By Michael Lanza
Our guide Edwina, a woman from the Navajo Nation—or as she tells us the people call themselves, the “Diné” (pronounced da-NAY)—leads our two-family group of eight along a zigzagging, sometimes exposed, primitive “trail” dropping several hundred feet into Canyon del Muerto, a wide, river-cut gorge of sheer, red-rock walls, one of the two main chasms of Canyon de Chelly. Descending narrow ledges, tilting slabs, dry water runnels, and manmade steps carved into the rock, we follow her on a storied and occasionally heart-pounding path into the history of ancient and modern civilizations—and in many ways, the history of the United States.
During our four-hour, 6.5-mile, guided hiking tour into Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in northeastern Arizona, we stop periodically and Edwina tells us some of the history of Canyon de Chelly, where cultures have thrived for nearly 5,000 years—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. A young woman in baggy, denim shorts and unlaced sneakers, Edwina matter-of-factly relates the tale of the senseless slaughter of women, children, and elderly Diné people (while warriors were out hunting) by Kit Carson’s men, and about the U.S. government later recruiting Navajo speakers as code talkers, which proved critical to the American victory over the Japanese in World War II.
In the canyon bottom, we take off our hiking shoes and walk in the ankle-deep river—the water still icy in late March, although the sun warms us. And Edwina points out ancient ruins built on ledges high up cliff faces, petroglyphs and pictographs on the cliffs, even a wandering line of steps leading up one cliff, chiseled into the sandstone by some previous inhabitants of Canyon de Chelly who clearly has less fear of falling than most contemporary Americans.
She leads us across her grandmother’s land, where she has a small farm. Some 40 Navajo families own land in the canyon, which is entirely on the Navajo reservation. While only a few people live there, some of them seasonally, they still raise livestock and farm in Canyon de Chelly.
Under an agreement between The National Park Service and the Navajo Nation, who manage the park collaboratively, while the public is free to drive the scenic roads on both rims to canyon overlooks, visitors must be accompanied by a guide to hike into the canyons. Just one trail is open to the public for unguided hiking, which begins at the White House Overlook on the South Rim and descends 600 feet to the White House Ruin. But take a guided hike: They’re reasonably priced and you’ll see and learn a lot more about Canyon de Chelly than you will on your own.
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Guides We took a four-hour, 6.5-mile hiking tour with Ancient Canyon Tours, ancientcanyontours.com. See a list of all authorized tour operators in Canyon de Chelly at nps.gov/cach/upload/CDC_2015.pdf.
Contact Canyon de Chelly National Monument, nps.gov/cach.
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