Set in the rosy sandstone desert of northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is one of the most fascinating ruins in the nation. This land is filled with paradox, because while the ruins are expansive and remarkably intact, they give us more questions than answers. Clearly the home of a large, thriving population, the settlement at Canyon de Chelly seems to have been abandoned almost overnight, for no apparent reason.
Archaeologists have found that people lived in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de Shay) for longer than they lived in almost any other place in early America. This area is filled with haunting beauty. The national monument covers 131 square miles, including the canyons of the de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument Rivers. With steep canyon walls and rushing rivers, this is a fabulous place to explore, looking for slot canyons and cool spots on the canyon floors.
Because the national monument is set within Navajo Tribal Trust Land, it's unique among national park sites. In order to tour the canyon floor here, you must be led by either a park ranger or a Navajo guide. The one exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail, which visitors can tour without guides. Guided tours are easy to arrange and join at the visitor's center.
Most park guests arrive by car and begin their visit at the overlooks on South Rim Drive or North Rim Drive. The elevation changes in the monument are truly dramatic with thousand foot drops and towering plinths. For example, the highest park overlook is at 7,000 feet while the visitor's center is at 5,500 feet. On the South Rim Drive, you'll find the White House Ruin, a sprawling living structure that's nestled into a long, low cave in a sheer rocky face. As you hike the White House Ruin Trail, be on the lookout for wildflowers and interesting native plants, as well as petroglyphs and rock art. For a fun side trip, head to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, an area that's home to more than 700 different plant species, including a number of gorgeous wildflowers.
In nearby Chinle, Arizona, you can arrange for special park guides, horseback rentals, jeep tours, and photo tours. The weather can be unpredictable here, so always carry a raincoat with you and be prepared for sudden afternoon showers. In general, the spring and fall are the best times to visit, when temperatures range between 50 and 70 degrees. Summer is quite hot and dry with highs in the 100s. Winter is cold, breezy, and snowy. In the fall, be particularly aware of thunderstorms that can blow in quickly.