To anthropologists and archaeologists, the U.S. Southwest is a treasure-trove of opportunity, for scattered throughout the region are countless remnants of pre-European civilization, some dating to well before the birth of Christ. Many of the larger, more recent sites ("more recent" meaning a mere thousand years old) have been protected by the National Park Service. These include Mesa Verde National Park, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Bandelier, Hovenweep, and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments.
In several respects, Canyon de Chelly is the most interesting of these sites. (Just so everyone is on the same page, it's now pronounced "d'shay." Ironically, it was named after a Navajo chief whose name, our Navajo guide told us, rhymes with "jelly.") Although not the most remote—that distinction would belong to Hovenweep, tucked away in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah; Chaco, in northwestern New Mexico would be a close second—Canyon de Chelly is still not especially easy to get to. "Off the beaten path" often applies out here in the Four Corners, even to places, like this one, accessible by paved roads. Those roads just don't go anywhere in a direct path.
An interesting feature of Canyon de Chelly is that it's the only one of these large protected sites that is still inhabited. Located in northeastern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation, Canyon de Chelly includes a number of active farms along the bottom-land of the four canyons that compose the Chinle Creek watershed. Because these farms, indeed the entire monument, are the property of the Navajo Nation, access to the more interesting parts of Canyon de Chelly is restricted to Navajo-guided tours. This has the advantage of limiting the number of people one encounters in the canyons (unlike most other National Parks); it also helps reduce vandalism. Roads along the north and south canyon rims include numerous parking lots at view points, and for people not wanting a tour, these provide peeks at the ancient past. But for more than just a peek, a guided tour is indicated.
The main canyon starts near the village of Chinle ("where the water comes out" in Navajo) and extends miles to the east, carved into the DeChelly Sandstone of the uplifted Defiance Plateau. Even farther to the east, the Chuska Mountains, rising to over 9000', wring snow from winter low-pressure systems and rain from summer thunderstorms to provide the water that does the carving.
You first notice you're in a canyon when the walls are about 20' high, and, progressing upstream, you soon find yourself walled in by sheer, vertical rock that has grown to over 1000' high—on either side of a slot barely a city street wide in places. The DeChelly Sandstone was originally deposited around 270 million years ago as wind-formed sand dunes, so the present-day canyon walls exhibit fascinating cross-bedding patterns, sections of fantastic swirls, and tiers of sculptures as a result. One of the most famous geologic features of Canyon de Chelly is Spider Rock, a 950' spire that is only about 100' x 250' at its base. Standing at the confluence of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon, it looms as a sentinel keeping watch over the upper canyon systems. Spider Woman, who, in their lore, taught the Diné weaving, is reputed to have lived in a rock dwelling that can still be seen on a shelf about 100' above the canyon floor.
Upstream of Chinle, Canyon de Chelly branches to form Canyon del Muerte (which branches to form Black Canyon) and Monument Canyon, and there are ruins everywhere—the main attractions of the monument. These ancient dwellings, built around AD 1000-1250, are found in protected areas of the canyon bottoms and in niches and ledges in the walls. In several places, the upper cliff houses are co-located with older structures built on the canyon floor to heights that allowed ladders to reach the ledges above. The most photographed site at Canyon de Chelly, White House Ruin, is an example of this sequential development. Anthropologists conjecture that one reason for building on the cliffs was to leave as much room as possible for farming on the canyon floor. It is also clear that, by pulling up the ladders behind them, the inhabitants of the dwellings up on the ledges would have had a wonderfully defensible space, safe from both wild animals and two-legged predators. But the dwellings are spartan and quite small. Either these folks were short, or they learned at an early age to duck when going through doorways.
The architecture is fascinating. Its legacy can be seen in the various pueblos of Native American tribes in the vicinity of Santa Fe, and even in the "pueblo style" of houses in town, such as ours.
We don't live on a spectacular cliff, but at least our doors are taller.