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Canyon Del Muerto
Canyon De Chelly National Monument
March 19-20, 1999
by Chuck Parsons
Preparing to descend into Canyon del Muerto

Just prior to 1:00 PM on a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, with temperatures in the mid 60s and a soft breeze blowing up from the canyon below us, eleven Motorola Hiking Club members and guests – Rudy Arredondo, Tim Caron, Frank Carpenter, Alex Carpenter, Lelanie Hellmer, Judy Hellmer, Joyce Parrish, Chuck Parsons, Tom Van Lew, Jeannie Van Lew, and Jon Van Lew – along with our Navajo guide, Hadley Tsosie, gathered at the Twin Trails Trailhead on the North Rim of Canyon del Muerto in Canyon de Chelly National Monument for the start of our overnight backpacking trip into the canyon.

After a group picture and a question and answer session with Hadley, we began our one thousand foot descent into the canyon. Our destination 3.5 miles into the canyon was Antelope House Ruin, one of the more spectacular of the many Anasazi ruins we would encounter on this hike. It wasn’t long before the trail opened up to a stunning view of magnificent Canyon del Muerto, also known as the Canyon of the Dead according to our guide, Hadley, because of the numerous Anasazi burial sites discovered by a group of explorers probing these canyons in 1864.

As we slowly descended into the canyon with its cool, gentle breezes upon our faces, the distinctive call of the Canyon Wren in our ears, and the increasingly magnificent panoramic views opening up before our eyes, it became more and more apparent that we were entering a truly special place, a place held very sacred and dear in the hearts of its present-day Navajo inhabitants and all Navajos throughout the American Southwest.

rock rock
Spider Rock, from the canyon floor and from the rim.

We soon reached the canyon floor, removed our backpacks, and took a well deserved rest break. It was here that Hadley pointed out some smaller Anasazi cliff dwellings and storage areas high up in alcoves overlooking the canyon floor. We continued on, stopping from time to time as our guide pointed out various features in the canyon, including the massive and isolated Fortress Rock looming ahead in the distance. It was here in the winter of 1864 that a band of Navajos that had managed to escape the final sweep of the U.S. Calvary through the canyons set up a last ditch defensive position.

The Navajos managed to reach the upper part of Fortress Rock with notched tree trunk ladders they pulled up behind them as they went along.

This tactic had worked so well in the past, but the Calvary was persistent and determined this time and patiently waited until their quarry were literally starved into submission.

Fortress Rock

Thus began one of the saddest episodes in the history of these proud and determined people, who had occupied these canyons for over 200 years. In what came to be known in Navajo history as “The Long Walk”, 8,500 Navajo survivors of years of Indian War campaigns were forced to march over 300 miles of harsh terrain to Fort Sumner, New Mexico in the spring of 1864. Dozens perished along the way from malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion. When they finally reached their destination and were concentrated onto a flat, treeless reservation at Fort Sumner, hundreds more eventually succumbed to the white man’s diseases they had absolutely no resistance to.

If our government was short-sighted enough to force march these people off their lands into an alien world they could never accept, it was at least foresighted enough to eventually listen to their desperate pleas (“I hope to God you will not ask me to go to any other country except my own”—Barboncito, chief Navajo negotiator of the 1868 treaty allowing the Navajo to return) and allow them to return to their rightful home in these canyons, after four years of unimaginable hardships and depravations.

White House Ruins

Meanwhile, on a lighter note, down by the south forty it seems that a couple of our hikers got just a little too familiar, for their own darned good, with some of the local fencing materials. Actually, there was a real pasture with a real dead rotting and decaying cow carcass, added, I suppose, for that extra special touch of realism. Several times along the trail we had to cross a fence line, which usually meant removing our backpacks, going over or under the fence or squeezing between the last fence post and a rock wall, then packing back up on the other side.

At about the second or third fence crossing, as young Alex Carpenter was trying to navigate over the fence with assistance from some hikers on the other side, his pants got hung up on the barbed wire, and he started to go acrobatic on us, performing an almost perfect 180 degree flip – head pointed to the ground and feet pointed skyward. Fortunately, Hadley, also on the other side, was able to reach out and grab Alex, easing him down sunny side up on top of his backpack. Alex giggled at his predicament and, once again in the upright position, was okay and probably more amused and maybe just a bit embarrassed than anything from the ordeal. We continued on.

Another one of our hikers, Judy Hellmer, somehow managed to get a stray piece of barbed wire wrapped around her leg, with two of the barbs (a little over a quarter inch long) penetrating deeply into her lower right leg. Dr. Tom Van Lew came to her rescue and managed to extract the barbs with a pair of pliers (ouch!), while I supplied the alcohol and bandages. Judy said she was current on her tetanus shots, so at least that was not a concern. She was a brave and uncomplaining trooper throughout the ordeal, but will unfortunately now be forever stuck with the handle “Barbed Wire Judy”, or perhaps just “Barb” for short, on any future Motorola Hiking Club hikes.

