Canyon de Chelly

A Horseback Ride to the Anasazi Cliff Dwellings

by Sandra Shaw

Driving east through the Navajo and Hopi Reservations of Arizona, with a past so rich in native culture and history, one gets the feeling that little has changed out here over the centuries. Range cattle, herds of sheep, seemingly stray dogs and burros, and the occasional horse dot the magnificent landscape. It is a breathtakingly picturesque, ever-changing panorama, and one only has to look away from the open highway to gain a perspective of what it was like in the days before the Europeans arrived.

As the miles sped past on our way toward Canyon de Chelly National Monument, little did I know our car had become a virtual time machine and was carrying us back through the centuries toward the days of the Anasazi -- the ancient and vanished cliff dwellers who once inhabited the Four Corners region.

Canyon De Chelly

Arriving at Canyon de Chelly, we stopped first at the usual roadside lookouts. One is completely overwhelmed by the colors of this incredible canyon. Deep ambers, crimsons, burnt umbers, sepias and a wide palette of orange hues saturate the eye. These are the colors that paint the steep canyon walls, the pinnacle of Spider Rock, and the seemingly endless formations that have been carved out by wind and water over the millennia. But to stand on an overlook only whets one's appetite. The canyon must be experienced from the inside, and we readily headed for our true destination: a horseback ride deep into the canyon, and back in time, to the days of the Anasazi.

Canyon De ChellyThere are several ways to enjoy Canyon de Chelly: hiking trails, guided Jeep tours and guided horseback riding trips. Although each of these has its advantages, we chose to see the canyon on horseback. It was a fantastic decision. As we mounted our hearty and well-seasoned steeds, we followed our Navajo guide into this land that time has truly ignored.

On horseback, there is a gentle rhythm created by the steady beat of the hooves beneath you. And it doesn't take long before this rhythm becomes part of the heartbeat of the landscape. Canyon de Chelly, with its rich colors, powerful geology and incredible human history, has a beat and a rhythm all its own, and as the horses carried us further into the depths of this splendid place, I could feel myself becoming a part of it.

Unlike the 4-wheel drive experience, the equine experience is peacefully quiet. Our ears were filled with the sounds of the canyon alone, the hoofbeats in the white sand, the gentle breezes caressing the brilliant green leaves of the willow and cottonwoods scattering the canyon floor, a screeching hawk soaring above our heads, and the occasional voice of a child laughing that would echo off the canyon walls. The Anasazi have long since left this place, but Canyon de Chelly is still home to the Navajo, who live and farm here. One can only imagine what incredible perspectives on life are gained by living an entire lifetime in such a place as this.

Canyon De ChellyAs our horses carried us on, our guide politely answered our enthusiastic questions, no doubt the same ones he had answered many times over. I was taken with his patience, and after a while our questions became fewer as we wisely learned that what was to be had here could not be gotten with words. The rhythm of the land was beginning to take hold and beat from within our own hearts.

I was not prepared for the overwhelmingly humble experience of seeing the Anasazi cliff dwellings from this vantage point. As our horses rounded the bend, there before us, above us, was one of the most spectacular sites I have ever seen! One can examine endless photographs of these magnificent structures, but there is no describing the grandeur of the first-hand experience. The enormous canyon walls are quite vertical, and in their midst they cradle the ancient homes of the mysterious Anasazi. I have never felt quite so small, nor quite so in awe. I had to remember to take a breath and to draw my mouth closed.

We pulled our horses to a halt to take in the staggering view. It was absolutely silent, the same silence that has filled this canyon forever. The same silence that once filled the Anasazi's ears filled our own. My horse relaxed and breathed steadily to the rhythm of the rocks. It took only moments, but I was soon following in sync. My eyes soaked up what can only be described as Canyon de Chelly's crowning jewels, and in my mind I began to envision the Anasazi as they lived and breathed in the days now caught in time and frozen before me.

Canyon De ChellyA community of men, women and children, of elders and teenagers, they laughed and cried, told stories and passed on knowledge, played games and worked hard. They rejoiced at births, and wept at deaths. They planned for the cold days of winter and for the long, dry days of summer. They studied the sky -- the path of the sun, the moon, and the stars. And somehow, with tremendous ingenuity and for reasons only partly understood, they became a living part of these solid and foreboding, shear canyon walls. They knew their world, and the Anasazi indeed lived in tune with the rhythm of this land.

They had to do so; this is a land of harsh contrasts. Temperatures soared and fell, water ran furiously or not at all, and food could be amazingly abundant or dangerously scarce. The beauty of this place is indeed in deep contrast to its power. As human beings nestled in such a landscape, we are humbled, and living here as the Anasazi did, we would be at its complete mercy unless we learned to listen to that beat of the landscape. We have no real power here. Nature is both the mother and the father, the provider and the nurturer, the wise teacher and the unforgiving disciplinarian. The Anasazi have left their mark within these canyon walls, cast in stone -- another sharp contrast to the thriving Navajo people living within the canyon today.

We continued our ride to take in views of native American life as it now exists in Canyon de Chelly. Families still live in hogans here, and we saw children playing and helping adults herd sheep. Other families tended to their crops. Corn, melons, beans and peaches are the primary foods farmed here by the Navajo. Even though the modern conveniences of television, radio, CD players and computers exist, still there is little visible evidence that life has changed much from long ago. Mother nature still has her finger on the pulse of human life here. The Navajo continue to live in the rhythm of the land, just as the Anasazi did so long ago.

Canyon De Chelly

The advantages to horseback riding in the canyon became more obvious as our ride continued. Throughout the journey, our senses were heightened, and we soaked in more than the spectacular scenery. As we wound our way back to the mouth of the canyon and our ride was coming too soon to its end, I turned in my saddle to look back upon the orange and amber walls. I wanted to memorize what I had seen, and I took a long, deep breath to remember what it smelled like. As I let my legs dangle from my stirrups and relaxed my reins, I was filled with a wonderful calm I had not felt before. I had been filled with the heartbeat of Canyon de Chelly.

We thanked our gracious Navajo guide for our experience and gave our damp horses extra hugs and pats. Back on the ground, we returned to the present time and headed for the car, another sharp contrast after horseback riding all afternoon. It seemed almost sacrilege to start up the engine and disturb the peace that had filled our spirits.

There are many ways to enjoy Canyon de Chelly, and certainly any are worth exploring. But to really get into the heart and soul of this place, I highly suggest a horseback riding trip. You will come away with rewards not expected nor anticipated, and you will emerge from the canyon different than you were when you went in. And if you really want to get to the heart of the Anasazi, it is only just hoofbeats away.

Directions to Canyon de Chelly National Monument

There are several ways to get to Chinle, Arizona (the small Navajo town just west of Canyon de Chelly National Monument), but the quickest is to go east from Flagstaff on Interstate 40, 138 miles to Chambers. This route will take you past Petrified Forest National Park, an excellent side trip! At Chambers, turn north onto U.S. Route 191 and drive 74 miles to Navajo Route 7. Then take Navajo Route 7 east for two miles into Chinle.


There are motels in Chinle, AZ, 3 miles from the Monument's entrance. For more information and a complete list click here. (Rates, availability and reservations online.)

Related DesertUSA Pages
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Things To Do - Horseback Riding



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