It’s hard to imagine a National Monument with just ONE hiking trail, but Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona has just one hiking trail open to the public. That’s because unlike all other National Park properties, Canyon de Chelly is on Navajo tribal lands. Visitors are allowed to drive a series of overlook on the North Rim and South Rim and hike one trail into the canyon. Otherwise, the rest of the canyon is closed to visitors unless they are accompanied by a Navajo guide.
The White House Trail starts at the White House overlook on the South Rim. Signs here say the hike is 1.25 miles and 1.5 miles one way. My GPS registered 1.46 miles each way.
Start by walking the paved, overlook trail. Near the overlook, turn right at the signs, onto the sandstone. Walk across the sandstone until you see a sign and a trail dropping below the canyon rim. The signs have an interesting warning – no photos of Navajo people without permission. You might wonder why that is listed here, it’s because if you hike this trail during the day, you will likely see Navajo people selling items at the White House ruin at the bottom of the canyon. My recommendation? Do the hike early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the sales pitch at the bottom of the canyon. (Most of the sellers drive in via the canyon bottom, they do not hike the trail.)
Just a few steps past the sign, hikers go through a tunnel. On the other side, enjoy the view and the trail. Not only was I impressed with the scenery below me, I loved that the trail was cut right into the rock. Because the trail is on the rock, it is far from level. You’ll want to watch your steps so you don’t twist an ankle. Also be careful on the outer edge of the trail, there is no guardrail here.
As you hike down, you may notice four benches along the trail. These can be a nice place on the way back up, or down, to catch your breath and enjoy the views.
There are several switchbacks at the start of this trail – places where the trail goes back and forth – quickly dropping in altitude. From the sign to the bottom of the switchbacks is about a half mile and 325 feet of elevation drop.
At the bottom of the switchbacks, the trail heads out into the canyon. You’ll continue to drop in elevation as you head for the main canyon and the river. There’s one more tunnel – this one slightly longer – and you’ll find yourself at the bottom. The first sign at the bottom asks that you not take photos of the ranch located here, because it is private Navajo property. The second sign points hikers toward White House ruin. Follow the trail to the end of the fence and continue around the rock formation on your left. There’s a little soft sand in here, but it’s not too bad.
Just 0.15 miles from the last tunnel, you should see a bridge over the river. Cross the river here. As you finish walking across the bridge, a small sign on the bridge points left and says ruins. If you stop at this sign and look left, you may see the White House Ruins in the rock face, through the trees. If you don’t, no worries. Just turn left and keep hiking. While there is a trail near the river here and near the fence, I recommend hiking up to the fence and using that trail. It will lead you right to the White House ruin.
At the ruin, there is a fence, so you can not get too close. While you stand here, look for the upper level ruin IN the rock face and the lower level ruin on the canyon floor. It’s entirely possible that the lower level ruin once reached up to the upper level. It’s also possible that the people who lived here used a series of moki steps – steps carved into the rock face – to reach their upper level homes. In that upper level, look for two “buildings” that are white. A sign at the overlook said the ruins were called Kiaii Na’igei – white house in the between – because of the unique coloring of these two buildings.
When you’re done taking photos, there’s a second bridge over the river to some nearby portapottys, or just return the way you came. As you climb back up to the canyon rim, look around. Think about what you could grow in this hot desert for food. Think about how you would get in and out of the canyon. And enjoy the beautiful scenery as you get a different perspective on the way out.
Details: The hike from the parking lot to the overlook and the ruins and back is 3.2 miles and 510 feet of elevation gain.