Chinle Wash

Moving along at a steady pace across the canyon floor, we began to encounter the first of what would be many crossings of the Chinle Wash, a massive drainage system that courses its way for many miles throughout these canyons.

Luckily for us, this has been a relatively dry year, and most of the wash crossings are fairly shallow, with only a few inches of water.

However, we do occasionally encounter some deeper areas that some of the shorter legged hikers cannot quite straddle or jump across, and, as a result, wind up with water seepage inside their boots. This is an definitely an occasion where it pays to be blessed with longer legs.

Navigating through this soft, sandy wash starts to take its toll on the lower leg muscles, and it seems like we have long since surpassed our original 3.5 miles, but still have some distance to cover, according to Hadley. This is where the infamous “Navajo Mile” starts to come into play. It seems that a “Navajo Mile” through the sandy Chinle Wash is actually the equivalent of two normal miles over firmer terrain, and the Navajo expression “just around the next bend” is actually the equivalent of several more bends, or approximately three fourths of a normal mile. No wonder we are all getting tired!

The Navajo people do have a subtle sense of humor, as demonstrated by Hadley, when asked why the traditional Navajo hogan has six or eight sides rather then four. His straight faced reply: “So your wife cannot corner you in the hogan.”

The traditional housing of the Navajo for centuries, hogans are largely used today for ceremonial purposes. The door always faces east, and each side has a special significance. When a family member died in the hogan, they were buried inside beneath the hogan floor.

That hogan was then abandoned, and the family built another nearby, letting nature have its way with the original one.

Navajo Hogan

The Sun is dropping lower and lower in the canyon as we make our last Chinle Wash crossing (or so we think) before reaching our Antelope House Ruin destination and nearby campsite for the night, the property of Hadley’s Uncle, Ben Teller.

Exiting Chinle Wash

Just after dropping off our packs with a collective sigh of relief, we are called together by Dr. Tom for a quick Pow-Wow.

It seems that Uncle Ben has upped the ante on the campsite to an additional $10 per person, claiming it was a recent and unexpected policy change directive from the National Park Service.

That certainly was not good news to this tired, sore, and hungry group of hikers. Hadley did come to our defense and argued on our behalf with Uncle Ben, who reluctantly agreed to compromise and lower his increase to $5 a head. This still did not sit well with us and smacked a little of greed, so a group decision was made to saddle up and backtrack about a half mile (real mile, not Navajo mile) up the trail to Hadley’s Aunt’s property, where we could stay for the originally agreed price. Chinle Wash, here we come!

By the time we reached our alternative campsite, there wasn’t much daylight left, so we all hastened to unpack our gear, set up tents, and start dinner before the last rays of the setting Sun disappeared for the evening behind the high canyon walls surrounding us. We had dinner and spent the rest of the evening sitting around a nice roaring campfire, swapping stories and a few jokes and sharing in the usual campfire camaraderie. Before long, fatigue started to sink in, and one by one (or two by two as the case may be), we began to retire to our tents for the night to enjoy blissful sleep in the wonderful silence of our dark canyon home. Most of us were startled awake sometime in the wee hours of the morning to the unearthly sound of barking, howling, and yipping reverberating and echoing up and down the canyon walls for miles. What the ...?? It seems that the canyon’s dog and coyote population had decided it was time for an early Sunday morning jam session! Those guys did do a pretty good job of harmonizing.

The Sun’s early morning rays broke softly over the canyon walls, as we scurried about making breakfast, breaking up camp, and packing up our gear for the days hike back to the canyon rim. We had originally planned on an eight mile return hike, much of it through the sandy and slogging Chinle Wash, but decided on the shorter, but steeper, Bare Trail to save time and conserve energy, not to mention our dwindling water supplies that would not have lasted eight miles for most of us. Hadley’s sister, Cynthia, was kind enough to relieve us of our heavy backpacks and drive them back to our Cottonwood Campsite on the rim. This would make climbing back out on the relatively steep Bare Trail much easier and safer, with lighter day packs containing only food and water.

We soon made our way back to Antelope House Ruin, one of the largest Anasazi ruins in Canyon del Muerto. The early morning rays of sunlight softly lit up the ruins and fired the imagination, as we stood in awe and wonder of these long vanished people and the splendid legacy they left behind. If you have the time to stop for a few moments, close your eyes, and let your imagination run free and wild. Let the inner child in you take control again, if only for a moment. You can almost hear the laughter of small children at play, the barking of frolicking dogs, and the voices of a busy people going about their daily activities. You can almost smell the morning cooking fires, heating up the first meal of the day. In your mind’s eye you can start to see these people, their children, their dogs and other animals – all engaged in the normal hustle and bustle of the daily activities and routines of a thriving community. Then ... Silence ... Emptiness. A great void that would last for centuries. Where did it all go wrong?

