Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established on April 1, 1913. It encompasses 83,840 acres - well over 139 square miles - with rim elevations ranging from 5,500 to 7,000 ft.
The monument preserves the remains of Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings and many reminders of the Navajos' past.
The Rio de Chelly and its tributaries descend from their origin in northeastern Arizona high in the Chuska Mountains, which are known locally as the "Navajo Alps." They have carved a series of canyons through the sandstone in this area to form Canyon de Chelly and its three tributary canyons - Canyon del Muerto, Black Rock Canyon, and Monument Canyon - totally well over 100 miles. At its shallowest westernmost part (about 30 ft deep), to its deepest southeasternly part (at 1,100 ft deep), the canyon reveals eleven million years of geological history.
Most of the rock you see at here is Canyon de Chelly Sandstone of the Permian age, laid done more than 200 million years ago. It was formed from ancient sand dunes and is cross-bedded in places. A harder rock, the more durable Shinarump conglomerate of the Chinle formation, makes up the rim of the canyon and overlies the de Chelly Sandstone. In a few areas, such as the Visitors Center and the first overlook, you will see the Chinle Sandstone on top of the Shinarump.
Nomadic tribes roamed the canyons over 2,000 year ago, collecting wild foods and hunting game. Little remains of these ancient visitors.
The Anasazi, from their first appearance about AD 1, lived in caves during the winter and brush shelters in summer. By AD 500 they were cultivating permanent fields of corn, squash, and beans, and were making pottery. They lived at that time in year-round pithouses, structures partly underground and roofed with sticks and mud.
Around AD 700 the population began to move into cliff houses of stone masonry constructed above ground. These pueblos (Spanish for "villages") also contained underground ceremonial rooms, known as kivas, used for social as well as religious purposes. Most of the cliff houses that you see now in Canyon de Chelly date from the Anasazi golden age, AD 1100 - 1300, when an estimated 1,000 people occupied the many small villages. At the end of this period the Anasazi mysteriously vanished from these canyons and from their other large population centers as well. During the next 400 years, Hopi farmers sometimes used the canyons during the growing season, but they returned home to their mesas after each harvest.
First entering Canyon de Chelly about 1700, the Navajo found it an ideal base for raiding nearby Indian and Spanish settlements. In 1805 the Spanish launched a punitive expedition during which soldiers reported killing 115 Navajo, including 90 warriors. The Navajo version of this battle claimed the dead were mostly women, children, and old men. the overhang where the killing took place became known as Massacre Cave. During the periods of the Mexican era, raids took place in both directions; the Navajo raided for food and livestock, while the Mexicans came to steal women and children for slaves. Contact with Americans went badly, too - settlers encroached on Navajo land. Navajo raids finally came to an end after the winter of 1863-64, when Colonel Kit Carson led detachments of the U.S. Calvary into the canyons. the Army destroyed livestock, fruit trees, and food while skirmishing with the Indians. The starving Navajo then had no choice but to surrender and leave for the Bosque Redondo Reservation near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. In 1868, after four years there, they were permitted to return. Today, some of the same families continue to farm the canyon floors and graze sheep. More than 50 families live in the canyons, but most find it more convenient to spend winters on the canyon rims and to return to their fields after the spring floods have subsided.
Tunnel Canyon Overlook The canyon at this point is about 275 ft/84 m deep.
Tsegi Overlook Tsegi is the Navajo word for "rock canyon," which is the Spanish pronounced "de chelle" (day SHAY-yay). American usage changed it to "de chelly" (d'SHAY). A Navajo hogan and farm can be seen below. A hogan represents the traditional architectural style of the Navajo common in the late 1800s. Across the road from the overlook, at a distance of about one-half mile (805 m), you can see an area of sand dunes.
Junction Overlook Here Canyon del Muerto, across the valley, joins Canyon de Chelly. Canyon depth is about 400 ft. Look for two Anasazi cliff dwellings.
First Ruin is in the cliff at the far side of the canyon. The pueblo has 10 roms and two kivas, and like most other ruins of this type, was occupies some time between the late 1000s and the late 1200s.
Junction Ruin lies straight across, where the two canyons join. It has 15 rooms and one kiva. These ruins, like most other in the monument, face south to catch the warmth of the winter sun.
