Rugged, thousand-foot cliffs, ancient Pueblo ruins, rock art, and wildlife - there's no better way to dive into the geological and cultural history of the American Southwest than by taking a trip to Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Located in Chinle, Arizona, right in the middle of the Navajo Nation, you'll have the opportunity to meet locals and get up-close views of ruins and rock art left by the early Puebloans. Much of this area is sacred to the Navajo Nation, so there are many local tour companies that will take you around the canyon on hikes, horseback, or their signature "shake and bake" tours, giving you access to landmarks, scenic panoramas, and the local culture. And the best part is - once you've finished exploring Canyon de Chelly, you'll only need to drive a short distance to the next incredible vista of your choice in the magnificent Southwest.
Canyon de Chelly is located in northeast Arizona - the heart of the rugged Southwest landscapes and canyons. The best route to get into the park is by taking Highway 191 in Chinle. From there, head east onto Route 7. Drive for about three miles, and you'll reach the park entrance and Welcome Center.
If you're coming in from the East, take Route 64 from Tsaile, AZ. There will be three overlooks you can stop at before getting to the Welcome Center.
DO NOT use Route 7 from the east to enter the park. Between the city of Sawmill and the Spider Rock viewpoint, this road is unpaved and unmaintained. Taking this road is a huge risk, and you might end up stranded without cell service.
Spider Rock Campground is located in a wooded area of the Tse Ho Tso Plateau in the park. It's smaller than Cottonwood Campground, with about 30 sites total, so if you're looking for a quieter, more private experience, this is the place to go.
Although this is a dry campground, meaning no hookups, there is potable water, a dump station, and toilets. Additionally, the hosts have installed quite a few new features into this campground - you'll have access to WiFi, a place to buy snacks and cold sodas, and solar showers. Generators are allowed from 7 am to 10 pm. If, for some reason, you're sick of your RV, there are also options to rent tents or a stay in a hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling.
The campground is located in a flat, grazing area for wildlife, so your pets are welcome only on leash. Because Canyon de Chelly is a sacred and significant area for the Navajo Tribe, hiking and backpacking the canyon is only allowed from Spider Rock Campground. The campground is usually first come, first served, but for the summer months, it would be wise to reserve a spot ahead of time. You can book tours with the campground host or head out on the hike that starts at the campground and leads you along the canyon rim.
With over 90 sites, Cottonwood Campground is the perfect place to set up base camp for exploring the canyon. While you don't have direct views from the campground, it's just a short drive away from multiple overlooks of the canyon, so you can quickly head out and back for incredible sunrises and sunsets. Additionally, it's situated right next to Thunderbird Lodge, which provides meals in case you don't feel like cooking.
No hookups are available, but each of the three loops has sinks and flushable toilets, potable water, and there is a dump station in Loop 1. Each site has a parking space, picnic table and grill. Pets are allowed, but they must be leashed at all times. The sites are well paved, but you might have to do a bit of leveling when you park your camper or RV. Plenty of spots have shade to protect you from the hot desert sun.
If you want even more information about the history of the ruins, rock art, and geology, you might want to sign up for a free, ranger-led program. Head to the Visitor's Center to see what activities and programs they have available. These are generally offered throughout the summer months, and you can even sign up for a ranger-led hike throughout the canyon!
Bikes are not permitted within the canyon - however many hard-core bikers will take on the 130-mile loop around the whole canyon.
Dust off your mountain bikes, and prepare yourself for some hard climbs that will take you through desert shrub, rock art, and excellent views of the 1,000 foot cliffs of the canyon. About 30 miles of the road is unpaved, so make sure that your bike is prepared for rougher trails. During this bike ride, you'll be able to experience the incredible history and geography that Canyon de Chelly has to offer.
In the wintertime, even more of the park is difficult to access due to weather conditions. However, the locals still operate what they call "Shake and Bake" tours to give visitors a chance to explore the canyon.
"Shake and Bake" tours take place in rugged, military-style, six-wheeled vehicles that have seats installed in the truck beds. They're technically available all year, but during the winter-time, they are enclosed to keep out the cold weather conditions. These tours will take you to Navajo farms, local ruins, and rock art.
If you want to explore deeper into the canyon, you'll have to get a backcountry permit and book a tour with one of the local tour companies. Depending on what is offered, you might also be able to sign up for a free, ranger-led activity at the Visitor's Center.
You'll have a wide variety of ways to see the canyon. Tour guides can take you on hikes, horseback or vehicles into the canyon. While there are options for self-guided drives and hikes, getting a tour is the best way to see the canyon and learn more about the rich culture and history of the Navajo Nation.
There are two self-guided drives available in Canyon de Chelly - one along the South Rim and the other along the North Rim. Both of these drives boast incredible and unique views of the area, and with the large amount of overlooks, you'll need at least two hours for each drive.
Starting from the Visitor's Center, if you head towards the North Rim, you'll get incredible views of Antelope House Overlook. Do this drive in the morning for the best photographs.
Along the South Rim, you'll find seven overlooks that provide you with not only incredible views, but also access to local Navajo vendors. Get out of the car, take some pictures, support the local businesses, and hop back into the car for the next overlook. The final stop of the South Rim drive is the iconic Spider Rock - arguably one of the most scenic spots in the park. There'll be a short trail that takes you to a better view, where you'll be able to capture the convergence of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon, Spider Rock, and possibly even Speaker Rock behind it.
The only trail that allows hikers without a guide is the White House Ruins Trail. The rest of the park requires the presence of either a ranger or a guide out of respect to the sacred history of the monument.
The White House Ruins Trail is an absolute must if you have the time. Its switchbacks might seem intimidating, but the 2.5-mile out and back trail will allow you to descend straight into the canyon, right up to the ruins. Down in the canyon, there will be local Navajo vendors waiting for you. Much of this trail is exposed, so make sure you bring enough water, especially when you're climbing back up to the trailhead.