Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Canyon De Chelly: The White House Ruins

     Canyon De Chelly National Monument is located in a remote corner of Arizona, in the Navajo Nation.  Native Americans have been living among this canyon for more than 5,000 years; it is one of the longest continual inhabitations in North America.  As you drive along the Rim Road, you pass modern homes of the Navajo.  There are a few that still live inside the canyon itself, farming and raising livestock, yards away from the ruins that add to the park's cultural splendor. 

     You will need a Navajo Guide to tour the canyon floor.  There are a range of expeditions offered, from a minimum of four hours to overnight camping tours.  The Navajo will you take you to some of their most sacred places to see petroglyphs, caves, and ruins.  

     If you don’t have time or money for a guide, and you are yearning to experience the bottom of the canyon, all is not lost.  There is one hike, a 3 mile round-trip, 600 foot decent to the White House Ruins.  You may do this hike on your own, without a guide.  

     This is the hike that we decided to do.  Not just because it was free, but because I’ve always wanted to see the White House Ruins after being influenced by Ansel Adams’ famous photographs from the 1930's and 40's.

     The hike down to the White House ruins starts out with a decline on slick rock, followed by a short tunnel, and then a series of switchbacks that quickly lead you to the canyon floor.  Here is a view from about half-way down, with a small cave in the foreground:

     A wide-angle view from a little further on down the trail: 

     Once you’re at the bottom of the canyon, it’s another atmosphere entirely from what you experienced at the top.  There is a different sort of breeze; it's slower somehow.  It’s warmer.  The trees swish around luxuriously, creating moving shadows on the ground.  The canyon walls stretch up on either side of you, marked and striped by the decades of water trickling down their sides.  You can hear horses and the sounds of the Navajo setting up their tables and crafts.  You will cross a sandy footbridge, and follow the stream until you’re at the base of the White House Ruins.

     Standing  before the Ruins is a giant cottonwood whose roots twisted above ground, making for the perfect place to sit, rest, and admire the surroundings after an invigorating hike.  This is the view from right where I sat, staring at the Ruins as the cottonwood swayed in the wind above me:

     The White House Ruins, an ancient Anasazi dwelling built as early as 350 AD.  Above it towers a 1,000 foot smooth cliff face.  The sounds of horses, tourists, and the Navajo echo from the darkness inside the Ruins:

     We sat at the bottom of the canyon next to the Ruins for as long as possible, until the sun started sinking in the sky.  It was November 1st, 2012, and the fall colors were at their peak.  I’ve never seen such beautiful golden leaves.

     The return hike is considerably more difficult than the hike down, so be prepared for it to take longer, and bring water.

     The South Rim Drive leads you to many stunning overlooks.  As you stand on the edge, you look 1,000 feet below to a picturesque valley.  There is an ancient stream which weaves through the canyon floor like a silky ribbon, lining it on either side are the cottonwood trees.  You will see small houses, farms, horses.  Hidden in the canyon walls are over 700 ruins of the ancient Pueblo people who have made their homes here for thousands of years.  Their spirit lingers and fills this vastly untouched landscape.

     Standing on the edge of one of my favorite overlooks, the sun just setting beyond orange rock, looking down to the twilit ground below:

     Spider Rock Campground is located barely a mile outside of official park boundaries along Indian Route 7.  The two times we have visited this park, this is where we have stayed, and we’ve been extremely pleased each time.  This campground has no amenities but its sites are big, separated by Juniper Pines, picnic tables, and fire rings.  We’ve had the whole place to ourselves both times, granted we were visiting during the offeasons, but I get the impression that this is a quiet sort of place in general.  The site is only 10 dollars.  

     It wasn’t even 30 degrees, and the November night arrived early.  We kept warm by taking some photos of the stars.  Here is one of our tent, lit up from inside by a lantern:

     Some thin clouds came sweeping across the sky, absorbing the light from the small town of Chinle beyond.  The moon had yet to rise so I still managed a glimpse of the milky way.

     What else is there to do on a cold, cold night when it’s too early to snuggle down in your sleeping bag and all you have is your camera and a flashlight?  Play some long-exposure games...

     Me dancing around: 

     Brett’s out-of-body experience:

     Milky-way gazing:

     Light-writing under the stars.  

     The next morning it was straight to Spider Rock, packing up in the half-darkness, still not warm from our incompetent sleeping bags and summer tent after sleeping in a 25 degree night.  I probably don’t need to tell you that it was worth it, though.

     Spider Rock is a free standing 800 foot tall spire that leaps straight up from the canyon floor, with the stream caressing it on one side and open canyon views all around it.  

     Spider Rock holds a legend for the Navajo people.  From this rock came the Navajo's ability to weave.  Spider Woman was the first to weave her web of the universe and was the one who taught the Navajo how to create beauty in their own life by "teaching the balance of mind, body, and soul".

     Spider Rock is beautiful in the early morning light, before the sun's rays have yet to cross over canyon walls.  In the Southwest, I have learned that this can be the very best time to photograph the many canyons.  The light quality is soft and filled with the unique hues of purple and pink, when there are no bright rays to compete with yet.

     Notice how the light inside the canyon changes the minute the sun strikes the horizon:

     Our star:

     Sun flare over Canyon de Chelly and Spider Rock:

     Once the sun is up, it officially feels like a new day.  These desert plants clinging to the sheer cliffside, are illuminated with golden light, the same light that is hitting the canyon walls beyond Spider Rock.  This was my last sunrise in the American Southwest before heading on East, home to Iowa.  There is nowhere else I'd rather spend my last sunrise than Canyon De Chelly.  It is an emotional place, one that seems to be filled with some kind of magic.  It's a feeling that isn't easily described in words, but through talking with several people who have also been there, they felt the same sort of sensation, as though time were standing still.

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