A short hike to the White House Ruin in Canyon De Chelly National Monument – this is the only trail you’re allowed to do here without a guide.
White House Ruin Trail Guide
MAP: road map of Navajo and Hopi Nations
PERMITS: none for this hike, no entrance fees
DESIGNATION: National Monument, Navajo Nation
BEST SEASONS: year-round
DISTANCE: 1.3 miles one-way
WATER: seasonal Chinle Wash, but carry your own.
ELEVATION: trailhead ~6,200ft / canyon floor ~5,600ft
ACCESS: paved roads
DIRECTIONS: drive 7 miles east of Chinle, Arizona on Route 7 to the trailhead at White House Overlook. The phrase “White House Overlook” registers in Google Maps.
ROUTE: Well maintained, wide trail descends 600ft to the floor of Canyon de Chelly, where the White House Ruin is located on the far side of the canyon. Popular trail is not too steep despite the elevation change.
GUIDEBOOK: Canyon de Chelly: Its People & Rock Art
Canyon De Chelly Background
This is a unique place.
Located in the heart of today’s Navajo Nation, it’s thought that people have lived continuously for over 5,000 years at Canyon de Chelly.
Here, Native Americans still go on living their day-to-day lives, with active farms and homesteads in what is technically a National Monument.
Established in 1931, the National Monument was designated as a means to protect the area’s rich archaeologic history.
Brief Info for a Typical Visit
Since there are homes all throughout these canyons, the great majority of land below the rim is off-limits without a hired guide.
As a result, a typical visit consists of hiking to the White House Ruin and meandering in your vehicle to the various overlooks along the rim of the canyons.
There’s a scenic drive (route 7) along what’s referred to as the South Rim of Canyon de Chelly. This is where the White House Trail is located.
Another road runs along the North Rim of the equally impressive Canyon del Muerto.
Within the boundaries of the Monument there’s a nice Visitor Center and campground called Cottonwood Campground, which holds true to its name with plenty of its namesake trees.
Immediately outside of the park boundary is a private campground called Spider Rock Campground, where you can try staying in a traditional Navajo Hogan.
The nearby town of Chinle has a couple of chain hotels.
How do I pronounce that?
“Chelly” is pronounced as “shay.”
If you’d like to dig deeper beyond the White House Trail and rim overlooks, here’s a list of guides that operate within the monument.
Tours are available on foot, equestrian, and jeep.
These pinnacles are the centerpiece of the south rim overlooks. They’re called Spider Rocks, and home of the Spider Woman as told in traditional stories.
The scenic drive along the south rim ends here, but the canyons continue into a mysterious distance.
I like the way the majority of the canyon is off-limits to your casual visitor. It lends an air of mystery and authenticity to the land.
More About the Rim Overlooks
Numerous designated viewpoints look down on the canyon, featuring rock formations and distant perspectives of other ruins.
It’s a great idea to bring your binoculars!
Similar to your more classic National Parks, some of the overlooks have interpretive signs about the local sites and history. Here’s a sampling of one:
HOUSE UNDER THE ROCK
Discovery of two well-preserved mummies led members of an 1880 archaeological expedition to call this site Mummy Cave. The traditional Navajo name for this impressive setting is Tseyaa Kini – House Under the Rock. Anasazi lived hear for nearly a thousand years – perhaps the longest occupied Anasazi site in the canyon.
The large rooms and masonry of the central tower area are Mesa Verde in style and contrast with the coarser construction in the smaller rooms at either side. This dramatic evidence suggests that people from teh Mesa Verde area may have moved into Canyon de Chelly sometime around AD 1280.
THE PLACE WHERE TWO FELL OFF
Spanish soldiers may have fired from this very site during the infamous “massacre” of 1805. Their Navajo targets were huddled in the alcove below and to the left.
Spanish accounts describe a day-long battle against Indians “…entrenched in an almost inaccessible point…” and the killing of 90 warriors and 25 women and children. The Navajo, however, say many men were away hunting at the time. Thus the dead were mostly women, children, and old men who sought refuge from the invaders.
The Navajo call the alcove Adah Aho’doo’nili – Two Fell Off – referring to a brave Navajo woman who grappled with a soldier and tumbled to her death, dragging the enemy with her.
Hiking to the White House Ruin
(my trip notes and photos)
Here’s a collection of photos from the trail, shot on February 12, 2010.
The sign says 1.5 miles, two-hour hike, no pets, take water.
14 switchbacks lead to the floor of the canyon.
Cold cottonwoods sleep through winter’s chill.
Chinle Wash flows well with plenty of snowmelt.
the White House Ruin
It’s thought that the site was occupied for about 200 years, beginning in 1060 AD.
It’s also thought that there could have been as many as 80 rooms and 4 kivas here (a kiva is gathering room used for meetings and ceremonies).
This winter visit was especially quiet and peaceful. Rather than “hitting” a tourist destination, I enjoyed a sense of meandering through someone’s vast backyard.
A fun anecdote that I’ll never forget from this trip was getting caught in traffic one evening in a small town on the reservation. When I say “traffic,” I mean stopped cars, bumper to bumper, as far as the eye could see. It felt like I was leaving a stadium after a rock concert or professional sports game.
My guess wasn’t far off – the traffic was the post-game rush after a local high school’s basketball playoff!
On this trip I also took the opportunity to drive through the heart of the Hopi Mesas. I got a sense of the landscape but must admit that I didn’t get out of my vehicle in any of the villages. This was not because of a naive fear for personal safety, but rather a sense of being intrusive and unprepared with limited time.
In closing, here’s a random roadside view of the Nation’s unspoiled landscape.