Situated in the middle of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is the heart of Navajo country, both geographically and spiritually. Native families have lived between the colorful walls of the canyon for 5,000 years, tending corn and peach orchards and leaving behind pictographs, pit houses, and ancient cliff dwellings. Today the 84,000-acre canyon is a national monument, and 40 Navajo families still call the sacred place home. To tour the canyon itself, visitors need to travel with a Navajo guide, which is the perfect way to learn the deep history and access the rugged beauty of one of Arizona’s most awe-inspiring landscapes. Here are four ways to see the canyon, with or without guides.
Riding a horse down cottonwood-shaded trails is a great way to experience the quiet calm of Canyon de Chelly. A horse also provides the perfect vantage for taking in the towering rock walls and ancient ruins. Go for the day or sign up for one of several overnight horse packing trips, which allow riders to experience the star-studded night sky while eating fresh mutton stew and frybread deep in the ancient backcountry.
Take a Walk
The White House Ruin trail is the only one you can hike without a guide. It leads down to magnificent cliff dwellings, left behind by Ancestral Puebloans, that look like they were abandoned a week ago. For a deeper dive, a guided tour can get you close to some of the 2,500 other archaeological sites in the canyon, and even to the base of iconic 830-foot Spider Rock, named after the Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo how to weave.
Hit the Road
If you’re pressed for time, a Jeep tour is the best way to cover a lot of ground in the canyon. Even a quick three-hour tour will take you past Kokopelli Cave and First Ruin and get you into parts of Canyon del Muerto. An all-day tour usually includes less visited sites like Navajo Fortress and Massacre Cave, and might even include a trip to a traditional farm or a visit with Navajo weavers.
Ride the Rim
The interior of Canyon de Chelly is beautiful, but the view from the rim is just as stunning. Mountain bikers and intrepid road cyclists (there are many unpaved stretches) can follow the 130-mile loop road around the top of the peach-colored canyon, touring through lots of desert scrub and dusty secluded outposts and stopping at beautiful overlooks at White House Ruin, Mummy Cave, Spider Rock, and other iconic sites in Navajo country.