Canyon de Chelley and Chaco Canyon

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My friend Andrew and I adopted a highway in Albuquerque, New Mexico and committed to cleaning the road twice a year. This is our 4th trip to the Land of Enchantment.

The usual routine is to fly in on a Friday night, clean the road on Saturday morning and then go on a road trip around New Mexico. For this trip, we decided to tack on an extra day to the end to make it 3 days.

May 10, 2019: Overbooked

Andrew and I both flew into Albuquerque around midnight and met at the airport. We rented a 4WD pickup truck due to the intense itinerary we planned. Then we drove to our go-to hotel, the America’s Best Value Inn Northwest Albuquerque which recently rebranded as the Extend-A-Suites. I chose this hotel during our first road cleaning trip because it was the cheapest hotel I could find on Kayak. For tradition’s sake, we continued to book it.

When we arrived at 1AM, the receptionist told us that the hotel was overbooked and we would not be able to stay. The five remaining rooms were reserved for a basketball team that was supposedly on the way. Even though I made a reservation months ago and called the hotel to confirm a late check-in to avoid what happened in Shreveport, they refused to give me a room.

After screaming obscenities and laying down the horn for an extended period of time, we drove next door to the Days Inn which had one room available. It was a double bed. Without other options, we took the room and slept a bit closer to each other than we would have liked. It was far too late to worry about comfort and we had a big trip planned.

Small bed but it works.

May 11, 2019: Westward Ho!

The next morning, we got breakfast burritos and headed over to the road. We got started at 10AM, much later than we wanted. Luckily, the road was still clean from our previous trips and we were able to finish up in about 75 minutes.

Friendship is still going strong!

We then hit the road headed west.

Two beautiful hours later, we reached Gallup the largest town in western New Mexico. Gallup only has about 20,000 people but  was surprisingly packed with people. There were real traffic jams on every street. We went into Gallup’s most famous restaurant, Jerry’s Café, which was packed. We were able to snag the last table. We asked the server if there was a big event going on and she said that on weekends, Navajo and Puebloan people flood into Gallup to buy things  such as groceries because there are few chain stores on the reservations. The next-nearest Walmart is 89 miles to the east.

We kept moving northwest and passed into Arizona and onto the Navajo Reservation. We soon lost cell coverage and unexpectedly ended up in a thick forest. Eventually we reached the town of Ganado, a town of 1,200 which had cell coverage.

Just past the center of town is the Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. This National Park Service site preserves the oldest Indian Trading Post. Indian Trading Posts operated all over the West and are a unique part of history.

Hubbell Trading Post

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Navajo and other Southwestern tribes had little contact with outsiders (they still don’t). The trading posts were their sole connection with the outside world. The Natives would barter rugs and handicrafts for goods that could not be otherwise obtained on the reservation. These items included preserved food, medicine, and metal goods.

On the surface, this appears to be ripe for abuse. How could the Navajo know that their rugs were world famous?  While bad trades definitely occurred, the successful trading posts -the ones that lasted over 100 years-were a genuinely symbiotic relationship. The Navajo did have choices when deciding which trading post to visit.  Yes the traders profited, but they rarely took this job for the money; rather, the traders usually had a strong affinity for the Southwest and the Navajo people. Many of the long-term traders spent decades living in the trading posts and were treated like members of the tribe.

Today, very few of the “old style” trading posts are left. The vast majority of these trading posts have turned into convenience stores and gas stations. But Hubbell remains. Walking in, the wood floor still creaked. The front room sold sodas, books, and souvenirs. But the back room sold Navajo rugs (for a ton of money) and felt like a time warp.

It was now close to 5pm so we started looking to see food options for dinner. It turned out that there was only one restaurant in a 30-mile radius: Pizza Edge which is located in a brand new shopping center 10 miles out of town. We ordered a green chile pizza to go.

