Canyon de Chelly’s Colors, Silence and Textures Create Seductive Magic

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 8, 2009

CHINLE, Ariz. – Time, with its tools of wind and rain, has created giant sandstone tapestries draping the sheer cliffs at Canyon de Chelly.

This maze of meandering canyons with about 400 prehistoric ruins – some dating to 2500 B.C. – is near the middle of the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, covering 131 square miles, was established in 1931 by President Herbert Hoover.

We recently visited the Navajo Reservation. We checked in at the Holiday Inn Canyon de Chelly in Chinle and immediately drove the few miles to the Spider Rock Overlook, arriving before sunset. There were no crowds, no airports, no noise. Only a gentle breeze and the perfume of juniper and sagebrush. There were few other visitors. Everyone spoke softly or in awed whispers, if at all. It felt like a holy site. We can learn much here, looking down at Chinle Wash, a tributary of the Little Colorado River.

We stood and watched the boundary between sunset and darkness climb Spider Rock, like water rising on an 800-foot sandstone monolith. It stands at the junction of Canyon de Chelly and Monument Canyon.

One could make the argument that as the stone spire has survived the eroding effects of wind and rain, the Navajo people have weathered their generations of challenges.

The altitude at the Spider Rock Overlook is about 7,000 feet, up from 5,500 feet at the visitor center a few miles back down the road.

In Navajo lore, the top of Spider Rock is the home of Spider Woman. She is credited with teaching Navajo ancestors how to weave on a loom. She also is said to be fond of disobedient children, whom she would devour. The white at the top of the tower is, according to legend, the sun-bleached bones of children.

There are several overlooks on the south and north sides of the canyon. The walls of sandstone, which are petrified sand dunes, are several hundred feet high. Their sandstone stripes are various shades of red, tan and brown. Vertical grooves in the walls were cut by eons of seasonal streams.

In this painting come to life, ravens add black flourishes in the skies. They drift on the updrafts, claw playfully at each other, and soar straight up as they approach the canyon walls.

Juniper trees grow along the canyon’s edges. Some of the blue-green trees are rooted in the cracks of the red stone. Other trees lean, sculpted by the wind.

A few of the trees died long ago, but their sun-scorched skeletons stand like natural wood sculptures.

In the canyon, most of the Fremont cottonwood trees lining Chinle Wash were planted by the National Park Service, starting in 1931, to reduce erosion.

Eventually, after sunset, only the dark outline of Spider Rock could be seen against the stars. The quiet was powerful. No traffic. No sirens. No cellphones. Only the distant bawling of a cow. We were the last ones to leave the Spider Rock Overlook.

The next morning, I returned to the overlooks. On the canyon floor, the meandering dry riverbed was lined with the tracks of Jeeps and other four-wheel-drive vehicles. In the distance was a World War II-era military transport vehicle filled with tourists.

Horses grazing deep in the canyon were invisible, until they moved. Could they be descendants of horses ridden into the Southwest by Spanish conquistadors in the late 1700s?

Plots of land on the canyon floor had been plowed, and maybe planted, for the next rain. Someone was driving a small tractor next to the plowed land. On the other side of the canyon floor was a traditional hogan surrounded by a shade structure.

The overlooks offer views of the White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly and the Mummy Cave Ruin in Canyon del Muerto. Mummy Cave, according to archeologists, was occupied between 200 and 1300. Canyon del Muerto was “named when an 1882 Smithsonian expedition uncovered prehistoric Indian burials,” according to “Arizona Highways Photography Guide.”

Using a zoom lens, I photographed the White House Ruin, wondering about the lives of the last occupants. I thought about their daily chores, ceremonies and challenges. I thought about their encounters with Spanish conquistadors and other explorers. I wondered, could I have been an explorer?

I stopped at most of the overlooks on the south rim of the canyon. It was a weekday morning drive, so I had most of the views to myself. At the Tsegi (pronounced SAY-ih) Overlook, a young man seated next to his painted sandstone artworks greeted me. He introduced himself as Antonio Carroll. He said he lived near White House Ruin. He is working on his home nearby.

He volunteered to describe the meanings of the symbols on his paintings. “It’ll only take a minute and a half,” he says. The intoxicating magic of his world and his friendly nature made it impossible to refuse.

Carroll said he learned the stories from his grandmother. I bought one of his paintings. He wrapped it in a newspaper from Gallup, N.M. Then he invited me to take his photograph. He held two artist brushes in his right hand.

At the Tunnel Overlook, two other artist vendors greeted me. Their wares were spread out on blankets. I stepped over or around the artists’ three sleeping dogs, prone on the concrete.

Some feature stories are easy to write, based on the topic. The same rule applies to studying Canyon de Chelly through a camera lens. This canyon country inspires good photography.

The colors and textures merge into a seductive beauty to create powerful vistas. They demand attention.

The walls speak of patience. They say slow down, decelerate, decompress. Days later, as we left the region, a cold front started bringing in lower temperatures. Winter was approaching. The canyon, with its history and magic, whispered, “You’ll be back.”

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Oct 8th, 2009

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