Explore a Living Museum of Navajo Culture - Backpacker

Explore a Living Museum of Navajo Culture

Canyon del Muerto Route, Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly

Spot Puebloan cave dwellings on the 2.5-mile White House Ruin Trail, the only trail you can hike without a guide. Photo by: Fionn Luk Photography

While most national park units seem frozen in time, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) continues to evolve. Navajo still live and work on the canyon floor amongst the ruins of Ancestral Puebloan predecessors (Canyon de Chelly is the only NPS unit that’s fully tribe-owned and cooperatively managed). Their ancestors faced removal at the hands of Kit Carson during the winter of 1863 to ’64, but many Navajo resisted capture, sending Carson and his men on a years-long chase (read about it at backpacker.com/catch-me-if-you-can). Tour the maze of serpentine canyons, and you’ll see how Canyon de Chelly could make for a challenging game of hide-and-seek.

Only a small portion of the canyon floor is accessible without a permit, so visitors must hire a Navajo guide to explore the rest of the canyon’s interior. Propose a 7- to 10-mile route through the lower end of Canyon del Muerto to see petroglyphs, Puebloan ruins, and a piece of Navajo history. Descend into the canyon on the Bare Trail and head upstream; scan for Ledge Ruin 100 feet above the canyon floor at mile 1.6. Pass petroglyphs depicting hunters and pronghorn on the north side of the canyon at miles 1.8 and 2.7 before arriving at Antelope House Ruins (the most intact Puebloan sites on the route, as well as the best place to camp) at mile 3.4. Pass 700-foot-tall Fortress Rock, where oral tradition holds that a handful of Navajo held out for weeks against American cavalrymen, then climb out of the canyon on the Crack in Rock Trail.

Distance 7-10 miles, 1-2 days Trailhead 36.160328, -109.476963 Season September through June Guide About $250/day Permit Included in guide packages