While prospectors in the 19th century were looking for gold and copper, lured by the golden hue color of the canyon walls, tourists will find a rich history, archeological treasures, an intricate culture and serene landscapes in Canyon de Chelly.
The name Canyon de Chelly came from the Spanish mispronunciation of the Navajo word Tsegi, which means a canyon. In fact, it’s pronounced d’ Shay and it’s located on the Defiance Plateau in the Navajo reservation.
For Navajo, Canyon de Chelly is their physical and spiritual home, once lost, due to the forceful relocation to Fort Sumner. They returned four years later. These events happened after a bitter resistance to U.S. troops led by Kit Carson in the winter of 1864. As a result, 8000 Navajo, who surrendered to avoid death from cold and starvation, were rounded up and marched 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico. This ordeal is known as the Long Walk and many perished on the way from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. In 1868 the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. But their hogans had been burned, their cattle had been killed and their peach orchards had been chopped down as a result of Kit Carson’s “scorched earth” policy during his brutal campaign.
This brief history is good to know before doing sightseeing on the 17 mile long North Rim drive.
We started our trip from the Visitor Center, where we picked up a map with brief descriptions of overlooks. Canyon de Chelly is connected to Canyon del Muerto. The north rim drive overlooks Canyon del Muerto and the south rim drive overlooks Canyon de Chelly.
The first stop on the North Rim Drive was the Antelope House overlook. In fact, there are two landmarks at this point: Navajo Fortress to the left and Antelope House ruins to the right. There is a quarter mile walk to the edge of the cliff. The path is marked by rocks. Juniper, shrubs, and yuccas enliven a stony flat Defiance Plateau.
Navajo Fortress Overlook
Navajo Fortress is a rock. The vertical 600 feet cliff of Navajo Fortress rises from the canyon floor, which is dotted by cottonwood trees. The Fortress stands at a confluence of Canyon del Muerto and Black Rock Canyon. It looks impenetrable, with sheer inaccessible walls and scarce vegetation on the top. Climbing it would be an unimaginable feat.
But according to the history passed down from generation to generation by Navajo, the Fortress was used as a shelter and a hiding place as far back as the Anasazi, who lived in the canyon from 100 A. D. to 1300 A.D.
There is a story that during Kit Carson’s military campaign Navajo also used it as a shelter and hid on the top of Fortress Rock. When Navajo noticed that U.S. troops were approaching, they carried supplies of food and water using a network of toe holds and hand holds, which remained from the Anasazi. They reinforced and improved these holds so that even children, women, and elders could use them. They pulled a supply of potatoes, smoked turkey, and pinon nuts to the top. Three hundred Navajo including men, women, children and elders were hiding on the top of the rock in the middle of the winter in 1864. Carson’s soldiers were searching the canyon, suppressing any resistance, and killing and rounding up men. Navajo also used rope ladders, which they pulled up and waited in silence for the trouble to pass.
Somehow the soldiers discovered the Navajo and laid siege underneath the Fortress, next to Tsaile creek. After a while, the Navajo ran out of water and were slowly perishing from thirst. One dark night the strongest warriors crawled to the edge of the cliff and formed a human chain going down the cliff and to the creek. The men at the bottom of the chain lowered gourd vessels attached to ropes made of yucca into the cold water of the creek and passed full vessels from hand to hand to the top. By morning the water supply was replenished. The story said that these three hundred Navajo were never captured.
We saw a small house underneath the cottonwood trees and two horses were grazing next to the creek flowing around Fortress Rock.
Antelope House Overlook
A short walk marked by rocks led to the Antelope House ruins overlook. These ruins were built and inhabited around 1300. In 1800 the Navajo artist Dibe Yazhi (Little Sheep) lived here and etched an image of antelope on canyon walls above the ruins. It’s said that these ruins are difficult to see from the top because it’s in the shade. We searched most of the crevices, alcoves and caves with our binoculars and Nikon camera, but the canyon kept it as a secret. However, we admired the breathtaking beauty of the different hues of terracotta, purple, bronze, and copper colored walls with black streaks of desert varnish. We continued driving the North Rim Drive to the next scenic overlook.
Mummy Cave Overlook
We turned off the North Rim Drive to go to the Mummy Cave ruins overlook and then to the Massacre Cave overlook. After a short drive we turned right towards the Mummy Cave Overlook. At the overlook we saw a lush valley at the bottom of Canyon del Muerto. There was a hogan down below. A dirt road was lined with a row of cottonwood trees.
Finally we spotted the Mummy Cave ruins inside and between two caves located close to each other. The caves were inside the semicircle rocky cliff and were lit by the bright morning sunlight. There is not much left inside the caves except a three story tower and an adjacent structure, which looked like a manmade fortress that was well preserved. The tower was built on a ledge in front of the two caves and the ruins in them.
This place was named after the discovery of two mummies next to the site by archeologists in 1880. Anasazi lived in this stronghold for almost a thousand years. It was one of the longest lasting settlements and it is easy to understand why they lived here for such a long period of time. Just imagine how they shot arrows and threw spears into their enemies from the top of their fortress, which is still standing after two thousand years.
Massacre Cave Overlook
This overlook has an amazing view of the rugged beauty of the canyon. A dirt road at the bottom of the canyon curved in between a few vertical cliffs, which looked like ripped apart pieces of a puzzle. From the overlook we saw three cliffs and a zigzag of torn apart cliffs stretching to the horizon.
The name of the overlook speaks for itself. In the winter of 1805 a group of Spanish soldiers led by Lieutenant Antonio Narbona marched through the canyon killing and rounding up Navajo. A group of 115 women, children, and elders were hiding in caves on a high ledge of a cliff. Unfortunately, they were discovered by the Spanish soldiers. One of the soldiers climbed onto the ledge in an attempt to round up the refugees. But one brave Navajo woman grappled with the soldier. They struggled. Then they both tumbled down to their death. After their fall soldiers opened fire and killed all Navajo who were hiding in the caves. Navajo call this place “Two Fell Off.” There are engravings of two people upside down on the walls of the canyon in a memory of the brave Navajo woman.
We enjoyed the views of the canyon and the plateau. The bright blue sky was slightly brushed by light feathery swirls of white fluffy clouds touching a hazy purple mountain range on the horizon. Miles of the rocky terrain of the Defiance Plateau were dotted by juniper, sagebrush, yucca, and pinon pine. The plateau was cut deeply by thousands of years of erosion to form canyons.
This place has a magical appeal. No wonder that Anasazi and their descendants, the Pueblo and the Hopi and the later migrating Navajo chose this land to be their home.