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Susan V Smith

Canyon De Chelly
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"Navajo Pony & Guide," watercolor 20"x24"

Horseback in Canyon de Chelly

"Endurance Horses Visiting Canyon de Chelly" watercolor 20"x24"

Off the Beaten Path


Canyon de Chelly


              In late September of 2001, my friend Ruth and I took my two horses to Canyon de Chelly for a long weekend.


              Canyon de Chelly is obviously not a ride in New Mexico, and really doesn't belong in my trail book except that it is the place that gave me the energy to begin the book. I'd been talking about this book for years; and it seemed that I would go on talking about it for more years.


            Canyon de Chelly is the site of  ancient Anasazi ruins located in the northeast corner of Arizona, just outside the town on Chinle. The area is within the vast Navajo nation, the largest Indian nation in the Southwest. Here, most of the residents speak Navajo. Most families are traditional Navajo.


            The canyon is home to many people year round and some seasonally, as the weather can be harsh during winter. Stepping into the region and hearing people speak their language, you get the distinct feeling you have left the U.S. as you know it, and have gone to another country. Navajo is a spoken language first, and recently they have begun to write the language. But there are as many ways to spell words in Navajo as stories to tell differently.


            When you ask different people the origin of a particular ruin, or about a well-known battle between the Navajo, the Ute, and the Spanish soldiers, you can get a variety of answers. Their knowledge of their history is deeply woven into their culture, but each one probably embellishes the story in their own way. Storytelling is a part of the culture also, so stories are meant to be told, and in the way the teller wants to relate them.


            There is no need for me to go into details of the trail for Canyon de Chelly: essentially there are two main canyons: Canyon de Muerto (the site of Kit Carson starving out Navajos who refused to come down off a high precipice and be capturedor, where many Navajos died after surrendering when they were told they would not be killed, only to be taken off their land to eastern New Mexico in the Long Walk where many of them sickened and died).


            The other Canyon -- Canyon de Chelly -- has one of the most fantastic intact ruins, White House Ruins, which features whitewashed walls designed to keep the living space cooler. This was a residential ruin, two stories, and as our guide Terrell would say "see the elevator."  Toward the end of this canyon is Spider Rock, named for Spider Woman, and a legend ensues as to how she became the most powerful.


            The Canyons are traversed by foot, horseback, or by jeep or a tourist wagon. On the Saturday we were there, the motorized vehicles were so noisy and prevalent it felt like a massive rush hour in the morning and evening when they were coming and going.


            We brought my two Arabians to ride. These two horses will appear throughout the trail book, as they are my companions on many rides.You can rent horses at the mouth of the canyon from Justin Tso and from other outfitters. My horses are my friends and I enjoy sharing adventures with them. My friend Ruth who rode Khami, my gelding, boarded him at the time, so she was very fond of him already before embarking on a trip of this kind. She had only ridden him for a couple of hours at a time before we took this trip.


            Khami is twelve and has completed 1500 miles of endurance riding, which means essentially, he has completed many 50, 55, and 60 mile day rides adding up to the 1500 miles. This is not a remarkable achievement for a good endurance horse, in fact, I had hoped we would do more. But a suspensory injury to Khami's foreleg in 1998 was the beginning of  problems for him in terms of heavy competition. He injured that leg again, then suffered some heel problems, and I decided to retire him from active duty. Since Khami loves the trail and loves adventures, he will always be a trail horse, and a very competent one at that.


            Zuzka is my eight year old mare who is at the beginning of her endurance career. I bought her two and a half years ago at six, barely saddle broke, and have learned how to speak more horse because of her. All horses benefit from you knowing their language, but for this one, it was a prerequisite.


            For this trip Zuzka was in better physical condition than Khami, but he was not about to admit that. He approached the canyon with his usual huge enthusiasm, which is what makes him such a fun horse to ride. The canyons are about 20 miles long each, and actually the branches of the canyons extend even farther but they were not on the program for the first trip in. We planned to ride about 20 miles per day, although the first day, with the added mileage of getting into the canyon, turned out to be only about 16 miles.


            The extra distance to the farthest cave, Mummy Cave, is probably about five miles. The cave is a spectacular intact ruin that we viewed from the mesa when we drove out of Canyon de Chelly (proving that you don't have to ride everywhere).



            The first day the horses were very spirited. Khami could not understand why we wanted to keep stopping to look at petroglyph panels, he felt we had a mission and it wasn't to stop and stare at canyon walls. Zuzka was more accommodating, she would stand quietly and look at them.


