Canyon de Chelly – Breathtaking Views Under Vibrant Skies

April 2017 – We left the wondrous Petrified Forest National Park with its incredible hikes and nearby Route 66 nostalgia and headed due north from Holbrook, Arizona, on Route 77 towards Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

Route 77 in the Navajo Nation Arizona

Wide open lands on Route 77 in the Navajo Nation, Arizona

This interesting (although occasionally bumpy) rural road goes through the vast Navajo Nation. We were mesmerized by the classic southwestern vistas that filled our views for the first twenty miles or so. My long lens was in the trailer (sigh), so I didn’t get good shots of the amazing rock formations we passed.

A few years back we made a similar trek on the parallel Indian Route 12 and really enjoyed it. So, again, we decided to forego the more major highway (US Route 191) and take another scenic route instead.

Little did we know it was going to snow on us as we got into the higher elevations!

Snow on road Navajo Nation Arizona

When we climbed from 5,000′ to 6,500′ elevation, we got a spring snow storm!

This was our third trip to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon d’Shay), but like all of the National Parks and National Monuments, there always seems to be something new to see.

In past visits we explored the overlooks along the northern scenic rim road through the park and hiked to the jaw-dropping White House Ruin. So, this time we decided to explore a few spots along the southern rim road.

Tunnel Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Tunnel Overlook, Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly is a massive canyon formed by uplifts and the relentless flow of water, and today the sheer red rock canyon walls tower 700 feet above the lush green valley floor.

Far below us we saw trucks bashing through the water from recent rains.

Tsegi Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Tsegi Overlook.

The only way to see the valley of the canyon is to take a private guided tour offered by the Navajo who live on the reservation that surrounds Canyon de Chelly National Monument. However, the North and South Rim Drives are open to everyone to enjoy for free without a paid guide.

Car driving in wash at Tsegi Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

The only way to get into Canyon de Chelly is on one hiking trail (White House Trail) or on a commercial tour.

As we zipped in and out of the overlooks, the skies began to brood…

Tsegi Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument RV trip Arizona

The clouds were moving fast at Tsegi overlook.

…and the red rock cliffs seemed to swirl around each other in fabulously exotic shapes.

Junction Overlook Canyon de Chelly South Rim Road Overlook Arizona

The rocks formed beautiful shapes that were so much fun to climb on.

Sliding House Ruin Overlook at Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Sliding House Ruin Overlook

Eventually, we made our way to Spider Rock Overlook, one of the iconic images of Canyon de Chelly. We reached the overlook right at the golden hour before sunset when the rock itself was lit in rich burnt orange hues.

Spider Rock overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Spider Rock.

The day had been very cloudy and windy, but as if by magic, right as the sun began to set, we were blessed with the most astonishing display of colors in the sky.

Sunset spider rock Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

As the golden light faded on Spider Rock and the red rock cliffs, the sky began a light show of its own.

We each ran back and forth on the rim, unsure where to get the best views and which part of the sky would light up next.

Sunset at Spider overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Mark lines up his shot on the next rock outcropping (upper right corner).

Spider rock lost its glow but the fire in the heavens was just getting started.

Spider Rock sunset Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona RV trip

Sunset’s brilliant display begins at Spider Rock.

Once the drama had played itself out in shades of orange, the skies turned vivid pink.

Pink sunset Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona


The light show intensified and our two-way radios crackled as we called each other from opposite ends of the overlook.

“Did you see THAT??!!”

Colorful sunset Spider Rock overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona


That sunset was breathtaking, but when morning came the next day and we ventured back out on the south rim drive, the drama in the sky was gone. We returned to Sliding House Ruin overlook because there is such a huge area to prowl around there, and looking down into Canyon de Chelly was as astonishing as ever.

Valley at Sliding House Ruin Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Sliding House Ruin Overlook.

At Sliding House Ruin overlook there are endless stretches of flat and undulating boulders that head out in all directions on a promontory. Before we knew it, we had been there for hours running around on the tops of these cliffs and peering down into the tree-filled valleys below.

Of course, if you get too close to the edge in a place like this, it’s all over. A sign near the rim was a good reminder!

