Thursday, May 22, 2014

Riding Our National Park Systems: Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Riding Our National Park Systems

by Lenice Basham

PairADice Mules, Belle, Mo.

*If you have a National Park System you would like to see featured in this segment, or have photos of you and your family riding in a National Park System, send your photos/suggestions to

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Chinle, Ariz.

A few years ago, Loren and I had the opportunity to attend a camping trip to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. We spent several nights camping in the canyon and riding out among the various canyons. It was an amazing adventure. At that time, Ron-D-View had arranged an authorized guide to take us into the canyon. The first day we rode 12 miles into the canyon. We set up camp and slept in teepees while we were there. (See the July 2011 issue of Mules and More for more info on the Basham’s trip).

Canyon de Chelly offers auto tours, horseback riding tours and jeep tours, but I cannot imagine touring this magnificent canyon any other way than on the back of a mule. To ride through the Canyon, looking back at the covered wagon and mules, to have the only sounds you hear be the wind and the mules, is one of the most amazing adventures I have ever had the opportunity to experience. I don’t think Ron-D-View still offers this opportunity, but a Google search found several horseback riding options. ( I guess this would be the second best way.)

A National Monument is defined by the National Park Service as, “… a protected area that is similar to a National Park except that the President of the United States can declare an area of the United States to be a National Monument without approval of Congress. A National Monument receives less funding and have fewer wildlife protections,” ( There are 100 National Monuments. The executive order process was authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The goal from the President’s point of view was to protect historic and prehistoric sites while waiting for Congress to take action. Canyon de Chelly National Monument was authorized in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover to preserve the important archeological resources that span more than 4,000 years of human occupation. The monument is approximately 84,000 acres of land located entirely on the Navajo Nation. It includes three major canyons: Canyon de Chelly, Canyon de Muerto and Monument Canyon, all located in northeastern Arizona. It is the only monument the park service does not own. “Canyon de Chelly sustains a living community of Navajo people who are connected to a landscape of great historical and spiritual significance.” (National Park Service) Canyon de Chelly is unique among national park service units as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land. The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation are working to develop a cooperative management plan. Currently tours into the backcountry require a backcountry permit and hiring an authorized guide.

The elevation ranges from 5,500 at the visitor center to over 7,000 feet at the overlook. Spring is cool and windy with possibilities of dust storms. The highs range from 50-70 degrees with average lows of 35.

Canyon de Chelly contains numerous amazing ruins. The White House Ruins date from 1200. It is some of the oldest ruins in the Canyon. The sites exhibit more than 1,500 years of human occupation. The White House Ruins were built by the Anasazi people. The ruins are comprised of about 80 rooms and four kivas located on both the Canyon floor and in a cave 50 feet above the Canyon floor.

Mummy Cave Ruins were built by ancestral Puebloans in Canyon del Muerto. Ruins are located on a promontory in the middle of a cliff face with over 80 rooms and three kivas. The ruins were named after two mummies that were discovered by an archeological expedition in 1882 still wrapped in yucca plant fiber. It is said to be the last pueblo the Anasazi occupied before abandoning the Canyon around 1300 AD.

Massacre Cave Overlook. In 1805 Spanish military expedition fired on Navajos hiding in the alcove. 105 Navajos were killed in an all day battle to defend their land. It was said that a Navajo woman tried to save the others by flinging herself off the cave ledge and taking a Spanish soldier with her. According to legend, Spanish soldiers came to the Navajo dwellings while the men were away. The women, children and elders climbed into the cave to escape. Spanish soldiers fired into the cave killing everyone.

Spider Rock is a sandstone spire that rises 800 feet from the Canyon floor. It was formed by sand that blew and was compressed. It is considered sacred by the Navajo. According to legend, the Spider Woman lived on top of the spire and was the one to teach humans the art of weaving. It is truly an amazing site to see.

Canyon de Chelly is currently the home of 80 Navajo families who continue to live and farm in the Canyon.

Roads along the rim at the top of the Canyon, running northeast and southwest, are open to the public. There is a moderate 2.5 mile hike to the White House ruins trail. This is the only place you can go without an authorized guide. Maps are available at the visitor center for self guided tours and Canyon tours.

Canyon de Chelly holds many important clues to the past that need to be protected and preserved for future generations. The following rules are strictly enforced.

Pets are not allowed on hiking trails or on Canyon tours, even when using your own vehicle. Pets must be leashed at all times in the parking lots or campground. Owners are to pick up after pets.

Do not wander away from your group, especially in the backcountry. Guides must remain with group.

Do not touch, collect or remove natural features. Leave rocks, plants, animals, artifacts or rock art undisturbed.

Do not sit, lean, walk or climb on boulders or on walls. Rocks or walls may collapse or cause damage.

Do not enter, alter or deface archeological sites.

Do not enter private property without landowner’s permission.

Do not write, draw or carve on rock walls. Defacing the Canyon walls is prohibited.

Do not hunt, feed or disturb wild or domestic animals. Animals may charge or bite.

Do not take photographs from the rims or in the Canyon of Navajo people, their homes or animals without permission.

Leave no trace of your visit. Carry out and dispose of trash properly. Penalties for violations under Section 6 of the Archeological Resources Protection Act include up to $250,000 in fines and/or up to 5 years imprisonment.

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