Then we headed the 10 miles back into town and another 20 miles south to reach our home for the night. We rented out a Navajo hogan (traditional home) on AirBNB. Without formal addresses, finding the hogan was a challenge but we eventually got there. The Hogan was octagonal shaped with the door facing east towards the rising sun. The floor was dirt (connection to the earth). In the center was a stove with an exhaust pipe that opened in the ceiling (connection to the sky). This was a “deluxe modern” Hogan and actually had electric outlets in the walls and a microwave. This deluxe hogan also had beds (Navajo will traditionally sleep on the ground with blankets on the edge of a hogan).

Inside our hogan

The sun didn’t set until 8 pm. With the extra time, we went for a run along the dirt roads and ate snacks before calling it an early night.

May 12, 2019: Canyon de Chelley: the Heart of the Navajo Nation

The next morning, we drove north through the open desert. An hour in, the road dipped down into a valley and the town of Chinle appeared. This boring town is the home of a natural and cultural wonder: Canyon de Chelley. I really did not know what to expect here, but decided to visit because so many people both Navajo and not told me this was worth seeing.

The canyon is run by a unique partnership. The roads and viewpoints are maintained by the National Park Service, but the canyon’s interior is maintained by the Navajo Nation. Visitors are only allowed into the canyon with a Navajo guide with the exception of a single trail.

The plethora of tour options made it difficult to figure out the best way to explore the park. I settled on a half-day jeep tour run by the Thunderbird Hotel.

Before going to the hotel, we stopped at the National Park Service’s visitor center. We had a nice chat with the Navajo ranger who gave us the lay of the land. He asked us where we came from and about our families’ histories. The ranger said that this is a test he asks the many archaeologists coming to study the Navajo. He believes that it is pointless to study someone else’s culture unless you know your own.

Andrew and I met our tour guide and two older couples from the Deep South outside the hotel. We then got into the back of his six-wheeled half dune-buggy half tank and wheeled off. The vehicle looked ridiculous, but we soon learned that it was necessary for the insane terrain we would encounter.

Not overkill

We passed through the National Park Service’s checkpoint and a bunch of intimidating signs. The road ended at what looked like a river. Without even a moment of hesitation, we plowed into the river and drove upstream into the deepening canyon.

The red rock walls quickly leaped up and soon we were swim-driving up a 400-ft deep narrow canyon. We were not alone – there were caravans of jeeps nearby, but they kept stuck in the submerged mud.

As crazy as it sounds, Navajo people live in the canyon. As we continued upstream, we passed by fenced-off land. This land, our tour guide explained, is privately owned. The landowners can live and farm the land but are prohibited by the National Park Service from “changing the character” of the canyon. They cannot build modern homes, pave the road or bring in running water.

15 minutes in, the canyon split into two. We drove through the north canyon, Canyon de Muerto. The walls continued to rise and reached an astounding 800 feet tall. On our drive, we stopped to see petroglyphs and abandoned 1,000 year old cliff dwellings. The fact that people lived in the cliff dwellings is equally as astounding as the canyon’s geology.

90 minutes up, we reached a large rock. Our guide explained that in 1864- during the middle of the Civil War- the US Army forcefully removed the Navajo people from their land and made them march to New Mexico. This was called the Long Walk and hundreds of Navajo died. It is the darkest moment in Navajo history. In the Battle of Canyon de Chelley – part of this campaign- Colonel Kit Carson and 389 US army soldiers took over the canyon. They cut down all the peach trees and burned all the crops. The US Army killed 23 Navajo including a group of women. Some Navajo fled to the top of the large rock, but the US Army starved them out. Ultimately, 1,000 Navajo surrendered and went to New Mexico for four years before being allowed back.

Fortress Rock

It is interesting that despite the history, Kit Carson is widely considered an American hero and legend of the Old West. Caron’s home in Taos is a major tourist attraction and numerous wild places in the West are named for him.

On the way back, we stopped at the White House Ruins, the largest ruins in the park. White House has ruins both on the canyon floor and in a cliff.

White House ruins

One of the oddities of the Navajo Reservation are vendors seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Lo and behold, in the middle of the canyon were 5 vendors with tables full of pottery. Most of the vendors were in their 30’s, but one vendor was a 10 year old girl (probably the daughter of another vendor). Once she finished trying to sell goods to everyone on our group, she took out her iPhone and started taking selfies with her pet chihuahua. Wild!

