A Stolen Day at Canyon de Chelly


I was traveling six hundred feet down and a thousand years back, more or less. The trail from the rim of Canyon de Chelly to the White House Ruin begins with a series of steep switchbacks. On one side, there's a wall of rock. On the other side, if you're clumsy, there's a fall that's long enough to kill you. I watched my step.






What was I doing at Canyon de Chelly? My well-developed work ethic kept telling me that I should be in the office. But I'd had business that morning in Holbrook, Arizona. Holbrook is only a two-hour drive from the canyon. I'd never been there, and I'd decided to seize the opportunity to go.

As I made my way down, I noticed a lone tree growing against a steep canyon wall:

The canyon is a symphony of rock. The words "de Chelly," which are pronounced duh-SHAY, are thought to be a European corruption of a Navajo word meaning "rock canyon." You could say that the modern American West is all a European corruption. Some places, though, have been less corrupted than others.

Canyon de Chelly is entirely on the Navajo reservation. I was taking the only hike that outsiders can take without a Navajo guide. Towards the bottom of the trail, the switchbacks gave way to a more gradual descent. The first thing I saw at the bottom was a patch of inhabited private property that contained an old, picturesque Navajo hogan. Two signs proclaimed emphatically that photographs were not allowed. Many Navajos have a cultural aversion to being photographed, and even to having their land and dwellings photographed. Although I felt an impulse to cheat and take photographs anyway, I didn't.

A hundred yards or so to the north were the ruins.


There are a dozen major ruins in Canyon de Chelly. The experts tell us that the structures were built about a thousand years ago by the Anasazi. They abandoned the area in the thirteenth century, probably because of climate changes. They all moved to Florida and bought condos on the Gulf. Or perhaps not. No one is entirely sure what happened to the Anasazi. The Navajos arrived a few centuries after the Anasazi left. Like the Europeans, the Navajos are recent immigrants.

I spent a lot of time simply looking at the ruin, without taking photographs. You'd have to be soul-dead to look at such a place without thinking about how transitory human existence is. I wondered how they had lived and what they had dreamed of. The only answer I would get was silence.

The White House Ruin, like many ruins, wasn't easy to photograph. It's fenced off to keep the tourists at a distance, and wisely so. Because the fence was fairly high, I couldn't use the tripod I'd packed in. I had to peer over the fence and shoot hand-held. I changed lenses several times, even though the wind was kicking up lots of dust and sand. If you live in Arizona, you have to resign yourself to having a dirty sensor.

After a while, I hiked back up to the canyon rim. When I'd finished with the trial to the White House Ruin, the only thing I could do at Canyon de Chelly without hiring a guide was visit the various overlooks. They dot the highways that follow the canyon's north and south rims. An hour or so later, I was looking at the most photographed place in the canyon, Spider Rock.

I took essentially the same photograph of Spider Rock that millions of other visitors have taken. I gave some thought to returning near sunset in the hope of getting more interesting light, but the day didn't work out that way. From sunset until it was completely dark, I was photographing the canyon from other overlooks.  I was back at first light the next morning doing the same. This next photograph is probably the best of an undistinguished lot:

This image, taken at dawn, required a three-stop graduated neutral-density filter. Near sunrise and sunset, the canyon is shadowed and quite dark while the sky is very bright. Other than using a graduated neutral-density filter, the only way to get a decent photograph at those hours would be to do a lot of bracketing and combine the images. 

The biggest problem I had, though, was finding an interesting composition. Photographing from outlooks limits your compositional options and makes it almost impossible to get any foreground interest. I decided that, despite my aversion to being guided, hiring a guide is probably the only way to photograph Canyon de Chelly in a serious way. Next time. Maybe.

By 7:00 the next morning, a cold front had come through. Cold temperatures, a stiff wind and a solid overcast convinced me that it was time to leave. I started the six-hour drive back to Phoenix, and back to the deadlines, details and demands that awaited me there.

Most of us are far too good at delaying gratification  In my stolen day at Canyon de Chelly, I'd taken some time to do some living before I disappear like the Anasazi. I don't do that enough. Few of us do.

Don Peters' photographs can be found at http://cornflakeaz.smugmug.com/


Hi Don,  Enjoyed your photos and story of Canyon De Chelly.  Have been debating a trip up there as I have never  been.  I think you convinced me.  Also enjoyed your magnificent photos of Alaska.  Love it up there.  Have RVed up there five times totalling about two years of time.  Have lots of photos of lots of things but you have the expertise.  Enjoy and thanks.  

nice pix Mr. Peters, I grew up in Chinle, Az

Very nice story with your pictures, when I was younger you could walk around in de ruins but vandalism brought the fence

Hi  Don   I forgot to add this to the last msg.   I would love your permission to copy some of your shots at the canyon.  I have just started  to learn to paint and would love to try some of your photos.  I am not selling any of my work, they are just for my family to enjoy.  Please advise.  vic  and thank you 

Hi. Don Im 81 and my wife, daughter and grandaughter 11 made the triip down the canyon to the white house for my fifth time.

I and us love the canyon. It was a hot day in august, and we started late down the trail. ( My daugther was here before, twice when she was very young and I carried her down the trail on my back.  My grand daughter it was her first trip,)  my daugher and granddaughter  flew down the trail.  my granddaugher loves climing rocks and just loved it. But my wife and I who are up in age took it easy.   after a few hours at the bottom we started back up, it was a much slower pace, and thank the lord we just about made it.
this looks like my last trip walking up and down. guess we will have to take the jeep tours.

We spent the two days before at the Grand Canyon. but we love this canyon more. lts like the beauty and history of the  place over come's one.   we met a woman for germany who was taking her grand child down for the first time.  She also was here a few times and wanted to get ther grandaughter attached to the place.  It really is a place to love and respect.


Thanks for the kind words, Daisy.  I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Don, this is better than anything on the wall this Friday.  Hopefully you'll enter next year.  I love the sunrise picture and of course, the tree in the middle of so much rock.  Truly a wonderful perspective on an breathtaking place.  Thank you for sharing.


David, thank you.  It was a pleasure to be there and a pleasure to write about it and remember it.

Beautiful place Don and very nicely written and photographed