Sacred Outdoor Museum of the Navajo Nation
Though it can’t compare with the awesome immensity of the Grand Canyon, a four-hour drive away, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d’Shay” and derived from the Navajo tsegi, “rock canyon”) serves as a showcase for 2,000 years of Native American history with a quiet magic and spirituality all its own.
Sheer sandstone walls tower 600 feet and more above the 130-square-mile canyon, whose shapes and colors change in degree of breathtaking beauty according to the day’s light.
The canyon is best known, though, for its multistoried cliffside dwellings made of sun-dried clay and stone and built by the Anasazi people between A.D. 700 and 1300. Mysteriously abandoned in the 1300s, they are the oldest houses in the United States.
The Navajo (one of fifteen tribes that live in Arizona) became full-time canyon residents in the 1700s, and a population of 500 or so still till the fields, tend their goats and sheep, and act as your tour guides, since unaccompanied or unauthorized visits of the canyon floor are prohibited.
Located in northeastern Arizona, the canyon is part of the vast Navajo Indian Reservation, the largest in North America. With a population of more than 200,000, it is considered a sovereign nation, where Navajo is still the native tongue.
Canyon de Chelly is one of the tribe’s holiest places, and despite the summer tourism, it is easy to find silence and solitude in this mysterious stone expanse. Some of America’s finest pictographs (rock art) grace the desert walls, left behind by the Navajo, the Anasazi, and, even earlier, the Basketmakers, whose presence in the canyon dates back to the 4th century A.D.
At the mouth of the canyon, the all-Navajo staff of the Thunderbird Lodge (on the grounds of an old trading post and the only accommodations officially within the park) offers Native American hospitality as well as open-jeep “Shake and Bake” tours that take their name from the bumpiness of the dirt roads and the summer heat.