Tales of exotic adventures, humorous anecdotes,
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The early morning light filtered downcanyon. So did the smell of coffee, my coffee, a mug of happiness to complement spreading sunshine on sandstone walls. In Navajoland's sweaty summertime, it's best to start your day early.
Our host, Spider Rock Campground owner Howard Smith, handed us a map for our self-guided exploration to a few little-known, well-hidden, but enchanting side canyons, tributaries to Canyon de Chelley itself. Only campground visitors may use this trail.
We picked our way carefully down the the tan-and-buff sloped slickrock to the sandy Cherry Canyon wash, a secluded two-mile pinyon pine and sagebrush wonderland. The wash ended suddenly, at dizzying viewpoint high above its junction with Canyon de Chelley. A perfect picnic spot for our small group of weekenders from the Flagstaff Outdoor Club. From there we climbed up to the east rim and wandered back to our campsite along breezy, white slickrock terraces.
Spider Rock Campground is Dineh (Navajo)-owned. We had greater privacy than we would have at the free government campground, the use of hot solar showers ($2.00 a head), and the sense of living close to another culture's reality. When we arrived late on a Friday, right away we were asked to be respectful and quiet. The sound of chanting, of drums, and the flicker of firelight through the juniper accompanied our camp-making preparations. Smith explained there was a ceremony going on.
"What kind of ceremony?" we asked.
"Oh, just Navajos having a good time," he replied mysteriously.
Since the campground was a private enterprise, we were allowed a fire at night - a nice treat in fire-restricted northern Arizona. And throughout the weekend, the strains of native American flute music wafted across camp.
A mid-day siesta was our smartest option after the hike. We parked camp chairs and coolers beneath the dark shade of a large, benificent juniper, told stories, lazed about and drowsed in the heat. Flute music floated through the heat waves.
By late afternoon it finally cooled down. We'd recovered our wits enough to take a self-guided driving tour along the overlooks.
Our second morning found us on our own, sans guide, which left us but one legal hiking option: the steep trail to White House Ruins. Again, we made sure to get an early start in order to beat the heat.
The trail drops 600 feet in short order. We stepped through the dark tunnel at the top, to enter a world of narrow red sandstone switchbacks. The sun had yet to breach the inner canyon and we enjoyed the damp coolness down the well-worn stone path. A second tunnel, at the bottom of the descent, introduced us to yet another landscape: one of green cottonwoods, scented tamarisks, and huge Russian Olive trees. One shady glen led to the bridge over Chinle Creek (dry, this summer). A short walk through the sand ended at the White House Anasasi cliff dwelling.
Admittedly, there are nicer ruins to see up close, and this one is barricaded behind barbed wire. But the hike itself is so enjoyable, as are the peek-a-boo glimpses into modern Dineh life, that the 2.5 mile round-trip is well worth the two-hour detour. One important caveat: keep off this trail in the heat of the day! And always carry drinking water.
Back at the car, we were loath to leave, and drove along the North Rim to see Canyon del Muerto. Translated as the Canyon of Death, we found the named overlooks fit the theme: Mummy Cave Overlook, Massacre Cave Overlook. All were worth seeing. Muerto offers more views of ancient Puebloan dwellings than the panoramic overlooks on the South Rim Drive, and each ruin bears its own story.
At Antelope House Overlook, our general inquisitiveness was noted by a Dineh local, who casually offered to show us some nearby pictographs. Our guide (who asked not to be named) led us to a hidden cave full of ancient Anasasi handprints. We saw potsherds and the remains of old yucca sandals. "I played here as a kid," he told us. He posed for photos by a huge petrified log, and handed me a tiny piece of petrified agate to remember him by. We tipped him $15 for his guide services.
"Come back often," he invited.
just might. There's a completely different world
to see, next time, inside the canyon.
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