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Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly National Monument


Canyon de Chelly became a national monument in 1931 through the cooperation of the Navajo Tribe and the National Park Service. The Navajo name for Canyon de Chelly is Tsegi which means rock canyon.  Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon are the three main canyons that make up the national monument. The canyons have been inhabited for over 2000 years by the Archaic, Anasazi, Pueblo, Hopi and Navajo Indians.  As you explore the geologic wonders of the canyons, you will also learn about the culture of people who currently live in the canyon as well as those who have lived there in the past.  The stories that can be told through the artifacts, pictographs, petroglyphs and ruins are amazing.

The vertical walls of the canyon range from 30 feet high at Chinle Wash to 1,000 feet at its highest point.  The natural coloration of the rock formations is breathtaking especially as the sunlight moves across the canyon.  A couple of interesting sites to visit are the White House Ruins and Spider Rock.  Along with the awe inspiring beauty comes the possibility for hazardous events such as flashfloods, quicksand, and deep dry sand that you can encounter as you explore Canyon de Chelly.

Canyon de Chelly Map

Photo by Deborah Cearley
Photo by Deborah Cearley


Canyon de Chelly is located in northeast Arizona on the northwest slope of the Defiance Uplift, a north-south anticline on the Colorado Plateau.  The San Juan Basin is to the east and Black Mesa to the west.  The three main gorges within the canyon are the Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon.  Smaller gorges exist throughout Canyon de Chelly.

The deepest rocks of the canyon are the red granites and quartzites of the Pre-Cambrian.  Culter red beds, composed of red siltstone and shale, were deposited during the Permian period and rest unconformably on Pre-Cambrian quartzites.  The de Chelly sandstone was created during the Permian Period when sand dunes lithified and preserved the cross-bedding within them.  A period of unconformity occurred following the time that the de Chelly sandstone was formed.  Sixty million years went passed during which either erosion or no deposition occurred leaving a gap in the geologic record.  During the Triassic, the Shinarump Conglomerate was formed and capped off the Chinle formation. The Shinarump conglmerate was created by streams depositing a variety of sand to pebble sized pieces of other rocks.  It was then lithified  into its own rock type.

The de Chelly Sandstone and the Shinarump Conglomerate are the layers that make up the DefianceAnticline.  Canyon de Chelly is cut in the west limb of the anticline and continues until the anticline plunges beneath the surface east of Chinle.  Chinle formation was laid down by wind and stream action.  This formation marked the final rock-building period in Canyon de Chelly area, about 165 million years ago.  Any later formation that might have existed have been eroded away.

The Defiance Anticline was lifted.  The stream’s down-cutting action started the initial erosion that cut the rock layers.  The vertical joints in the rock were widened and weakened by repeated frost action. Which cause it to expand when it freezes and then breaks the rock.  The continuous fracture in the joints cause sections to break off the walls of the canyon which makes it wider.

Tsaile and Whiskey Creek were two running streams that carved the canyon and joined to form Chinle Wash producing the tremendous cliffs and exposing the sandstone in some places to a depth of 800 feet.  Beneath the de Chelly formation was the Cutler formation.  Since the Cutler formation was made of harder rock, the canyon was expanded laterally as the walls were battered.  The broad, flat-bottom canyon that exists today was thus created.

The canyon is 1,000 feet deep with massive walls of de Chelly sandstone.  Large parts of these walls are covered with desert varnish.  Early Native Americans would chip off the desert varnish and carve pictures on the rock called petroglyphs.

Photo by Deborah Cearley
Photo by Deborah Cearley

People and Culture

For more than 2000 years, humans have occupied the canyon living in pit houses, cliff dwellings, and Navajo hogans.   Anasazi abandoned the area around 1200 AD. Numerous petroglyphs and pictographs exist throughout the canyon.

The earliest records of humans is between 2500-200 BC.  The Archaic Indians lived a nomadic way of life.  Their main weapon was a spear throwing device.  Spear points were left behind.  Most of the Indian village ruins were built between 350-1300.

The Anasazi were basketmakers.  They lived in pit houses in the canyon from 300-700. They were good craftsmen, farmers and hunters.  The early Basketmakers grew maize and squash and hunted antelope, deer and rabbits.  They supplemented their diet with wild plants.  The late Basketmakers who lived from 500-700 were innovators.  They developed pottery and the bow and arrow.  They began the cultivating two new crops cotton and beans.

The Pueblos lived in the canyon from 700 to 1300.  They built rectangular homes made from stone masonry.  By 850, the Pueblos began to live in large communities which included the kiva which was their ceremonial room.  Most of the large cliff houses were built in the Pueblo period between 1100-1300.

By 1300, most of the Indians had left the canyon.  The reason may have been due to the prolong drought which occurred during the 1200’s.  Many were forced to leave the canyon along with people from nearby Pueblo areas and move to other parts of the Southwest.

