Our travel plans had us going from Phoenix, Arizona to Moab, Utah, a route we had already explored last year. Instead of doing the same drive up US 160, we decided to detour just a bit east on US 191 to see something new — Canyon de Chelly in Northeastern Arizona.
(Let's pause here to get something out of the way... It's pronounced "de-SHAY”. Oops! We had been pronouncing it "Chel-ly" for an embarrassingly long time.)
Canyon de Chelly is owned by the Navajo Nation and has been co-managed by the National Park Service since is it became a National Monument in 1931. It's the only unit within the NPS like that. Canyon de Chelly is also one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America (over 5,000 years!) and roughly 40 Navajo families live and farm in the canyon today.
So, what can you do here with dogs? Since it's a National Monument, the normal National Park Service rules apply. Dogs are allowed in the Cottonwood Campground and at the scenic overlooks, but not on trails or within the visitor center. The canyon floor can only be visited with a guide, no dogs allowed on tours.
That being said, we were pleasantly surprised at how much the dogs got to do during our visit! The drive along the rims felt reminiscent of Bryce Canyon in Utah. At Bryce, there really wasn't much reason to get the dogs out of the car at each overlook, but at Canyon de Chelly the overlooks are often little nature walks to the rim, and dogs are allowed on the slickrock — which was an unexpected treat! Mushy and Lily's favorite overlooks were Spider Rock, Sliding House, and Antelope House. Antelope House Overlook was as far as we got on the North Rim. There are two more overlooks after it, Mummy Cave and Massacre Cave, but we ran out of time to visit them.
Protip: Relying on GPS or cell phones to travel across the Navajo Nation is not recommended. Make sure you do your route planning ahead of time, and download maps. Similarly, if you want to actually see the ruins from the lookouts, you need to plan ahead to know where to look.
So, what is Spider Rock? It's Canyon de Chelly's best-known feature; a 750 ft tall rock formation jutting from the canyon floor. According to Navajo beliefs, Spider Rock is the home of Spider Woman, who taught the people how to weave. It, and the canyon, hold great spiritual significance to the Navajo people.
We spent about 20-30 minutes at this overlook. On a Saturday afternoon in late March, there were only a few other cars in the parking lot. It was quiet and peaceful, and all I could think was how similar in beauty this was to the Grand Canyon, but how shockingly quiet and empty it was in comparison!
Sliding House Overlook
To get to the rim at this stop, you walk on slickrock. Hold your Lilys and your Mushys tight! The drop offs are steep!
This overlook also allowed the dogs some adventure-time, as they enjoyed the walk from the parking lot to the edge.
Animals of the Navajo Nation
Be cautious when driving in the town of Chinle and within the National Monument. Lots of animals call this home and roam free. We saw many beautiful horses, such as these two below, directly off the side of a busy road.
Not pictured are the animals that weren't as well off. We saw some horses who looked a bit skinny, and a bunch of roaming dogs. One evening at sunset, just outside the campground, Tommi and I, with the help of another visitor, corralled a stray dog who was frantically running the fence line of a picnic area, unable to find the exit she entered through. We were able to scoop her up and get her safely across the street. The Navajo nation has a tremendous problem with pet overpopulation. If you visit the area please consider donating to Blackhat Humane Society, they are doing great work to help the abandoned and stray animals of the Navajo Nation.
Our home base for the weekend was Cottonwood Campground, a no reservation, no hookup facility with several loops. Despite some promising reviews online, our cell service was poor here. Luckily we planned our visit to be Friday through Sunday, so I only had to suffer through one very frustrating work day.
Worth the stop?
Without pets, absolutely! With pets, still yes. Of course, if you're visiting without pets you can do more. There is exactly one hiking trail down into the canyon that you can do without a local guide. It's called White House Trail and is said to take roughly 2 hours round trip. The only other way to get into the canyon is with Navajo guide on a private tour: Jeep tours, horseback riding, etc.
We had a great time driving the rims and exploring overlooks with Mushy and Lily. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, there are a lot of Native American ruins if that's in your interests, and the remoteness of the area means it's far less busy than your typical NPS location. The dogs were also able to get plenty of exercise at the campground by walking the loops and the trail to the visitor center. Mushy earned a new adventuredog pin for his backpack and both dogs agree Canyon de Chelly is worth the stop!