Sandoval Signpost

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Cliff Dwellings

Entering Canyons del Muerto and de Chelly requires a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle.


Earl’s in Gallup is a great place to get a  bite to eat after your excursion.

A way to Canyon de Chelly

—Ron Sullivan

Planning trips, especially to places like Canyon de Chelly, requires an inspiring conversation and a good trail map. After careful consideration, we decided that four days and three nights would get us from Placitas to Chinle, Arizona and home again. Chinle is about three miles from the Canyon de Chelly National Monument entrance.

We left mid-afternoon and drove to Grants. Spending the night in Grants gave us a fresh start and almost immediately put us on Route 53. It is not the most direct route to Canyon de Chelly, but with some planning you will get there. Make sure that you visit the Northwest New Mexico Visitor Center just off Exit 85 in Grants. The Center has a great assortment of free printed information. Just inside the Center is a spectacular view of the El Malpais panorama from a pristine semicircular indoor viewing area. The visitor center host from Acoma was very helpful.

Route 53, Trail of the Ancients, will take you to Bandera Volcano and Ice Caves. Shortly after the Ice Caves, you will enter the Ramah Navajo Indian Reservation and El Morro National Monument. If you stop at the Monument, visit Inscription Rock. It is just a short, easy half-mile walk. The park rangers are very knowledgeable and are willing to chat. A few miles past the Monument is the small village of Candy Kitchen. It is home to a wolf habitat and is operated by volunteers.

Our mid-morning objective was Zuni Pueblo. It is the largest of New Mexico’s nineteen Pueblos. We arrived around lunch, stopping first at the Visitor Center. Our Zuni hostess recommended Chu Chu’s for lunch. You will not be disappointed. Make sure you take a pinch of corn meal to bless your meal. The corn meal is located on the cashier’s counter. When visiting any of the pueblos, we always remember that we are invited guests and are respectful of their cultural traditions. It is always an honor to participate in their traditional practices.

There are many trading posts along the main thoroughfare in Zuni. We stopped at several and chose All Tribes Indian Market to purchase our jewelry. At All Tribes Indian Market, Clarence Booqua is a wonderful Zuni jeweler working and showing his work. As you enter these trading posts, you will often see several people standing near the entrances. They are all selling their fetish carvings. Almost all are artisan carvers or their representatives and are very willing to negotiate some good bargains. Be prepared to see them pull out small candy bags full of fetishes. They are very respectful and willing to negotiate.

After leaving Zuni Pueblo, cross the Zuni River and enter Arizona. Take Arizona Route 191 north to Sanders. From Sanders, go west on I-40 one exit and continue on Route 191 to Ganado. Ganado is a huge Navajo weaving center and is very well known for Ganado red dyed wool, found in many weavings. You will also drive near the pueblo of Wide Ruins, another village known for its weavers.

As we entered Chinle, Arizona, we immediately noticed two changes. The first was that we were out of cell phone range, but not to worry—there are plenty of pay phones in town and in the park. Secondly, the Navajo Reservation, within the state of Arizona, follows Daylight Savings Time schedule. During this time period, they are one hour ahead of Arizona time and always on New Mexico time.

You have a few options for eating and sleeping. In Chinle, there is a Best Western and Holiday Inn that are close to the Canyon. You can also pick up supplies in Chinle. A Wells Fargo Bank ATM, strategically located in a modern plaza, is open for quick cash. On this trip, we chose the Thunderbird Lodge located within the park. It was constructed around the turn of the twentieth century and is modernized with plenty of rustic charm. Tune your radio dial to KTNN AM, the Navajo Nation radio station, for a linguistics lesson. The plumbing is “historic,” so treat it with respect. If you live in Placitas, you are already trained. The Lodge also operates a full cafeteria and gift shop. Some menu items are brought to your table. If you listen with a melodic ear, you will hear Navajo and Hopi chants coming from a CD player in the kitchen.

Driving into the Canyon requires a Navajo guide who is an experienced driver and knows the canyon culture. George Price was our guide. He has lots of information to share about his people and the Canyon’s history, flora, and fauna. Navajo families live on the land within the canyon walls. For some, farming and ranching are full-time occupations. Like George, many are very knowledgeable trail guides. Again, one enters with much respect for the traditional cultural values. Photography is allowed within certain defined parameters. Your guide will let you know. As George reminded us, this is a national monument, not a national park.

Entering Canyons del Muerto and de Chelly requires a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle. For tours, the Lodge owns and operates a fleet of nineteen Korean War relic 1950s GM two-and-a-half ton trucks converted to run on propane. The vehicles’ beds were modified to accommodate about twenty passengers and have a transparent covering, which allows for maximum viewing and a solarium feel. Get ready for a bumpy ride. You will be fording the Chinle Wash several times, in moving water as deep as four feet. Some of the stops along the way, including potty and lunch breaks, are Ledge Ruins and Antelope House. Mummy Cave and White House Ruins are within easy view. Petroglyphs line many of the patina-coated walls, depicting Navajo and Hopi traditional beliefs, stories, and images. As you traverse the wash, herds of horses, sheep, cattle, and goats graze on the open grasslands. Cottonwoods, salt cedar, and Russian olives line the banks.

There are two self-driven tours you can take within the Monument. South Rim drive has several overlooks. It is one of two ways you can enter the Canyon on your own. Some trails from this Rim lead to the Canyon floor. The North Rim drive gives you a gigantic view of Mummy Cave Ruins and will lead you out of the Canyon. We chose the North Rim drive through Tsaile as our return route through Window Rock and into Gallup.

In Gallup, we enjoyed lunch at Earl’s. Stopping for a quesadilla or an Earl’s Special is always a delight. During your dining experience, expect Navajo and Zuni artists unobtrusively to display their items at your table for viewing and possible purchase. From Gallup, you can be back in Placitas within two-and-a-half hours.






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