Hopi Indians occasionally inhabited the canyon from 1300-1700.  They grew and  harvested crops.  The Hopi were related to the Pueblo Indians.

The Navajo moved into the canyon around 1700 and have remained there.  They are related to various Apache Indians of the Southwest culturally and linguistically.  Navajo have lived in the canyon for about 300 years.  They have raised corn, squash, melons, beans, alfalfa, sheep, goats, cattle, and fruit trees.  Approximately 70 families currently live in hogans in the canyon.

In 1805, Lt. Antonio Narbona led a Spanish expedition into Canyon del Muerto and fought a day long battle with the Navajo.  Officially, it was reported that 115 Navajos were killed which included 90 warriors.  Twenty-five women and children died. Thirty-three were taken prisoner.  The rock shelter from which the Navajo fought is now called Massacre Cave.

In 1882, Canyon del Muerto (Canyon of the Dead) was given its name by those on an expedition from the Smithsonian Institute under the direction of James Stevenson when they found the remains of prehistoric Indian burials in the canyon.

Colonel Christopher “Kit” Carson executed a plan to enter Canyon de Chelly and remove the Navajo Indians.  On March 6, 1864, the march known as the Long Walk began.  More than 6,000 Navajos were forced to march to Fort Sumner (Bosque Redondo), a prison camp, located on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico.  The soldiers destroyed everything the Navajo had in the canyon.  While imprisoned, the Navajo encountered many hardships including disease, famine and difficulty getting along with fellow prisoner the Apaches.

In 1868, after 4 years of incarceration, a treaty was signed in which a Navajo reservation was established.  The Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland to start over.  They had to accept government rations at first because of the destructions of their homes and livestock coupled with a drought which lasted from 1868-1880.

Canyon de Chelly


The floor of Canyon de Chelly remains green and fertile throughout the year.  Most of the vegetation is located in the transition zone from Chinle Wash, where you will find desert grasslands eastward to the evergreen forests on the Defiance Plateau and the Chuska Range.  Canyon de Chelly is at an elevation of between 5,000-6,000 feet.  The humidity is very low.  Temperature ranges from 105°F during the summer to -30°F during the winter.  The average rainfall is 9.6 inches per year.  Some of the flora and fauna found in Canyon de Chelly are listed on the following tables.



Yellow Pine

Gambel Oak

Opumtia Cactus

Pinyon Pine

Scrub Live Oak

Grama Grass

New Mexico Pine

Fremont Cottonwood

Common Sagebrush

Douglas Fir

Western Box Elder

Squaw Currant

Colorado Blue Spruce

Quaking Aspen

Rocky Mountain Bee Plant

Utah Juniper

Coyote Willow

Showy Narcotic Toloache (Jimson Weed)

Netleaf Hackberry

Peach-leaf Willow

Squaw Bush

Western Chokeberry

Russian Olive


Service Berry

Tamarisk Salt Cedar





mule deer

black bear


kit fox

mountain lion






jack rabbit



spotted skunk

striped skunk

Abert’s squirrel

Colorado chipmunk

pocket gopher

red-spotted toad

canyon treefrog

American bullfrog

northern leopard frog

prairie rattlesnake

black-tailed rattlesnake

gopher snake

checkered garter snake ringsneck snake
western whiptail lesser earless lizard common collared lizard

Golden eagle


turkey vulture

great horned owl



redhead ducks

western morning dove

desert sparrow hawk

red-shafted flicker

downy woodpecker

cliff swallow

pinyon jay  western nighthawk wild turkey
bluehead mountain sucker speckled dace (fish) rainbow trout
cutthroat trout


Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established on April1, 1931 through the cooperation of the Navajo Tribe and the National Park Service.  The Navajo Tribe controls the 84,000 acre monument.  The visitor center, rim drives and overlooks are managed by the National Park Service.  A decision was made initially to allow visitors to enter the canyons only with Navajo guides and guides from the park service approved by the Navajo Tribe.  The only exception is the trail that leads to the White House Ruins.  As a result, the integrity of the canyon has remained in tact.  It provides a wonderful historical perspective of the past 2000 years and of those who have inhabited the canyon.

The canyon had a spectacular view of the past through the rock art, the Indian ruins, and the geology.  Although the canyon is beautiful and appears to be peaceful, there are dangers that do exist.  Flashfloods, quicksand and deep dry sand provide hazardous conditions that anyone entering the area should be award of at all times.

The Indians, past and present, have considered the canyons as a spiritual place.  As you enter the canyons, be respectful to the Navajo and their beliefs.  Only take pictures of the people, their homes and their property if you have been given permission.  Listen to their stories about the past and then share those same stories with others.  The legacy of the canyon continues to be passed from one generation to the next.

Author:  Debbie Cearley

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