Odometer (Legend): 529,275
Odometer (ILX): 76,294
Trip Distance: 600 Miles
“It’s raining Dippin Dots!” exclaimed Roger as he tightened his hooded sweatshirt and squinted into the freezing wind gusts that were driving snow pellets toward us. As Roger and the other 5 of us carefully hiked our descent into a 700-foot-deep red rock canyon in a remote part of northeastern Arizona, we occasionally sought shelter from the elements by staying near the rock walls or underneath archways. We hadn’t anticipated those types of conditions when planning a late April hike in Arizona, but the experience was unforgettable. I wouldn’t change a thing.
For this weekend’s Drive to Five, come with me to a place that’s sacred to the Navajo Nation and is home to a rich history, dating back as far as 900 AD. It’s a place with some of the best-preserved ancient ruins in existence and contains scenery that matches the Grand Canyon in its awesomeness. I’m talking about Canyon de Chelly National Monument, an 83,000-acre site that’s visited by over 800,000 people each year. For this trip, I was accompanied by a few friends who, like me, have an appreciation for great road trips in great cars. We took three Acuras:
- My 2013 ILX 2.4 6-speed @ 75,000 miles
- Jason’s 2010 TL 6-speed @ 41,000 miles
- Joe’s 1995 Legend coupe automatic @ 161,000 miles
Let’s make sure you know how to say “Chelly” before we get too far down the road. It’s pronounced “Shay.” Though, for reasons you’ll soon see, there were a few times during the trip when I started to wonder if Canyon de Chelly ought to be called “Canyon de Chilly.” Mother Nature dished us up a generous helping of ice-cold temps, but that didn’t keep us from braving the weather and feasting our eyes on some of the earth’s finest landscapes. Canyon de Chelly was set aside in 1931 as a unit of the National Park Service.
My friend Adam and I met up with Joe and his dad, Roger, on the northeast outskirts of the Phoenix area before beginning our ascent through the Tonto National Forest on Highway 87. As quickly as we started gaining elevation toward Payson’s 5,000 feet, we were thoroughly drenched with roads that were wet enough to cause hydro-planing. We made just 3 stops on the 5-hour drive to Chinle, Arizona which is a settlement at the mouth of the canyon. Upon arriving in Chinle, Jason and Jouhl from Las Cruces, NM arrived in Jason’s black TL and completed our trio of Acuras.
One of only two “sit-down” restaurants in the entire town of Chinle, The Junction, was a great place for us all to dry out and to plan the rest of our visit to the area. We dined on authentic Navajo tacos made from homemade frybread and beans. After a check-in at the Holiday Inn, we rolled our Acura caravan into the western entrance of the monument just a bit down the road. Jason and I swapped cars for a few of those miles — that TL’s 3.7 liter V6 is a torquey monster!).
Our first stop after checking in at the visitor center was the White House Ruins viewpoint. Adam took one look at the dark clouds approaching at rapid speed from the southwest. “That’s coming this direction,” he said. Despite his warning, we prepared ourselves for the canyon’s most well-known hike and set out on a descent into its depths. Not long into our hike, the Dippin Dots came down and the wind picked up speed. Adding to those challenges, the sandstone terrain was slippery when wet and our sneakers quickly became caked in several pounds of mud. At one point, I heard Jason lose his footing in the mud from behind me. He nearly tackled me to the ground as he struggled to regain his balance, but he and his Canon SLR camera survived without a scratch. We had a good laugh about it moments afterward.
Two sandstone tunnels and a couple of bridge crossings later, we had completed the 1.25-mile one-way hike to the ruins where Anasazi people once lived from 900 to 1200 AD. The last 800 years have taken their toll on the infrastructure, slowly eroding the once-elaborate buildings and returning them to the earth, but we still got a great look at what’s left of them. A Navajo woman and her daughter were sitting near the ruins with a table where they displayed pottery and other wares for sale. We saw only one other group of hikers. I loved the canyon’s feeling of serenity and seclusion.
Our return hike was accompanied by another flurry of snowflakes, but we made it to the summit and Roger said, “According to my Fitbit, we just hiked 79 flights of stairs.” We happily took refuge in our leather-lined Acuras with heated seats and fast-acting climate control systems. Aside from a few photo-ops at other viewpoints along the two-lane canyon road, we had a much-needed low-key evening in Chinle.
Today, Joe and his dad departed for Flagstaff in the early morning hours, while Adam, Jason, Jouhl and I went back for a peek at the North Rim of the canyon. The views were stunning, just as I knew they’d be. Soon it was time to part ways and return to our respective homes. Adam and I made just one stop on our 300-mile trip back to Scottsdale. Thanks to now-sunny weather, the drive was enjoyable and passed by quickly. I hope you enjoy the photos and video!
Adam and Tyson en route.
After meeting up with Joe. By the time we got to Payson, we both said, “What’s up with this weather?”
Pouring rain as seen from the hotel lobby in Chinle, Arizona.
First stop: Food, of course.
Authentic Navajo Taco on frybread. It tasted amazing.
Jason and Jouhl showed up to join the party.
Checking at the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center, we were warned about “Hazardous Weather.” But that didn’t stop us.
Lining up for a beauty shot at the White House Ruins trailhead.
The view as we began the descent on our hike.
Winding our way down the 700-foot drop-off via switchbacks and tunnels that hugged the side of the mountain.
Passing through one of the tunnels.
And coming out the other end.
Roger, Joe, Jouhl, Jason making their way down the trail.
We saw patches of blue sky. It looks a lot warmer than it really was!
Muddy shoes and chilly winds, but 360-degree scenery made up for all that.
Crossing a bridge.
Group photo at the White House Ruins: Roger, Joe, Jouhl, Jason, Adam, Tyson
A Navajo woman and her daughter selling jewelry and pottery. Notice: They do take Visa and Mastercard!
Back at the trailhead for some photos with the Acuras and their owners.
Let’s get a move on!
Here’s what the view from that sheer cliff looked like. The vertical lines along the canyon walls are called “desert varnish.”
Adam, Joe, Roger, Tyson, Jouhl, Jason
Last viewpoint for the day: Tsegi Overlook
Sunday morning: The clouds had parted but the cold temps remained.
Back into the monument for a few more viewpoints.
This Navajo vendor displayed her jewelry on the hood of her Ford Taurus and secured it with cords and rocks to keep the wind from carrying it away.
Mummy Cave Overlook.
Antelope House Overlook
Side note: Did you know that the Navajo tribe taxes virtually everything? Our meal last night had “Tribal Tax” tacked on.
And the fuel pump at Chevron had a “Navajo Nation Fuel Excise Tax.” Interesting.
The return drive to the Phoenix area looked a whole lot different than the rain-soaked outbound trip.
Thanks for coming along!