A Weekend at Canyon de Chelly

When it comes to large-scale, gorgeous geological wonders, Arizona is covered in them. There are the famous sights that draw in tourists from around the world, like the Grand Canyon and the Red Rocks of Sedona, but if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find countless unique sights that are worth sticking around for.

Me? I’ve lived in Arizona for almost 17 years, and I’m just now getting around to seeing some of the best stuff. I’ve been to the overlooks of the Grand Canyon, sure. I’ve peered up at Cathedral Rock and down into the depths of the Barringer Meteor Crater. But I’m still exploring the further reaches little by little.

One weekend in early May, Eric and I got to visit one of those hidden gems: Canyon de Chelly.

Okay, so Canyon de Chelly isn’t exactly “hidden.” It’s actually one of the most visited national monuments in the country. But it didn’t have the crowds of the Grand Canyon, even on a late spring weekend, and it sort of felt like we had the whole thing to ourselves.

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We started our weekend on a hot Friday afternoon when the temperature in Phoenix had spiked by about 10 degrees in a matter of days. It was 105 when we packed up and left town in our Jeep which, as it happens, didn’t have working air conditioning at the time, and does have leather seats. But it was 5 hours of good reading, great talking, and beautiful views. Arizona really is an incredible state to take a road trip through!

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Big skies and roadside geology galore, am I right? It doesn’t hurt that my fiancé is an actual geologist, so just about everywhere we go, he points out fascinating geological features and tells me how they were formed!

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We showed up to our campground after dark, parked among the berry-covered Juniper trees, and camped out in the back of our Jeep. It was our first time Jeep-camping–we usually bring a tent, but we wanted to try this out for a different way to camp. We have some kinks to work out, and it will be much-improved when we add an inflatable mattress to our camp kit, but overall it made for a low-key camping experience. We stayed at Spider Rock campground, a privately owned spot on the south rim of the canyon. Our site was secluded, it was peacefully quiet, and in the morning, the owner even made coffee for us!

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The Canyon de Chelly monument is actually made up of two major canyons: Canyon del Muerto to the north and Canyon de Chelly to the south. We unfortunately didn’t have time to hike into the canyon on this trip, but we visited each of the 10 overlooks along the canyon, most of which involved a short hike to and from the lookout points.

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We started at Massacre Cave, the easternmost overlook on the North Rim Drive. Massacre Cave is the site of a bloody battle in 1805, in which a Spanish military expedition killed over 100 Navajo people. It is said that the attack happened while the men were away hunting, and the Spanish soldiers shot at the women and children, who hid in a cliff dwelling, from the top rim of the canyon.

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This was the first of many cliff dwellings we saw in the canyon, evidence of thousands of years of settlers. Even today, 40 Navajo families live within the Canyon de Chelly monument, and much of the lush canyon floor is used as farmland.

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As I said, Eric is a geologist, so he spent the whole trip explaining the different features of the canyon and breaking out his trusty hand lens to inspect the rocks up close. And while not everyone can bring a geologist with them, I would highly recommend getting a book or reading a blog about the basic geology of Canyon de Chelly–or whatever natural site you’re visiting–because understanding why it looks the way it does makes the whole experience richer and more fascinating!

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Our next stop was Mummy Cave, an Anasazi dwelling with over 80 rooms. It’s so named because two mummified bodies were discovered in 1882, still wrapped in yucca fiber cloth. The dwelling, with over 80 rooms, is made up of multiple structures built by different people groups at different periods in history.

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My favorite stop of the day was Spider Rock. This was one of the last overlooks we visited, and by this point big dark clouds were rolling in from the northeast. Suddenly, as we were standing there, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds and lit up the whole canyon for less than a minute before hiding again.

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And then…it rained. and rained. and rained. It rained off and on for hours! Luckily, we had headed back to our campsite and made it before the storm rolled in. This was definitely a moment where we were glad we had chosen to camp in the Jeep, not in a tent, because the wind and rain would’ve made it a miserable afternoon. Instead we got to hang out, enjoy the weather, and relax.

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In the morning, the sun was shining once again. We caught the sunrise at White House Overlook and had a quick breakfast in Chinle before hitting the road and heading back to Phoenix. It was a quick but beautiful trip, and we can’t wait to get back and explore the canyon more!

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