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Day Trips: Canyon de Chelly is a feast for the eyes and soul

A visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument is a feast for the eyes and soul.

Here you will find sheer, steep, red sandstone cliffs that rise 1,000 feet off the fertile farmland of the canyons below, a landscape dotted with prehistoric, ancestral Puebloan ruins and hundreds of other archaeological sites.

The monument was established in 1931 and is comprised of 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation in Chinle, Arizona. While the park is administrated by the National Park Service, the land is home to the Dine’ (Navajo) people on Navajo trust lands.

The monument has two main canyons, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ‘de-shay’) and Canyon del Muerto, home to thousands of archaeological sites, including numerous ruins of former dwellings, located high on the cliff walls in large natural alcoves. Some of the ruins can be viewed from the 10 overlooks along the South and North Rim drives but seeing them up close is the most rewarding way to see them.

Unless you sign up for a hike with an authorized Navajo guide, there is only one trail open to visitors who wish to hike down into the canyon. The White House Trail is a 2.5-mile round trip and descends about 600 feet into the canyon to White House Ruin. Ancestral Puebloans occupied the dwelling about 1,000 years ago.

To visit the other ruins and see the canyons firsthand I would highly recommend taking a Navajo-guided jeep tour. The tours are quite educational and travel into both of the main canyons. There are many types of tour lengths but even on a half-day tour you will stop and see dozens of archaeological sites, including ruins of former dwellings and petroglyphs and pictographs. Horse and hiking tours are also available.

Prices vary, depending on which tour company you choose and the park website has a list of guides. www.nps.gov/cach/

The canyon has natural water sources and rich soil and many of the residents who live here grow vegetables, fruit trees, graze cattle and raise sheep and goats. The canyon is lush with mature cottonwood trees and wildflowers are in bloom this time of year. They live in modest homes and many reside in the traditional hogans.

Wildlife in the canyon include bear, mountain lion and bobcat, as well as wild turkey and a variety of raptors and other birds.

Lodging is available near the park’s entrance at the Holiday Inn, (928) 674-5000. www.holiday-inn.com/, Best Western, (928) 674-5875. www.bestwestern.com/ and the historic Sacred Canyon Lodge. (928) 674-5841. www.sacredcanyonlodge.com/

Camping is available at the Canyon de Chelly Cottonwood Campground located at the entrance of the park. Sites are available on a first come, first serve basis. No campfires are allowed. Contact Navajo Parks and Recreation. (928) 674-2106. www.navajoparks.org/

For a no-frills and extremely rustic experience, Spider Rock Campground is great. It is located in the park and they allow campfires. They also have various sizes of hogans you can stay in. They also offer a guide service of the canyon, by hiking or jeep tour. Contact Howard Smith for a reservation. (928) 674-8261. www.spiderrockcampground.com/

From March through November, the Navajo Nation observes Mountain Daylight Savings Time, which means it will be one hour later than Nevada. The visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Alcohol is not permitted on the Navajo Reservation.

Deborah Wall is the author of “Base Camp Las Vegas, Hiking the Southwestern States,” “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide,” and co-author of “Access For All, Touring the Southwest with Limited Mobility.” Wall can be reached at Deborabus@aol.com.

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