Canyon de Chelly, AZ – A Canyon of Indian Cliff Dwellings

RV blog post - We took the scenic route through Arizona's Navajo Nation to Window Rock and saw the stunning vistas and cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly.

Window Rock City Park.

Window Rock, Arizona.

The Window.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival at Window Rock.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices

for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival.

The Navajo Tribal Band practices for Oklahoma's Red Earth festival at Window Rock. Navajo Code Talker statue at Window Rock, Arizona.

Navajo Code Talker.

Show of patriotism at a cemetery outside Window Rock on Indian Route 12, Arizona. Views along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

Scenic Indian Route 12.

Exotic rock formations and colors along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

Two toned rock formations.

Brilliant rock formations along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

A homeowner with a flair for color.

All kinds of colors in the rocks along Indian Route 12, Arizona.

The land was painted pink too!

Cliff views at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Looking down Canyon del Muerto.

Looking down Canyon del Muerto at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Sheer cliffs and lush valleys.

"Where two fell off."

Massacre Cave at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

Massacre Cave.

Cave dwelling at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona..

The little cave to the left.

Cliff dwelling at Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona.

There's a structure inside!

Expansive views at Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The immensity is hard to capture.

Looking across the canyon at Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Tim & Mary Lynn look across at Mummy Cave.

Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Mummy Cave housed a small community

in the shadows.

Building inside Mummy Cave, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The structure inside Mummy Cave.

Navajo Fortress between Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The confluence of Canyon del Muerto

and Black Rock Canyon.

Antelope House, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Antelope House is tucked into the

bottom of this massive cliff.

Close-up of Antelope House, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Close-up of Antelope House ruins.

Hiking down to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Beginning our descent

into Canyon de Chelly.

We hike to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Looking down on the lush valley floor.

We hike past crazy swirling rock patterns on our way to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Crazy swirling rock patterns.

Rock swirls dwarf the trees on our hike to White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The swirls dwarf the trees in the middle of the pattern.

Pause in our hike to White House ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

We take a breather from hiking.

The lush valley floor of Canyon del Chelly.

The bottom of the canyon is flat and wide.

White House Ruin, two levels of dwellings, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

White House ruin has two levels:

a ground-level building & a cave dwelling above.

Dramatic pink and orange stripes decorate the front of White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

No architect today could design a

more dramatic front entrance!

Awe-inspiring drippy stripes on the cliffs surround White House Ruin, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

The drippy stripes down the walls

fascinated us.

Wildflowers, Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Flower or origamy?

Wildflowers, Chelly National Park, Arizona. Pictographs, Chelly National Park, Arizona: a person and a roadrunner.

Rock Art:  Roadrunner.

Pictographs at Chelly National Park, Arizona: a scorpion.

Rock Art:  Scorpion.

A hogan stands agains a dramatic backdrop of cliff walls on the lush valley floor of Chelly National Park, Arizona.

A Navajo hogan backed by dramatic cliff walls.

We hike through a tunnel on the White House Ruin hike in Chelly National Park, Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona

Early June, 2012 -- Leaving the Petrified Forest, we decided to head north by

Indian Route 12 which, to our surprise, was noted on our tourist map as a

scenic route.  As one-time Arizona residents we had no idea there was a

scenic road through the Navajo Nation way over in the northeastern corner of

the state.  We also wanted to see Window Rock, which lies on that road.  This

town is the Navajo tribal headquarters, and it always turns up in the Phoenix

TV weather forecasts with very cool temps.

We arrived on a warm day, however, and

were immediately drawn to the city park in

front of the big window in the rock.

The tribal band was practicing in

the park, and we watched and

listened for a while.  Chatting with

the band leader during a break,

we found out the band was

headed to Oklahoma City in a

few days for the big Red Earth

arts festival there.  Apparently

this is one of the largest

gatherings of Indian artists and

performers in the country, and

the group was very excited.

The park also features a large

sculpture of a WWII "code talker" in action on his radio.  A nearby plaque

explains how the US Military was struggling to find a way to keep the

Japanese from deciphering their communications in the South Pacific

Theater, and that 29 Navajo marines were recruited to devise a new

code using their native language.  By war's end there were over 400

Navajo Marines serving as code talkers, and the Marine Corps

commanders credited them with saving countless American lives.

Maj. Howard Conner, Signal Officer on Iwo Jima, is quoted as saying,

"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would not have taken Iwo Jima."

This impressive history is also the subject of a fictional 2002 movie,


Back on Route 12 we saw more patriotism in a cemetery festively filled

with American flags.

The scenery on our route became very dramatic as we drove north of

Window Rock.  Huge red rock cliffs lined the sides of the road.

Suddenly it seemed that God switched paints on his easel, and large

rock formations began to cover the landscape in shades of green as

well as red.

Someone with an artistic eye painted their house a vivid blue,

making a wonderful contrast to the green and red rocks in their

back yard

In one place the

sandstone even had a

pink hue.  It was a

beautiful drive.

Our destination was

Canyon de Chelly

National Park

(pronounced "d'Shay").

