One of the best parts of taking a long and mostly aimless road trip around America is that you encounter some huge and amazing things that, while the locals all know it well, are mostly unknown to most people. The sorts of things that make you say, “How have I never heard of this?!” That’s what happened when Masayo and I found ourselves at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeast Arizona.
Have you ever heard of Canyon de Chelly? I’ve driven across the country a few times before, and I love looking at maps and seeing what exists out there – but I never noticed anything called Canyon de Chelly.
Fortunately I was able to remedy that deficiency after we drove away from Mesa Verde National Park, through the Four Corners Monument, and scooted down a lonesome and astonishing highway through Arizona. Gorgeous red mesas sat mutely, near and far from the road, and the highway rose and fell on curves that each revealed a new and unexpected sight. It was definitely a top highlight of this long road trip.
And so we had seen quite a lot even before reaching the town of Chinle, where a spur road goes off to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. But I had no idea that the canyon would be as nice as it was.
Canyon de Chelly is a perfect canyon. Every view is magnificent, every undulation of the gigantic rock walls unable to be bettered. The colors, even in the high afternoon, shone in golden oranges and bursts of green. A thin little ribbon of brown river wound along the wide and flat canyon floor, nourishing the houses that still dot the bowls of the canyon and offering a contrast with the dry heat of the vast vertical walls.
There are two roads you can drive along to see the canyon, one to the north and one to the south. We chose the south since the friendly and enthusiastic ranger at the visitor center said it would be nicer and it ended at the tall, thin towers of Spider Rock.
We chose our path well. Stopping at every viewpoint, we hopped around the rim taking photos of every angle, daring to peer over the edge and soaking in the warm Arizona sun. And every viewpoint seemed to improve on the previous: Canyon de Chelly just got better and better. Fortunately, despite today being Memorial Day, there were very few other tourists; we basically had the Monument to ourselves.
After finally seeing Spider Rock – really the perfect finale for the day – we turned around where the road turns to gravel and headed back. Free-range horses sat in a group on the side of the road, grazing and waiting patiently for us to pass and return the quiet to their afternoon.
I don’t really know what the difference between a National Park and a National Monument is. But, like Organ Pipe Cactus NM, I see no reason that Canyon de Chelly NM shouldn’t be upgraded to a full Park. It’s beautiful, it’s full of human history, and the infrastructure there is useful but tasteful. Whatever its classification, the canyon is worth an hours-long side trip or even a trip all by itself from wherever you are. It’s spectacular – and nobody has ever heard of it.
What's the best obscure place you've visited?
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