To the Navajo, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced SHAY) was an impregnable stronghold and a bountiful sanctuary, home to Spider Woman and four other gods as well as a rich orchard of 3,000 peach trees. Much of that changed in 1864, however, during the final phases of the bitter Navajo war. Ordered to round up the Navajo and send them to the bleak Bosque Redondo reservation in New Mexico, Kit Carson had been leading troops in a long chase of the Navajo since that fall. Indian fields and homes were burned—part of a so-called scorched earth policy—and in January, Carson began the final assault, entering the Navajo’s last stronghold. Over 16 days, Carson’s troops destroyed homes, water holes, flocks of sheep and, yes, even that entire peach orchard.
The freezing, starving Navajos surrendered—except for a few hundred who held out at Fortress Rock—and were forced on the deadly “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo, where they remained prisoners until the survivors returned home in 1868.
Today, like the Navajo, remote and magnificent Canyon de Chelly endures, and is much more than a tragic symbol of the Indian wars. The national monument near Chinle, about 76 miles north of Interstate 40 on U.S. Highway 191, still sustains the Navajo. It’s also a photographer’s paradise (Edward Curtis and Ansel Adams captured its beauty).
Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle offers Navajo guided jeep tours. Horseback riding (by prior arrangement), camping, hiking, history, and rock-art viewing are also available in the park.
BEFORE YOU GO: Read Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, the Spur Award-winning history of Carson and the Navajo by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2006).
WHILE IN THE AREA: Monument Valley, site of many John Ford-John Wayne Westerns, is about a three-hour drive north. Closer to Chinle, check out Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site near Ganado. The Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock is a great place to learn more about the Navajo war and Navajo culture.