This park is at the confluence of three

snaking canyons that are like three fingers of

a hand spreading eastward from where they

all join in the town of Chinle ("pronounced


The stunning thing about Canyon de Chelly

is the immensity of the canyons.  Standing on

cliffs that are 1,000' above the canyon floor,

the walls are very sheer and the views curve

past narrow walls of stone.  At the bottom of

the canyon is a lush, fertile valley floor where

the Navajo developed corn fields and peach

orchards in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the movies, landscapes like this are always accompanied by the piercing call of a

falcon echoing off the canyon walls.  But here the silence was so noticeable that our ears

hurt.  Scanning the horizon many miles distant, and looking deep into the valley below

us, the only sound was our own breathing.  Even the wind stood still.

In 1805 the Spanish tried to conquer the Navajos.  At the point where I was standing a woman

tried to fend off a Spanish soldier, and in their struggle the two fell off the cliff to their deaths.  In

the distance we could see "Massacre Cave" where the Navajos had hidden out.  In the end, the

Spanish claimed to have killed 90 men and 25 women and children, but the Navajo remember it

differently, saying that all the younger men were out hunting that day and the deaths were strictly

women, children and old men.

Either way, the cave looked tiny in

the distance.  Inside were some

structures that the Navajo hid in.

To the left of the main cave was a

much smaller one and, using the

long camera lens, we could see

another small structure inside there

as well.  It is hard to imagine living

on the edge of a cliff like that for any period of time,

especially with the Spanish after you.

At each viewpoint you get a slightly different view of these

lush canyons, and it was hard to capture the enormity of

the place in a little photograph.  Pan out or zoom in?  How

do you show it all??

At the Mummy Cave overlook we came across a

couple sitting behind a tripod. They were waiting

patiently for the afternoon light to provide its best

illumination of the cave ruins far below.  Waiting

for good light sounded like a great idea, so we hung out and

started chatting with them.  It turned out that they had spent the

last three years traveling the western states in their camper van, living

a lot like we do by boondocking on public lands.

Our eyebrows shot up when they told us they had just come back

from a sailboat charter in the Grenadines in the Caribbean ten days

earlier and were contemplating taking their travels to the sea.  What's

more, we found out Tim's mountain bike on the back of their van was

the same exact model as Mark's on the back of our trailer.  To top it

off, Mary Lynn enjoyed web design too.  What a crazy coincidence!!

Like us, too, they were using a Nikon camera to try to capture this cliff

dwelling in just the right light!

The good light never came, but we managed a few shots

anyways and hoped we'd run into these guys again somewhere.

Meanwhile, the mystery of the cliff dwellings lured us on.  The ancients built their homes in caves on these sheer

canyon cliffs between 700 and 1300 AD.  So these homes were first going up right after the peak of Mayan

remodeling down in Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico.  They may not be as majestic in terms of size or human

construction and engineering skills, but they are incredible for making fantastic use of the landscape.  What a

place to build a house!

Over at Antelope House we looked out across the canyon

at a beautifully striped, back-sloping wall.  Nestled at its

base was a small town made up of crumbling walls,

windows and towers.  You need binoculars or a long

telephoto lens to make out the tiny structures so far

below.  Even then they look like little toy buildings for wee

dolls.  They can't possibly be real.

Archaeologists call these ancient people the Anasazi,

which is derived from the Navajo language and is

variously translated as "Ancient Ones" and "Enemy

Ancestors," due to the subtle word "Zazi" which means

"Non-Navajo" or "enemy."  Also known as the Ancient Puebloans,

from the Spanish word for "townspeople," these long ago people

farmed the valley floor and disappeared around 1300, probably due

to drought.  The Navajo didn't arrive in this area until 1600, and by

then the ruins were long abandoned.

The Navajo flourished here for a while, but in 1864 US Col. Kit

Carson entered the canyon with a group of soldiers and

eventually cornered the Navajo at one end.  Few survived, and

those that did were forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner in

New Mexico and stand trial.  They were allowed to return five

years later.

The most famous of the

ruins is "White House

Ruin," and we decided to

hike down into the

canyon to see it up close.

We hiked along with our

new RVing/sailing friends

who had ended up

camping alongside us overnight.  As with every overlook in the entire

park, the views from the top were so gorgeous I found myself running

and jumping over the rocks trying to get the best angles and trying to

fit it all into the camera frame.  Sigh.  Not possible!

The contours of the rocks are

wavy and rippled, swirling in

enormous and wild patterns.

You can almost feel the power of

the water that etched out its

course along these canyon walls

over the millennia, carving its

path ever deeper into the stone.

After snaking down the edge of the rock face,

we finally arrived at the canyon floor, crossed a

small foot bridge, and arrived face-to-face with

White House Ruin.

Two levels of dwellings were built into the base of the cliff -- one

on the ground level and another one up about 40' off the ground in

a cave.  An orange rainbow of stripes rains down the cliff wall,

painted by a divinely inspired hand -- or the result of a spilled paint

can way up on the top of the canyon.

At our feet we discovered unusual

flowers.  A young Navajo boy showed us

a lovely painting he was working on

featuring the White House ruin and some

of the rock art that we could barely make

out along the rock wall.

In no time at all we climbed back to the top, passing through a wonderful

tunnel on the way.  We would have stayed to see a few more of the

sights this mysterious canyon has to offer, but a massive heatwave was

spreading across the west and we wanted to get to higher, cooler

ground.  We seemed to be on an ancient ruin kick, something we had

started with the Zapotecs and Mayans in southern Mexico several

months back.  So we made our way to Mesa Verde National Park in

Colorado, possibly the best collection of cliff dwellings in the US.