The very name Anasazi, referred to as “The Ancient Ones” by the Navajo people, has a certain ring of mystery and enchantment to it. These are a people who lived and thrived in these great canyons, as well as throughout the American Southwest, for nearly a thousand years, before mysteriously vanishing from the scene around 1300 AD for no readily apparent reasons.

Antelope House Ruin

Drought?, Disease?, Warfare?, Famine? We will probably never know for certain. We can only marvel at the legacy of their resourcefulness and imagination, as demonstrated in the numerous and often magnificent cliff dwellings, pictographs, and petroglyphs they left behind in their departure from these canyons so many centuries ago.

As we criss-cross through Chinle Wash, slowly threading our way through this great canyon to our exit point at Bare Trail, Hadley relates the story of Massacre Cave, yet another tragic episode in a long line of tragedies that have befallen the Navajo people. The Navajo had long been suffering at the hands of the Spanish, when sometime during the long, cold winter of 1804-1805 a group of Navajos, trying to escape their tormentors, took refuge on a high ledge on the North Rim of Canyon del Muerto. This site had afforded them ample protection many times in the past, when their enemies had only rocks and bows and arrows to attack them, but would, tragically, fail them this time.

The Spanish now had a new weapon, the much more deadly and accurate long rifle. At their strategic position high on the rim, looking almost directly down on the ledge and its unfortunate inhabitants huddled behind and among the large boulders for safety, they unmercifully cut loose with a volley of rifle fire that must have echoed for miles up and down these canyon walls. When the guns finally fell silent, and the smoke and haze began to clear, a horrifying scene began to emerge out of the chaos below – the bloodied and battered bodies of 115 men, women, and children lay slumped and scattered among the confusion of boulders and rubble, many of them killed by ricocheting bullets flying crazily around in what became their deathtrap. This site later became known as Massacre Cave, and is one of the most sacred of all sites to the Navajo people throughout the Southwest.

another tragic episode

Finally, after a few more promises of “just around the next bend” from our trusty guide, Hadley, and a final crossing of Chinle Wash, we approached our exit point out of Canyon del Muerto: Bare Trail. Some of us no doubt stood with jaws dropped and eyes widened, wondering to ourselves – you have got to be kidding, this is really a trail? Actually, it bore a rather striking resemblance to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. They don’t call this Bare Trail for nothing. It appears to be nothing more than sheer, bare rock rising higher and higher in the distance. We can’t even begin to see the rim from here. This seems to be an ideal trail for mountain goats, with the first few sections approaching a 45 degree slope. It is definitely not for the timid or faint-hearted, which of course did not include any of this intrepid group of trailblazers.

Grimly, but determined, we followed our guide’s lead (he had not yet let us down) and slowly inched our way up the first slope. It was actually not quite as bad as it first looked, with strategically placed hand and foot holds for support. With a good, sturdy pair of boots, the rough sandstone surface made for excellent gripping. Judy Hellmer expressed some initial concerns about being fearful of heights and falling (I believe we all had some concerns in that area) and was a bit slow on the initial slopes, but, to her credit, she shortly overcame these fears and was keeping up with and even passing others on the way up to the rim – somewhere up there in the distance.

Yes, it can be done.
Exiting the canyon at Bare Trail.

We slowly conquered one rise at a time, climbing steadily higher and higher as we made our way out of the canyon and watched the canyon floor grow more and more distant beneath our feet. One more rest stop, one more final push, and we were back on top of the rim by 1:30 PM, we had all made it out without incident. What a rush, what a great feeling of accomplishment!

We had seen and experienced, with every one of our senses, more of this canyon (and certainly learned more through our very informative guide, Hadley) in the past twenty-four hours than most people will in a lifetime. It has all been nothing short of an incredible experience that we canyon trekking veterans can share among ourselves for the rest of our days in this special corner of the world called Arizona.

View of canyon floor and Navajo homestead.
A special note of thanks goes out to Dawn Lavigne for her hard work and dedication in researching and organizing this trip, Tom and Jeannie Van Lew for their help in providing missing pieces of information for this report, Ben Velasquez for driving us to the trailhead, Hadley’s sister, Cynthia, and Frank Carpenter’s wife, Donna, for picking us up right on schedule as we came out of the canyon, and last, but certainly not least, our wonderful and highly informative guide, Hadley Tsosie, for sharing with us the history and lore of this canyon country and its past inhabitants, the history and stories and legends of the proud and invincible Navajo Nation, and this very canyon home itself of the Navajo people, the magnificent and unforgettable Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
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updated January 20, 2020