White House Overlook The canyon walls rise about 550 ft at this point. White House Ruin, on the far side, is one of the largest in the monument. The name comes from original white plaster on walls in the upper section. Portions of 60 rooms and four kivas remain in the two sections, but it is estimated that there may have been 80 rooms before flood waters carried away some of the lower ruin. As many as 12 Anasazi families may have lived in this village about AD 1060-1275. The trail to White House Ruin begins about 500 ft to the right along the rim from the overlook. It's known to the Navajo as the Women's Trail, because women often used it to move sheep in and out. A pamphlet describing the trail can be purchased at the Visitors Center. Allow 2 hours for the 2.5 mile round-trip, and bring some water. This is the only hike in the canyon permitted without a guide; you're asked to stay on the trail. All of the land in the monument belongs to the Navajo people; the National Park Service only administers policies within the boundaries.
Sliding House Overlook The ruins across the canyon on a narrow ledge are well named. Indians who constructed the village on this sloping ledge tried to brace rooms with retaining walls. Natural depressions at the overlook collect water, still sometimes used by the Navajo.
Wild Cherry Overlook A scenic viewpoint above upper Wild Cherry Canyon.
Face Rock Overlook The South Rim Drive ends here. Rock walls plummet 1,000 ft from the rim to the canyon floor. Spider Rock, the highest of the twin spires, rises 800 ft from the bottom of the canyon. Spider Woman, a benevolent Navajo deity, makes her home here. A darker side of her character, according to one legend, is her taste for naughty children. When Speaking Rock, the lower pinnacle, reports misbehaving children to Spider Woman, she catches and eats them. Look for the sun-bleached "bones" on top of her spire. You can see tiny cliff dwellings in the canyon walls if you look hard enough. Monument Canyon comes in around to the right. Black Rock Butte (7,618 ft high), on the horizon, is either the weathered heart of an extinct volcano or a volcanic intrusion.
Ledge Ruin Overlook The ruin, set in an opening 100 ft above the canyon floor, has 29 rooms and two kivas and a two-story structure. It dates from AD 1050-1275. Walk south a short way to another overlook; a solitary kiva is seen high in the cliff face. A hand- and toe-hold trail connects it with other rooms in a separate alcove to the west.
Antelope House Overlook This large site had 91 rooms and a four story building. The village layout is clearly seen - you look almost straight down on it from the overlook. Round outlines are kivas. The square rooms were for either living or storage. Floods have damaged some of them, perhaps while the Anasazi still lived here, and the site was abandoned about AD 1260. The site's name comes from paintings of antelope, some thought to have been done by a Navajo artist in the 1830s. The Tomb of the Weaver sits across from Antelope House in a small alcove 50 ft above the canyon floor. Here, in the 1920s, archaeologists found an elaborate burial of an old man. The well preserved body had been wrapped in a blanket made from what appeared to be golden eagle feathers. A cotton blanket was enclosed and the whole burial was covered with cotton yarn topped with a spindle whorl. Look for Navajo Fortress, the sandstone butte across the canyon, from a viewpoint a short walk east from Antelope House Overlook. When danger threatened, the Navajo climbed up the east side using log poles as ladders. They pulled in the uppermost logs and any attackers received a hail of rocks. Navajos used the natural fortress from the Spanish years until Kit Carson's campaign.
Mummy Cave Overlook Archaeologists in the late 1800s named the large cliff dwelling for two mummies found in the talus slope below. Canyon del Muerto (Spanish for "Canyon of the Dead"), reportedly also took its name from this find. Mummy Cave Ruin sits within two separate overhangs several hundred feet above the canyon floor. The largest section is on the east (to the left) and has 50 rooms and three kivas, while the western cave has 20 roms. Between these sections is a ledge with seven rooms, including a three-story tower of unknown purpose. The tower date from about AD 1284 and is thought to have been built by Anasazi from Mesa Verde in Colorado.
Massacre Cave Overlook The North Rim Drive ends here. In 1805, hoping to end the Navajo menace, Antonio de Narbona led an expedition of Spanish soldiers and allied Indians to these canyons. A group of fleeing Navajo managed to scale the nearly 1,000 ft to this overhang on the only route to it. Narbona's troops, however, reached the rim overlooking the cave and fired down. Narbona's account listed 15 Navajo killed and 33 taken captive.
From Yucca Cave Overlook nearby, you can see a cave with at least four rooms and a kiva. A small cave tot he left was used for food storage; a hand- and toe-hold trail connects the two alcoves.