I pat my horse — named Diamond for the patch of white on the bridge of its nose — and look at my Navajo guide, James.
“How far could I ride up this canyon,” I ask, “if I had the time and money?”
James stops stroking the horse’s hindquarters for a moment to consider this. “Well… we can do three weeks easy, maybe a month. You could go longer, too. This land goes all the way up to Colorado.”
I hadn’t been expecting this answer. I’d figured James might say that a person could stay overnight in the canyon or even stretch it into a three-day experience. Not a month. Having road tripped through much of the Southwest — visiting Monument Valley, Valley of the Gods, Mexican Hat, and Havasu Falls each multiple times — I knew the region was big, but 27,000 square miles is a lot to fathom. That’s larger than West Virginia. It’s the size of Hawaii, New Jersey, and Connecticut combined.
Though I can be forgiven for misjudging Navajo Country’s size, on some level I feel like I should have expected James’s answer. Because if there’s anything that my travels have taught me about the “Four Corners” region — where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado meet — it’s that it should never be underestimated. It’s rich in scenery and culture, its foodway is returning, and it’s got waterfalls, hot springs, massive red rock monoliths galore. In short, it’s one of the greatest travel desinations in the United States.
Yet even for all the region’s vastness, Canyon de Chelly, near Chile, Arizona, is wholy unique. It’s a singular adventure that feels deeply tied not just to the history of this nation but the history of humanity at large. If you’re ready for your own Canyon de Chelly experience, we’re ready to get you set up:
HOW TO EXPLORE
To see Canyon de Chelly right, you need to rent a horse. The Navajo-bred ponies — many of which still roam free in the canyon — are what makes this adventure so iconic. The horses can be rented right at the mouth of the canyon, not far from Chinle, Arizona. There are a few companies that lead horseback tours, accompanied by a Navajo guide, but Justin’s Horse Ranch probably has the best claim. The entrance to the canyon is right off their corral.
Though being a serious rider isn’t mandatory, this is a great place to know your way around a horse. If you talk with your guides beforehand and make sure they match you up with a bold horse, you can gallop through the stream in the center of the canyon with Hopi cliff dwellings on either side of you. The feeling of water splashing up on your legs, the horse’s long strides, the sun shining on the green meadows, and the history that surrounds you all conspire together to create a truly rare experience.
IF YOU CAN’T RENT A HORSE: There are also guided Jeep tours and hikes led by National Park Service guides. You can even use your own 4WD, if you hire a Navajo guide to ride along with you. If you don’t feel able to get down into the canyon, driving the north and south rim is still stunning. Spider Rock — a red rock monolith — is famous as a golden hour Instagram spot (see below).