Tuesday 5 June 2012

Canyon de Chelly adventure

The Canyon de Chelly is not the most famous of the Canyons, nor is it the largest or the deepest, but it is one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America and it preserves ruins of the early indigenous tribes that lived in the area. You can do guided tours into the canyon or drive along the rim to look down at a few of the ruins and landscapes, but you can not drive in there like you can in most national parks, so when our friends from Jeepexpeditions.org planned another expedition into the canyon, Maarten and I wanted to be part of this unique adventure. So we packed our bags and took the plane from Amsterdam to sunny Phoenix Arizona to meet Mike Fissel and his Green Jeep TJ.

Of course it was sunny in Phoenix: locals complained of 108F temperatures during the day. We didn't mind the heat at all and a day was spent buying supplies and getting used to the Arizona pace while driving our rental Ford, soon nicknamed the "Hearse".When the great day arrived we piled up in the TJ. This car must be referred to as the "Burro" as it was heavily loaded with camping gear and food on the roof and on a tray suspended from the sturdy "receiver hitch" at the rear.
We were treated to a scenic route to the canyon. We drove in caravan with several club members. North on the 87, to veer off the tarmac to enjoy the beautiful Forest Service road 82 through the Cococino forest. We paused for a look at the  amazing Meteor crater near Winslow.
There was a fierce wind blowing at the crater so the tours were canceled, but we could still walk the lower platforms and gaze at the big hole created by the impact of a small meteorite about 45.000 years ago.(Meteorcrater.com).
Next we took the I40 and 180 to the Southern entrance to the Petrified forest, where we made a few short hikes amongst the petrified logs.Later the afternoon sun cast a beautiful light on the rocks of the painted desert.

Of course we could have spent days there, but our main goal was the Canyon de Chelly, so after a good meal at a very scenic restaurant(for sale) at the 190 we followed that same road into the night. Towards Chinle, our main port into the canyon. The wind was still blowing, so we were happy have our room in the Motel.

Before we would rendezvous with our Navajo guides the group visited Three turkey ruins overlook. On the way back into Chinle the wind increased to quite a sandstorm. When we arrived into town visibility was down to zero, so we stopped at a petrol station. Later we found that most windscreens of the Jeeps in our group had severely pitted and even some driving lights were damaged by flying debris. Later we met our guides at the visitor center and we drove into the canyon to our specially reserved camping spot right next to the Antelope house ruins
The guides told us to pitch our tent in a large rock cave, but some of our group didn't trust the allotted space because of the huge mass of rock looming over the site and some cracks in the rock face. The Navajo showed us that most of the falling rocks actually fell outside the cave, so finally all our tents were pitched in the sheltered space of the cave. I think it's worth mentioning that the acoustics of the cave must have made our snoring concert audible in Chinle, even though we were a fair distance away by now.
The next few days we explored the canyon with our Navajo guides lead by the very knowledgeable Harris Hardy of Antelope house. They showed us that the Northern Canyon is actually called Canyon Del Muerto, they took us to Massacre cave and told us the story about the Spanish soldiers firing upon the Navajo in 1803, the Mummy cave ruins where you find the one of the largest settlements in the canyon. The ruins are named after two mummies that were discovered by an archaelogical expedition in 1882.

We drove past the ruins in Canyon Del Muerto on some beautiful trails beyond the reach of most tours, so we had a truly special view of the canyon. Sadly on the way out we reached the scene of an accident where a "Shake and Bake" tour truck had run off the road and rolled down the bank.
As the road was blocked we had to wait a while until the emergency vehicles had all arrived and a helicopter had picked up the severely wounded. Even though I didn' t walk down the path to look at the wreck, the looks on the faces of the rescuers made us fear for the tourists. Later we heard there had been several wounded and one fatality. Needless to say that our drive back to the campsite was quite subdued.

Back at the campsite the guides provided us with firewood and made us a good campfire. Then head-guides Adam and Ben Teller found time to tell us some good stories, like the story of Spider Woman , the Hero Twins and how the chipmunk got his mask.
Next morning we drove to Black rock Canyon to see the Navajo Fortress. This a large rock made famous as being the place where the last of the Navajo held out against the US Cavalry in 1864. After this, on our last day, we went into the actual Canyon de Chelly, were we saw places like First Ruin, and the White House Ruin with it's golden-white finish. Next, we drove up to Spider rock to enjoy the view from below. 
We finished our tour of the Canyon with a scenic trail a little farther into the canyon before we returned to Chinle, looking back on a very special Jeep expedition with many highlights to remember. 

From Chinle we drove back to Phoenix. As we still had a few days before our flight to Amsterdam, there was time for a roadtrip via the Casa Grande ruins to Tuscon to see the wonderful Pima Air and Space Museum next to the famous "Desert boneyard".
To get back to Phoenix from Tuscon we took the scenic route to Globe and Roosevelt Lake and dam. For a last fix 0f dirt road we took the magnificent "Apache Trail" to  Tortilla Flat and Apache Junction. 
Even though this is a well used road it still is unpaved most of the way while the scenery shows a wonderful mixture of desert plants, like saguaro cacti, cholla, agave, yucca and a winding mountain trail with blue lakes shimmering in the distance.
The last attraction we visited on this trip was the museum of the Commemorative Air Force at Falcon Field in Phoenix.This is A private museum with a stunning collection of historic airplanes and friendly volunteers who often are pilots too. Quite a few of the exhibits are in flying condition even though polished to a showroom shine.
Back in Phoenix we prepared ourselves for the long flight home and thought about our trip. The Canyon de Chelly was the main reason for coming of course. And it turned out to be a very good reason too. Thanks to the Jeepexpeditions team and the Navajo guides we got a unique insight into the ruins, the history, the landscape and the people of this special corner of the world and special thanks to Mike as we experienced some fine Jeeping too!

You can see more pictures here
You can see recorded GPS data here