Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

Photo: National Park Service
Photo: National Park Service

The National Park Service turns 100 years old this summer. To celebrate the milestone, you’re on a mission to finally explore some of the most beautiful places in the United States. Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier have been on your list longer than you’ve even had a list. It’s the Grand Canyon where you have to start though. But as you begin planning your trip to Arizona, you realize it isn’t the only must-see canyon in the state.

Canyon de Chelly is a fascinating national monument. It’s in Northeast Arizona, one of the longest continually inhabited areas in North America. It’s the only national park or monument that’s entirely owned by Navajo Nation, instead of the federal government. While it preserves the ruins of the area’s early indigenous tribes. It’s well worth the drive toward the New Mexico border.

Given that Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on Navajo land, visitors are only allowed in certain areas. Most follow the two scenic drives around the canyons. The North Rim Drive, a perfect morning drive, follows Canyon del Muerto with pull-offs overlooking Ledge Ruin, Antelope House, and Mummy and Massacre Caves. The South Rim Drive, better in the afternoon, outlines Canyon de Chelly with views of tunnels, Face Rock, and Spider Rock. Only park rangers and Navajo guides are allowed to bring groups down to the canyon’s floor though. With one exception. That exception is your chance to explore the ancient ruins on your own.

The White House Ruins Trail begins at the White House Overlook off the South Rim Drive. The steep, switchback-filled trail descends more than 600 feet from the canyon’s rim to its floor. Along the way, you pass sheer rock walls and sandstone spires, narrow tunnels and dark caves. Black streaks—created by seeping water—and ancient petroglyphs decorate the reddish walls. Prickly cacti line the well-worn trail. While at least 80 rooms, inhabited until the mid-13th century, sit on the bottom of the canyon and in the cliff’s walls. If every national park is this breathtaking, you’re in for an amazing summer.

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