Canyon de Chelly National Monument: The Complete Guide

Aerial view of Spider Rock Canyon de Chelly

 JLR / Getty Images

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Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Address
Chinle, AZ, USA
Phone +1 928-674-5500

Jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, Canyon de Chelly National Monument sits on approximately 84,000 acres of tribal land in northeast Arizona and actually consists of two canyons: Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”) and Canyon del Muerto. From the visitor center, Canyon de Chelly runs slightly southeast while Canyon del Muerto runs northeast, forming a “V.”

You can view Ancestral Puebloan pit houses dating back nearly 5,000 years, cliff dwellings built into the canyon walls, and Hogans lived in by Navajo today for free from overlooks on the rim. However, to explore the canyons’ interior, you’ll need to hire a Navajo guide.

Things to Do

Most people experience the park by driving its two scenic drives, one with views of Canyon de Chelly and the other with views of Canyon del Muerto. Stop by the visitor center to pick up a map, watch the 23-minute introductory video, and learn about ranger-led programs before hitting the road. You can also hire a Navajo guide at the visitor center to take you into the canyon on a 4x4, horseback, or hiking tour.

Best Hikes & Trails

There is only one trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument that you can hike without a guide, the White House Trail. If you want to explore any further, you’ll either need to take a ranger-led hike or hire a Navajo guide. Trails you can hike with a guide include Beehive, Bat, Tunnel, Bear, Baby, Crow, and White Sands.

  • White House Trail: This 2.5-mile, out-and-back trail starts at the White House Overlook on South Rim Drive and switchbacks 600 feet down to the canyon floor, ending at the White House Ruin. Allow two hours, plus time to view the ruins and shop for Navajo arts and crafts. The trail has little shade, so wear a hat, liberally apply sunscreen, and bring plenty of water.
Man hiking Canyon de Chelly
wanderluster / Getty Images

Scenic Drives

Of the park’s two scenic drives, the South Rim Drive is the most popular. Following the edge of Canyon de Chelly, it boasts one of the park’s most notable formations, Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone monolith said to be the home of Spider Woman. But the North Rim Drive is equally impressive with views of Canyon del Muerto, so named for the 115 Navajo people killed here by Spanish soldiers in 1805. Both roads are paved and are open year-round.

  • South Rim Drive: This 36-mile, round-trip drive starts at the visitor center and ends at the Spider Rock Overlook, where the view of the canyon’s colorful 1,000-foot walls is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. In total, the South Rim Drive features seven overlooks, including the White House Overlook, where you will find the trailhead to the White House Ruin.
  • North Rim Drive: Starting from the visitor center, the North Rim Drive covers roughly 34 miles round trip and includes stops at Antelope House, Mummy Cave, and Massacre Cave overlooks. You’ll encounter fewer people on this drive, but you’ll also need to watch more carefully on this stretch for livestock, which are allowed to range freely throughout the area.

Canyon Tours

Except for the White House Trail, you can only access the canyon with a ranger or a Navajo guide. You can find a guide online at Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation or the park’s visitor center. If you can, hire a guide before you visit, especially if you plan to go during the peak months, March through October.

Most tour companies offer 4x4 tours, guided hikes, and overnight camping. Packages are also available, combining a guided hike with an overnight stay in a Hogan, for example. Don’t see exactly what you were looking for? Guides will often create custom experiences. Just ask.

  • 4x4 tours: Usually conducted in Jeeps, these tours range from three to eight hours. The three-hour tour is the most common one. It stops first at Kokopelli Cave, then continues to Petroglyph Rock, First Ruin, Junction Ruin, and White House Ruin. Tours depart from hotels in Chinle, about a mile and a half west of the visitor center or from the visitor center itself. Expect to pay $150 to $175 per person for a 3-hour 4x4 tour.
  • Guided hikes: Most companies require hikers to be 12 years old and physically fit enough for a three-hour hike. Depending on how much of a challenge you want, your guide can stick to relatively flat trails or lead you up steep canyon trails. Guided hikes start at $40 per hour for groups up to 15.
  • Horseback riding: Justin’s Horse Rental takes visitors on guided horseback rides into the canyons. You’ll find the stables just past the visitor center on South Rim Drive. Spend an hour in the saddle or the whole day for $20 per person, per hour, plus $20 per hour for the guide and a 6 percent tax.
  • Overnight camping: Some companies charge a flat fee, such as $160 per night. Others charge by the hour (usually $40 per hour) or per person ($70 to $90 per person, per night). You’ll typically sleep under the stars, but some companies have Hogans available.
Canyon de Chelly
 Michael Russell / Getty Images

Where to Camp

There are two campgrounds in the area. The first is located near the visitor center and managed by Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation while the other is privately operated by a Navajo guide on his property near the Spider Rock Overlook.

  • Cottonwood Campground: The tribe manages this campground with 90 individual campsites and two group tent sites. No hookups are available, but there is a dump station. The campground also has three restrooms but no showers. Bring cash to pay the $14 per night fee. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the park campground.
  • Spider Rock Campground: Howard Smith operates this campground near the Spider Rock Overlook with 30 RV and tent camping sites and a dump station. No hookups are available. Sites are $15 per night and come with the perk of solar-heated showers for $4 per person. Don’t have an RV or tent? You can rent a tent or sleep in one of the campground’s three Hogans. Reservations are required.
Canyon del Muerto pictographs
 John Elk / Getty Images

Where to Stay

If you want to stay inside the park, your only option is the 69-room Thunderbird Lodge operated by Navajo Nation Hospitality Enterprise. Nearby Chinle has several chain hotels with restaurants serving Navajo dishes like fry bread.

  • Thunderbird Lodge: With a cafeteria-style restaurant originally a trading post built in 1896, this lodge has pet-friendly rooms and is entirely smoke-free. It also operates one of the area’s premier guide companies.
  • Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn: Just off US 191 on Indian Route 7, this Best Western has 104 smoke-free rooms, an on-site restaurant, and a recently renovated indoor swimming pool.
  • Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly: The closest hotel to the visitor center, this hotel includes the historic Garcia’s Trading Post. It has 108 rooms and an onsite restaurant, one of the best restaurants in Chinle.

How to Get There

From I-40, take US 191 north to Ganado. If you have the time, stop at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site here. Otherwise, take Highway 264 west to Burnside, where you can pick up US 191 again heading north. At Chinle, turn east onto IR 7. The park entrance is about 3 miles from US 191.

Or, you can exit I-40 at Window Rock and drive approximately 50 miles north on IR 12 to Tsaile. Turn west at IR 64 and follow it to Mummy Cave Overlook, which becomes the North Rim Drive. Do not use IR 7, which is unpaved and unmaintained between Sawmill and the Spider Rock turnoff.

Ledge Ruin
 John Elk / Getty Images

Accessibility

The visitor center and several overlooks—Massacre Cave Overlook on North Rim Drive, Tsegi, Junction, White House, and Spider Rock overlooks on South Rim Drive—are accessible. Backcountry trails and areas are not.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Time; the rest of Arizona (except for some other tribal lands) does not. Double-check times to make sure you don’t miss your tour.
  • Admission to Canyon de Chelly National Monument is free, although you will need a guide to explore inside the canyons.
  • Many guides and even Cottonwood Campground do not accept debit or credit cards. Bring cash or personal checks for payment.
  • Pets are not permitted in the visitor center, on the White House Trail, or canyon tours. However, your leashed pet can accompany you at the overlooks and in the campground.
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Canyon de Chelly National Monument: The Complete Guide