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Hiking in Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, AZ
White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly, AZ
Susan Alcorn: Canyon de Chelly, AZ

Although the Grand Canyon is known far beyond our borders, another treasure awaiting hikers in Arizona is Canyon de Chelly. Hikers can descend on their own into the canyon to see the White House Ruins on a moderate trail. Archeological evidence shows that people have lived in the canyons at the monument for nearly 5,000 years, and that the Ancestral Puebloan people (formerly called the Anasazi) built the multi-storied villages from 750 to 1,300 C.E.

Canyon de Chelly: Spider Rock
Susan Alcorn

There are seven overlooks on the South Rim Drive (37 miles roundtrip) and three along the North Rim Drive (34 miles roundtrip). The trailhead to the ruins starts at the White House Overlook, which is along the South Rim. Because Canyon de Chelly is part of the Navajo Nation and people live in the canyon, access is restricted. Therefore, the trail to White House Ruins is the only place where you may enter the canyon without a permit or authorized Navajo guide.

Guidelines suggest allowing two-hours to make this trek, which is approximately 2-1/2 miles round trip. You will descend 500 feet to the canyon floor, cross the Chinle Wash (by a small bridge), and continue on the trail to see the ruins. The ruins are protected by a chain link fence, but they are easily viewed. Often there are Native people nearby offering crafts; do not take photos of people without permission. There are pit toilets, but no water, so carry your own supply.

There is no fee to enter the monument. The rim drives and trail are open all year long. The Visitor Center and parking lot gates close at 5:00 p.m.

More explorations: Also along the South Rim Drive is the Spider Rock Overlook; this amazing 880-foot sandstone spire played a big part in The Eiger Sanction with Clint Eastwood and made an appearance in Poltergeist II. Along the North Rim Drive, highlights include Antelope House Ruin, Mummy Cave Ruin, and Massacre Cave. Allow at least half a day to see some of the views and make the White House Ruins hike. Click here to see NPS planning suggestions.

Where to stay: Canyon de Chelly is on highway 191 in the NE corner of Arizona. Those interested in camping can stay at the Cottonwood Campground, which is jointly managed by the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department (NPRD). “Reservations are required for group tent sites only. Individual campsites do not require a reservation. Please call NPRD directly at (928)674-2106 for camping rates and availability. Keep in mind there is limited services in the winter.”

The neighboring town of Chinle has some moderately-priced accommodations as do St. Michaels, Holbrook, Winslow, (AZ) and Window Rock (NM). If you are heading west and looking for more variety in dining and overnight options, consider Flagstaff (175 miles distant), which has more than sixty hotels, motels, lodges and bed and breakfasts to offer.

Transportation: Driving directions, click here.

Air transportation to the Southwest from the S.F. Bay Area: International airports in Phoenix, AZ (5 hours) or Albuquerque, NM (4 hours). Municipal airports located in Flagstaff, AZ (3 hours); Farmington, NM (2 hours) and Gallup, NM (1-1/2 hours). Local airstrip for medical transport only.

Amtrak train stations and Greyhound bus stations located in Gallup, NM or Flagstaff, AZ.
Navajo Transit System operates buses throughout the Navajo Nation. Call 928-729-4002 for more information.

Note: "Located on the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly National Monument observes Daylight Savings Time. From March through November, the time is ONE HOUR AHEAD of Arizona. The Navajo Nation changes its time because the Navajo Nation is partly in New Mexico and Utah." (NPS website)

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