Sacred Outdoor Museum of the Navajo Nation Canyon de Chelly

     Owned by the Navajo Nation, one of 21 recognized tribes living in Arizona (and the largest in the U.S.), Canyon de Chelly (de-SHAY) exudes a quiet magic and spirituality that inspired mythology guru Joseph Campbell to call it “the most sacred place on Earth.” Along with Monument Valley (p. 708), the canyon is considered one of the holiest places in the vast Navajo Indian Reservation.

     The Ancestral Puebloans (also known as the Anasazi) began carving multistoried dwellings into the sandstone walls around a.d. 700. Mysteriously abandoned in the 1300s, they represent one of the oldest dwelling sites in North America and—paired with the canyon’s natural beauty—the principal attraction of this 130-square-mile historic area. 

     The national monument’s name comes from the Navajo word tseyi, meaning “rock canyon.” Soaring cliffs glowing pink and orange are cut by the cottonwood-lined Rio de Chelly and decorated with ancient pictographs and petroglyphs. Near the visitor center you’ll find the Thunderbird Lodge, built as a trading post in 1902. Sign up for one of the Navajo-led “shake-and-bake” jeep tours, named for the bumpy road and summer heat. (Most of the canyon bottom is offlimits to visitors; aside from the White House trail, the gorge is accessible by guided vehicle tour only.)

     The paved 15-mile North Rim Drive follows the Canyon del Muerto (Canyon of the Dead) and leads to Navajo Fortress, where native warriors hid from U.S. troops in 1863 after being ordered to move to a barren reservation in eastern New Mexico. If time is limited, opt for the 16-mile South Rim Drive, which offers even more remarkable views. From the White House Overlook, take the steep trail a mile down to White House Ruins, the remains of an 80-room structure, the largest in the canyon. The last stop on the drive is the spectacular Spider Rock Overlook. Legend has it that the top of the sandstone pinnacle, rising 800 feet from the canyon floor, is home to a Navajo goddess called the Spider Woman. According to Navajo myth, she created the universe by tossing stars into the sky from her dew-laced web.
Where: 225 miles northeast of Flagstaff. 
Tel 928-674-5500; 
Thunderbird Lodge: Tel 800-679-2473 or 928-674-5841; Cost: from $75 (offpeak),from $130 (peak); tours from $55. Best
time: May–Oct for good weather and canyon

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