            The terrain in the early part of the canyon is mostly deep sand. There are deep tracks made by the various vehicles, and areas where the sands surface has crusted over both of which provide better footing. At the end of September, the canyon is hot, but the canyon walls extend long cool shadows over the sand. Cottonwoods also provide shade and there are short trails through glades of cottonwoods that give a respite from the hot sun and sand. As you travel deeper into that canyon, trails narrow into two track dirt/sand roads which are easy footing. At this time of year, there was water at the far end of each canyon.


            Canyon de Muerto has wider passages and more sand, and there seems to be more traffic there. The Antelope House Ruins is a popular stop and the antelope on the wall has been depicted in many books and reproduced on posters probably worldwide. Ruth said that ten years ago there was not this traffic in the canyon, and plus, there were no vendors at Antelope House. Now, vendors sell flutes, jewelry and rugs under the Cottonwoods. After about seven miles of riding, we stopped there for lunch, Ruth found a nice cool flat rock to lie on, and I wandered around taking photos. I generally don't bring money on trail rides, although it's not a bad idea. In this case I would advise bringing along some cash, because the vendors have some beautiful items for sale. Of course, I wasn't going to put a large Navajo rug over my horse's rump and carry it home, but jewelry and other small mementos of your experience are packable and the prices are very reasonable.


             The music at this ruin was also beautiful -- there were guitarists and flutists, and the combination of those sounds, with the acoustics of being next to the rock walls, was quite phenomenal. I've been looking for recordings of that music ever since. 


            That day we rode on to Standing Cow, a whitewash glyph of a cow that is quite noticeable from the dirt road.


            The petroglyphs in this canyon depict the importance of the horse to ancient man. The horses brought by the Spanish, horses with Indians, have as much play on these canyon walls as antelope, deer, and wildlife. Perhaps more than people.


            The arrangements for camping involved having the outfitters truck in your camping equipment, hay, and other gear. The horses shared a large fenced pasture. That first night we had eleven horses in the enclosure, who did not all know each other. We met and had dinner with a nice group of riders from Colorado, exchanged trail knowledge, and other information.


           The next day we awoke to find no water in the horse tank. We left camp without water for the horses, and rode into the upper canyon of Canyon de Chelly and found some natural water. We travelled about seven miles before we found it. This is a consideration when we returned to camp that night, there still was no water in the horse tank. My horse Khami flattened his ears and collapsed on the ground, refusing to get up. I was worried we had a colicking horse. Ruth brought a bucket of water and he got up and drank.


            He drank three gallons and began to eat. This was something we discussed with Justin who has run these rides for years. Horses must have regular water after doing these long rides into the canyon, in hot weather. Justin has many people working for him, and my take on the situation is that there are some communication problems at times. We gave our horses all the people water that was brought with dinner and breakfast the next morning.


            The meals are very good. Just note that the Navajo families always ask you what you want for breakfast or dinner, but they bring whatever. We began to reply, "oh, just bring whatever, it's always good," because it was, and there was no need to worry about it.


            You can ride at whatever pace you wish. The guide will either ride ahead or behind, and afford you privacy if you wish. He'll be there if you need questions answered.




The trails: deep sand, easy two-track sand roads and one-track trails.


Accommodations: camping in Canyon del Muerto at the foot of a canyon wall, complete with petroglyphs. Horses are corraled in a huge pasture that has plenty of grass. Personal hay is trucked in nightly with your other belongings. Horse water should be provided. People water is always replenished when the crew brings dinner and breakfast. A portable toilet is available.


The night we arrived, it was late and we camped at the outfitters' stable -- not the greatest digs. Next time I would plan to arrive earlier in the day so we could ride into the canyon the same day. The arrangement is this with your own horses: you stop at Justin Tso's house in Chinle, he directs you to the stable. You unload horses, gear, etc. and drive your rig back to Justin's place. He or someone else will drive you back down to the stable and you saddle up.


Costs: gas, $190 for two days and two nights which includes, two dinners and two breakfasts and a guide.


Contact: Justin Tso, Chinle, Arizona


What to pack: You will need sleeping bag, tent if you want one, ground cloth, toiletries, snacks, solar shower (optional), folding chairs (optional), matches (it seems nobody remembers to bring matches), a horse brush, first aid kit for horses and people.


Preparation: If you take your own horse, be sure your horse will drink from dirt tanks, puddles, etc., and that it has no allergies to alfalfa or any other kind of forage. You can probably line tie your horse if you have to keep it separate from the others but make those arrangements before you go.


The horses have a happy sleepover in a pasture hemmed in by barbed wire. Because there may be other campers bringing their own horses with feed, you can't be assured of exactly what your horse will be eating for dinner.


If you come from out of state, be sure to bring proof of Coggins test and health certificates.