After the tour ended, Andrew and I snagged some frybread tacos before driving along the canyon rim. We checked out 5 viewpoints on the south edge, but the highlight was Spider Rock, an 800 ft pillar 15 miles up the canyon. The pillar was awe inspiring and a sight to behold.

Spider Rock – height of an 80 story building

On the way out, we stopped on the north rim saw a couple more viewpoints. While it was all so pretty, we definitely had seen enough of the canyon for one day.

We pressed on to the northeast- through the remote center of the Navajo Nation.  In the town of Lukachukai, we saw an incredible wall of vermillion sandstone. Then we climbed over an 8,000 ft mountain pass and ended up at Shiprock, a 1,500 ft tall rock that is sacred to the Navajo.

30 minutes later, we were in the town of Farmington, New Mexico. I went to Farmington three years earlier on a road trip with my dad. We got dinner in a brewery/restaurant I visited on the last trip and then got an early night’s sleep.

May 13, 2019: Chaco and Back to Albuquerque

From Farmington, we drove an hour southeast towards Albuquerque. In Nageezi, a collection of houses and a gas station, we turned onto County Road 7890. The pavement ended 8 miles in, but we kept going…for another 13 miles of dirt. We heeded the online advice and took a 4WD truck. It was definitely necessary towards the end.

The road from Nageezi

After 45 bone-shaking minutes we finally reached the entrance to the park and… a perfectly paved road.

Made it!!

You may be wondering why the road in the park is paved but the roads getting to the park are nearly impassable. The answer has to do with land ownership. The National Park Service owns the land inside the park boundary. However, the other land is owned by a patchwork of the Navajo Tribe’s off-reservation trust and the county. Neither side wants to pay to pave the other side’s land. Additionally, the rough road limits the number of visitors, which makes both the Navajo and archaeologists happy.

Chaco Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and probably the single most important archaeological site in the entire Southwest. From the mid 800’s-the mid 1100’s Chaco was the center of the ancestral Puebloan culture. They influenced many other communities in the southwest and are considered the ancestors of the modern Puebloan tribes as well as the Navajo and the Hopi.

The many ancient ruins line the bottom edges of the arid canyon. The largest ruin is called Pueblo Bonito and probably served as the home for 1,200 people. The total population of Chaco was probably between 3,000-6,000.

On a guided tour of a nearby ruin called Casa Rinconada, Andrew and I learned about how much we know and don’t know about Chaco. While archaeologists have figured out how the people lived and constructed the site, the why is a complete mystery. The biggest mystery is their religion, which factored heavily into the architecture. Modern Southwestern Native tribes use circular rooms called kivas to practice their beliefs and conduct rituals. At Chaco there are hundreds of circular rooms that could be kivas, but there are also about 10 large (80 ft diameter) circular rooms that have only been found at Chaco and another site called Aztec Ruins. Archaeologists call these Great Kivas, but nobody – not even the tribal elders- knows their true purpose.

A great kiva

After thoroughly exploring the ruins, we drove back along the 15 miles of dirt to the paved highway. From there, it was 3 hours to Albuquerque.

We had a couple hours before our flights, so we decided to take the Sandia Peak Tramway – one of Albuquerque’s top attractions. Despite having cleaned the road just below the entrance for two years, we had never been up the funicular. The ride up took 15 minutes and was far more scenic than I was expecting.

From the top, we could see all of Albuquerque, the entire Sandia mountain range and the ski resort on the backside. It was amazing!


We even got to see snow in mid-May!

The sun was setting and it was soon time to head home. We drove to the airport and reminisced on an amazing trip. We do not know when I will be back to clean the road, but we pledged to return as soon as possible.

Final Thoughts:

While there was a lot of driving (we went 700 miles), the sites were worth the effort. The rocks and ruins we saw are truly world-class. I think that the Southwest is the most interesting part of the country.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Navajo culture is fascinating, although not the most accessible. They have very different values from most Americans. While sometimes it is frustrating trying to get certain information, I really enjoy learning about their culture and mindset.


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