The White House Ruins Trail was the highlight of the whole canyon for me. Even though it was amazing to behold the Anasazi structures from the rim, they still felt remote. The distance from the observation points as well as our contemporary surroundings kept them that way. But with every step into the canyon, modern life slowly began to slip away while a much older one replaced it.
The ruins trail descended one and a half miles from the rim to the White House Ruins on the canyon floor. The steep switchbacks were soon swallowed up by the stunning beauty of the red swirling sandstone rock which rose from the canyon floor and surrounded us. Each swirl represented the angular directions of the geological layers down the canyon wall. They reminded me of red whipped cream. These crimson rock formations, contrasting with the deep blue sky, were the most beautiful part of the whole canyon for me. Carved into some of them were petroglyphs of fish, deer and people, reminding us on our downward journey of the ancients that once occupied this region.
We reached the valley in no time and walked the short distance to the White House Ruins. There were two sets of ruins here. One was sandwiched into a long crack in the cliffs, similar to many of the ruins which we had viewed from the rim. The other, however, was on the canyon floor, hard against the wall and protected by a modern chain-link fence.
Although in disrepair, it was easy to make out the square, rectangular and circular remains of buildings, because bare walls were still standing. Some appeared to have been two stories tall and their doorways and windows were noticeable. In fact, some of the white plaster that was once used on the structures was still remaining, thus giving this structure the name, “White House Ruins.”
My imagination was sparked. While my husband went off to take pictures of the dwelling, I sat on a log and soaked up the splendor of the crumbling bricks. I envisioned life so long ago. Who really were the Anazasi? Why and how did they build their homes so high into the clefts of the rocks? How did they even reach them? Why did the Anazasi leave them to fall to ruin? The more questions I raised, the more puzzling Canyon De Chelly became.
The hike back went much slower but I was in no hurry to leave. Again, I reveled in the beauty of the giant red swirling rocks. We met a young Navajo boy, also on his way out of the canyon. We learned that his home was in the canyon and that he makes hiking to the rim and back a daily ritual. How wonderful to have such a gorgeous piece of nature for a backyard!
To everyone who loves nature and history with a bit of mystery, I recommend visiting Canyon De Chelly National Monument and hiking the White House Ruins Trail. That trail was a memorable experience for me. Not only was I able to be physically and emotionally in tune with the natural world and an ancient time, simultaneously, but I was also able to momentarily escape modern life for a peek into the mysterious past of the Anazasi, the “ancient ones.”
We skipped the next rim stop, the White House Overlook and Trail, postponing it until the end of the day as we journeyed on to Sliding House, Face Rock and Spider Rock Overlooks.
Like a glacier braking off into the ocean during the Spring thaw, the large flat pink rocks, which once held the ancient Anazasi masonry, had slipped down the side of the canyon wall and were scattered about in piles just below the cliff’s shelf at Sliding House Overlook. Only partial rock walls remained with their flat sides still attached to the cliff and the rough, deteriorating sides facing us.
The scent of pine, mingled with cooler air, was a pleasant surprise for us at Face Rock Overlook. Shadows along the north slope of the canyon wall shaded snow-covered Piñon pines. Scattered along this wall, these trees spilled down into the valley, where they eventually joined the cottonwoods. Ruins, tucked into long jagged cracks in the wall of the other side of the canyon, provided more photo opportunities for us.
At Spider Rock Overlook, we searched in vain for a rock resembling a spider. Instead, we discovered two smooth red and black monoliths of different sizes joined together and rising over 800 feet from the canyon floor. We soon learned that these magnificent twin towers of sandstone were named Spider Rock due to Navajo lore.
According to legend, Spider Woman once lived on top of this rock and taught the Navajo how to weave. The children, however, were afraid of her because they were told that the white residue on top of the rock tower represented the bones of bad children who in times past had been devoured by Spider Woman.
Large arch openings framed some of the ruins at this location. Unlike the ruins we had previously viewed, these were not sandwiched into rock cracks. Rather, they were built inside fairly large caves, resembling bee hives. They were considerably higher off the canyon floor than the others. I exhausted my brain deciphering how the ancients entered their abodes.
This completed our rim tour. As excited as I was to have viewed these early remains from this position, I was now anxious to get a closer view by hiking into the canyon on the White House Ruins Trail, our final destination at Canyon De Chelly.
To be concluded next Monday…
The seven overlooks along the South Rim drive included magnificent vistas of the red rock canyon walls with their sandstone cliffs and hidden dwellings perched high off the canyon floor. Also noticeable was the verdant valley with its large red rock formations sprouting up from the canyon floor. We divided these overlooks into two sections and stopped at each one to snap pictures. The first three we visited were: Tunnel, Tseyi and Junction Overlooks.
At each one of these, Navajo were selling exquisite handmade jewelry crafted from silver, bronze and colorful stones. Jade, turquoise, shimmering brown sandstone, and purple amethyst necklaces and bracelets were among some of the treasures we discovered.
Tunnel Overlook provided our first glance into Canyon De Chelly where the canyon’s crimson rocks were darkened by the long morning shadows that still blanketed them. After a brief stroll down the hill to the fenced metal overlook, we saw the narrow west end passage open up to a wider valley and were greeted by dormant cottonwood trees with their lacy gray branches glistening in the sunlight.
This wider valley was more visible at our next stop, Tseyi Overlook. Here, naked cottonwoods lined the banks of the muddy Chinle Wash. As the narrow wash meandered its way through the canyon, we could see along its shore a few small rural houses and farms, interspersed between the smooth canyon walls. The Navajo divert water from this source to irrigate their crops of corn, beans and squash.
The shiny red and black walls of the canyon at Junction Overlook, contrasted beautifully with the endless pink and purple pastels of the desert beyond the canyon rim. Eagerly, we scanned the dusty cliffs with our binoculars and our enthusiasm paid off when we discovered Anazasi ruins tucked into the long cracks of the canyon walls.
Named First Ruin and Junction Ruin, these building remains revealed crumbling sandstone tops and square brick foundations. Also observable were cutouts for doors.
To be continued next Monday…
I can still hear the echo of the canyon calling out to me, drawing me back to the beauty and mysterious history hidden between its red sandstone walls.
It was mid-March, just before Spring, when I first beheld the wonders of Canyon de Chelly National Monument, located in the high desert of northeastern Arizona. De Chelly (pronounced de Shay) is a Spanish and English corruption of Tseyi, a Navajo word meaning Rock Canyon.
It was the intriguing history that initially drew me there. After learning about the architecture of the American Southwest, I began to wonder about these “ancient ones” the Navajo called Anasazi, who, over 1000 years ago, built amazing pueblos right into the cliffs. Their existence in North America had always fascinated me and many a daydream had been spent wondering who these early people were and how they lived their lives. Although the Southwest is full of these dwellings, my husband, Dan, and I chose Canyon de Chelly as our introduction into this mystifying world.
After a long, cold night of shivering in our sleeping bags at the park’s Cottonwood Campground, we welcomed the warmth of the early desert sun on the morning of our adventure. Since we allotted only half a day for our visit, we concentrated on the ruins visible from the South Rim and planned a hike into the canyon via the White House Ruins Trail.
To be continued next Monday…