Welcome to my article on Canyon de Chelly National Monument. My name is Jonathan. I grew up in Virginia and currently live in Los Angeles. I started photography four years ago when I wanted to get better images from my hiking adventures, as there was only so much I could do with a phone.
I have owned compact point-and-shoot cameras in the past and (being a minimalist) the thought of hauling a heavy DSLR on steep mountain hikes was not appealing to me. During a trip to Yosemite after quitting my previous job due to stress, I noticed my friend carrying a compact camera with a detachable lens. She told me that it was a mirrorless camera.
After doing research and discussing it with my cousin who recently started photography, I bought a Sony A6000 with a kit lens. Since I was in between jobs, I had plenty of time to travel and practice with the new camera.
Instead of just using my camera to document my excursions, I started doing more of the opposite – going to specific locations with the purpose of capturing photos. I consider my style fine art landscape. This includes cityscapes, sun and moon alignments, seascapes, long exposures, timelapses and astro-landscapes. You can see my photos at @jonhuynh1.
Special Day at Canyon de Chelly
After I quit my job and took time off to travel and reset my health/mind, my next job took me to Arizona for a year and a half. I spent weekends exploring the beautiful, diverse state or traveling to nearby states.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument was the first part of a four day road trip over Thanksgiving Weekend. The remaining stops on the road trip were Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah), Goosenecks State Park (Utah) Valley of the Gods (Utah), Monument Valley (Utah/AZ) and Sedona (AZ).
I spent ten hours at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, arriving about an hour before sunrise to scout along the canyon rim for a photo composition. Before the trip, I did some online research and used different tools (Google Maps, Google Earth and The Photographer’s Ephemeris) to get an idea of which areas I wanted to be during different parts of the day.
After sunrise, I headed to the nearby town of Chinle to grab breakfast. A couple of my friends from California joined me in the afternoon for a really nice hike down into the canyon to see ancient cliff dwellings and ruins.
The remaining time was spent visiting the different overlooks along the rim which were all beautiful. A storm was approaching and the light intermittently piercing through the clouds into the canyon was beautiful.
Favorite Place at Canyon de Chelly – Spider Rock
My favorite place at Canyon de Chelly National Monument was Spider Rock. It’s a really cool place because of the unique shape. Spider Rock looks like two gigantic chimney towers. I would like to return and photograph the rock under different conditions. I can imagine a light dusting of snow on the canyon floor in the winter or more water in the river after heavy rain.
Best Things To Do at Canyon de Chelly
Spider Rock was my favorite place at Canyon de Chelly. I recommend this place first. Then I suggest visiting the North Rim which overlooks in the morning and the South Rim which overlooks in the afternoon. This optimizes your time, since photos definitely look better during those times.
Hiking down to the White House Ruins (on the trail with the same name) allows you to get close to ancient cliff dwellings. This is a wonderful experience for those who love history and architecture. Then, if you have time (which I didn’t), take a guided tour – hiking, horseback or vehicle – to access restricted areas inside the canyon for an immersive experience.
Where to Stay near the Canyon
I arrived the night before at Canyon de Chelly and stayed at the Cottonwood Campground near the entrance. I just needed a place to rest since I woke up early to drive into the park for sunrise. Spider Rock Campground is another option. The town nearby has some nice motels. I recommend the campgrounds when the weather suits.
Places to Visit near the Canyon
Canyon de Chelly is in the northeast corner of Arizona and is closer to some great locations in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah than other popular Arizona ones. Ship Rock and the various badlands (high clearance vehicles needed) in New Mexico are amazing with their alien-like landscapes.
Natural Bridges National Monument is a lesser known park in Utah but it has three gigantic bridges that you can hike to. Goosenecks State Park in Utah is a massive W-shaped canyon with a river flowing through it: imagine a double Horseshoe Bend! Valley of the Gods in Utah is just like Monument Valley but it’s on BLM land – you have free entrance and camping options.
Need to Know Before you Go
Canyon de Chelly is a national monument so everything is manicured – paved roads, clean bathrooms, campgrounds, etc. Also, it’s pronounced “Canyon de Shay”. Note that it’s operated on Navajo Tribal Trust Lands and that the Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Times.
Take the time to read the descriptions written on the placards at the Canyon de Chelly overlooks. This way you can understand the dark history of the canyon and American colonization bloodshed that occurred here.
I was alone for most of my road trip, so meeting up with my friends and enjoying the amazing scenery with them on Thanksgiving Day was great. It was a cold day and we heated up some warm soup in the parking lot for lunch before hitting the trail for our hike into the canyon. It was awesome!