steep descent. Two sheep dogs yipped at them and at each other, jostling for dominance. No humans accompanied them, and we stepped aside to let them pass, Pippa and Maisy slack jawed at the stomp of hooves and the smell of wool, a barnyard frenzy just inches from their face. A few switchbacks later, a tiny old Navajo woman appeared, wrinkled and hunched over a walking stick. She wore a long, cotton skirt and a shawl and a nylon backpack. “Are those your sheep?” four-year-old Pippa asked brightly as she passed. The old woman answered in Navajo, in what appeared to be the affirmative. Then she disappeared around a bend.

Have hat, will nap. Photo: Katie Arnold

On the face of things, Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon are a lot alike. Both were centers for trading and commerce, and home to generations of Native Americans who lived and farmed and built on the sacred ground. But while Chaco is serene and empty, a ghostly monument to a civilization that moved on more than a thousand years ago, Canyon de Chelly is still very much alive, a busy, living canyon where the Dinéh work and make art and make a living. That we visited both places on the same trip started as kind of a lark—they looked close enough on the map, but weren’t, really—but turned out to be a serendipitous juxtaposition of culture and history that hit us on the most visceral level. The two were more powerful together than they might have been apart. Even our girls, as little as they are, clutching their turtle fetishes and cloth Navajo dolls, seemed to sense it.

It was blacktop all the way home to Santa Fe, and the Airstream chugged loyally behind us, swaying a little in a jolly sort of way. Home again, home again. There were no potholes or washboards, no mountain passes or sandy arroyos, just the straight, smooth arrow of Interstate 40, heading east. In these conditions, it was easy to forget the trials of the trailer. We’d had such a good adventure! We’d learned that camping in late November might be the very best time: no crowds, a rare stillness, and at least this year, glorious weather. Too glorious, maybe. We’d learned that we love to sleep in a tent maybe more than in a trailer, but we also learned that traveling together—just the four of us and Gus—brings us closer than we ever get at home. We needed to leave home, and all its schedules and distractions, to come together. And despite its loose screws and broken window and carbon monoxide-spewing heater, the Airstream, for those four perfectly imperfect days, was home.

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly. Photo: Katie Arnold

We pulled into Santa Fe after dark, and didn’t even try to back the trailer a quarter mile up the twisty dirt road and into our twisty dirt driveway. We parked it down the street. The next morning, the Airstream waited for us, its dull silver skin sparkling in the sun, filled with the promise of a new day. We haven’t put it on Craiglist yet. But soon, probably.

For more information about planning a trip to Canyon de Chelly, check out

—Katie Arnold

Filed To: Camping
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