Canyon de Chelly

View from near the top of the Trail

Canyon de Chelly is a long trident shaped canyon in the north west slope of the Defiance Uplift, carved by erosion from running streams. The incredible vertical walls of crossbedded de Chelly sandstone make access to the canyon bottom difficult. As such, it proved a protective home for many ancient and modern native American peoples.

The canyon begins near the crest of the uplift with one arm, Canyon del Muerto, beginning near Tsaile, home of Navajo Community College (now Diné College), with Tsaile Lake at the end of the northern branch. Several of the southern branches of the dendritic system converge in the vicinity of Spider Rock where the vertical cliffs reach heights of 800-1000 feet. At this part of the canyon, the Cutler red beds are exposed beneath the de Chelly sandstone layers. The main branches join at Junction Overlook where several small ruins can be seen high in the walls. This overlook is also a spectacular site from which to watch the sunset, especially during the summer when lightning flashes over the Chuska Mountains in the east and cool breezes drift over.

The canyon ends in the west when the de Chelly sandstone plunges under the surface just east of Chinle.

If, like me, you are confused by the terms used to designate geologic time, a chart, based upon one given in Roadside Geology of Arizona by H. Chronic is available.

Canyon Mouth

Some historical pictures of Canyon de Chelly are available online from the National Archives American West Still Images page. These are:
"Distant view of Ancient Ruins in lower part of Cañon de Chelly [Ariz. Terr.] ... Showing their position in the walls and elevation above bed of cañon." A member of the Wheeler Expedition is sketching the ruins from the foreground of the photograph. Photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1873. 77-WE-4l.

"Pieces all saved." Man with parts of his wagon and equipment on muddy floor of Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Reservation, Ariz. Terr. Photograph by D. Griffiths, September 13--19, 1903. 83-FB-2033.

Approximately a dozen photographs of Canyon de Chelly can be found in the Special Collections and Archives Department, Cline Library, Northern Arizona University.

In Association with


Navajo Sacred Places, Klara Bonsack Kelley, Harris Francis, Indiana Univ Press.
Native Roads : The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations,
Fran Kosik, George Hardeen, Creative Solutions Pub.
Named in Stone and Sky : An Arizona Anthology, Gregory McNamee (Editor),
Univ of Arizona Press.
Basin and Range, John McPhee, Noonday Press.
Navajo Country : A Geology and Natural History of the Four Corners Region, Donald Baars, Univ. New Mexico Press.
The Colorado Plateau : A Geologic History, Donald L. Baars, Univ of New Mexico Press.
Roadside Geology of Arizona, Halka Chronic, Mountain Press.

In Association with

© 1994 Karen M. Strom

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