Sheer cliff warning sign Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona


Red rock cliffs and green valley floor Sliding House Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

It’s a long way down…but what a view!

When I finally had gotten my fill of staring at the immense views in front of me, I glanced down at my feet and was taken with the rich hues and artistic patterns of the colorful lichen that was growing in and around the creases in the rocks.

Nature's artwork Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Nature’s artwork on the rocks.

Standing back and surveying the vast flat lichen covered boulders that stretched in all directions around me, I felt like I was looking at a modern art painting. Perhaps this is where Jackson Pollack got his inspiration!

Lichen on red rocks Jackson Pollack painting Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Jackson Pollack — Or colorful lichen on red rocks?

A little movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention, and I turned to see a lizard scampering past. He stopped and stared at me as I snuck closer and clicked my camera’s shutter.

Lizard Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

A lizard looks over at me as he runs by.

The spring wildflowers had started blooming, and Mark found a beautiful bouquet of Indian Paintbrush flowers.

Indian Paintbrush Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

A dash of scarlet…

We stuck around and soon the sun was sinking low in the sky, and the shadows were growing long and deep.

Shadows at sunset Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

Long shadows made for a surprise selfie at Sliding House Overlook.

The clear sky meant there were no colorful theatrics in the sky for our sunset at Sliding House overlook, but the sun gave me a coy wink for a split second before it slipped out of sight.

Starburst sunset Sliding House Ruin Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

A fleeting starburst at sunset…

It was hard to set the alarm for a pre-dawn hour the next day, but we bundled into our truck with hot tea and coffee in hand and drove out to Sliding House overlook once again where Mark caught the sun giving us a wink on its way up.

Sunrise Sliding House Ruin Overlook Canyon de Chelly National Monument Arizona

…and another at dawn.

Canyon de Chelly is a special place deep in the heart of the immense Navajo reservation. There is a dry camping campground in the town of Chinle that is run by the Navajo, and a few sites are big enough for a big RV.

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8 thoughts on “Canyon de Chelly – Breathtaking Views Under Vibrant Skies

  1. I visited Canyon de Chelly in May 2014 and found it to be one of the more intriguing canyons in the West. The beauty changes with the light. What really intrigued me was the number of cliff dwellings high up and wedged into the cracks and crevices of the cliffs. There must have been thousands of people living in this canyon at one time. And that’s just what you can see from roads. There are more deep in the canyon where you need a guide to show you the wonders of this canyon. The only public trail down into the canyon is worth the hike and you can talk to the natives and buy some native trinkets at the bottom.
    I liked the cozy campground too and found it an excellent launch point to explore the canyon. There were a couple private campgrounds up the canyon road as well but looked barren from the road.

    • It’s a beautiful canyon worthy of repeat visits, and the one hike available into the canyon is indeed terrific. The lives of the ancients across the American southwest (and worldwide) are truly fascinating to ponder.

      • Are there boondocking areas here that you can recommend? My husband & I will be doing our 1st 2 week RV trip around Arizona and love boondocking. Any other recommendations for a great 2 week trip would be much appreciated! Thanks a bunch!

  2. Six years ago, on a five week visit to what the Auto Club of So Cal refers to as “Indian Country”, Suzanne and I visited Canyon de Chelly. Like you, we drove the rim roads and stopped at various viewpoints along the way, photographing the scenes before us. Unfortunately, we did not have your excellent timing, not to mention your photographic skills. But the highlight for us was the guided tour deep within. The history of the Indians in the area came alive for us thanks to the delightful stories told by our Navajo guide.

    It is obvious you two love photography and writing, both of which continue to delight me.. Thank you for sharing yet again.

    Best Wishes,
    Don Neilson

    • Indian Country is fascinating and much of it is exquisitely beautiful and evocative. We always love seeing the ancient ruins and hearing modern day Navajo spoken among them as they go about their daily business in town. Your tour sounds wonderful and I know taking a tour is the richest way to experience Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley and other places. I’m happy to know our photos and anecdotes brought back fond memories for you, Don. Thank you for writing!!


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