Road Trip: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona



Spider Rock at Canyon de Chelly

Once a year, I like to get together with my painting friend M.L. Coleman and hit the road.  We’d been waiting for snow—who doesn’t like to paint the patterns and colors of snow in canyon country?—but it’s been a dry winter, and we were eager to paint.  So this past week, we loaded up the 22-foot Lazy Daze and journeyed to Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, Arizona.

As you drive toward Chinle, you won’t find much to attract a painter.  In fact, that part of Arizona is occupied by a rather bleak section of the Navajo reservation.  Flat, dry, and, without snow, brown.   But hidden out of view is Canyon de Chelly, which is beautiful any time of year, snow or no snow.  Chinle sits on the west, shallow end, and that is where your adventure begins.

Rim View


I consider Canyon de Chelly to be a more intimate version of Grand Canyon.   Actually comprised of three canyons (de Chelly, del Muerto and Monument), it’s a little over 20 miles long, less than a mile wide and perhaps a thousand feet deep at the east end.  But two things distinguish it from Grand Canyon.  First, the canyon bottom is easily accessible.   In fact, the Navajo, who manage the Monument jointly with the National Park Service, continue to farm the bottom, which is watered by an intermittent creek.  From the rim, you can peer down to see their patchwork of cornfields, plus a few horses grazing and the occasional Jeep tour toiling up the sandy road.  Second, unlike Grand Canyon, where at midday the lighting is flat and uninteresting to a painter, here you can find an enchanting arrangement of light and shadow almost any time.   Several overlooks occupy fingers that jut out from the rim, offering 270-degree views of the surrounding cliffs.

Cliff dwellings can be seen throughout the Monument

Two different routes through the Monument give you two different experiences.   Neither route is very long, just a dozen miles or so, but my favorite is the South Rim Drive.  This has the most options, from Tunnel Overlook on the west end to famous Spider Rock on the east end, and several in between.  We spent most of our time at White House Ruin Overlook and Sliding House Overlook.  (The names are taken from the Anasazi cliff dwellings visible from the viewpoints.)  I’d hoped to paint at Spider Rock—I think every painter out west has depicted it at least once, and I didn’t want to be left out—but the weather turned.   Although we had perfect weather nearly every day, that one afternoon rain and snow squalls blew through with a lot of wind, making painting unpleasant.  We ended up taking photographs plus doing a little “out the window” painting from the Lazy Daze.

Face Rock, near Spider Rock

The North Rim Drive, which follows Canyon del Muerto, has fewer overlooks.  There, the scenery seems a little more closed in with fewer vistas.  But we painted there as well, at both the Massacre Cave and Mummy Ruins overlooks.  Although the Monument has few visitors this time of year, we saw even fewer people on this route.  Toward the end of a day of painting, we visited Antelope Ruins Overlook, getting there just at sundown, when the cliffs turned golden.  This spot seemed to have even more painting possibilities.

Hoodoos

One of my favorite views, near White House Ruin

We never went down into the canyon as we found plenty to paint along the rim.  If we had wanted to paint at the bottom, we would have taken the White House Ruin trail, which is the only trail you can hike down without a Navajo guide.   Another option would have been to hire a guide and go into the canyon on horseback or SUV.  I’ll save these for a future adventure there, perhaps in the fall when the cottonwoods turn golden or in spring, when the canyon bottom greens up.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

In this post I offer photographs; in my next post, I’ll show you the paintings I made at Canyon de Chelly.

My painting set-up (Daytripper from Prolific Painter); M.L. Coleman in background

(If you like to travel and paint, take a look at my plein air painting workshops in the Southwest.)—
Michael Chesley Johnson, AIS PSA MPAC PSNM
www.MChesleyJohnson.com

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