Riding in the Canyon De Chelly
Sometimes our vacation activities aren't so different from what we do the rest of the year: Same drill, different venue. But there are times when we need a clear break from the routine to recharge our batteries.
Horseback camping in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument on the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona offers a real change of pace. Once you're out on the trail, there's no electricity, running water, or cell-phone service. There are also no clocks or schedules, unless you bring your own.
What the canyon does have is more than 100 miles of riding trails through glorious red-rock canyons full of Anasazi ruins and petroglyphs, or rock carvings and inscriptions. In a wet year, the canyon's streams create swimming holes perfect for a refreshing splash, and the desert is abloom with purple tamarisk bushes, yellow and orange prickly-pear cactus flowers and white datura, the blossoms Georgia O'Keeffe often painted.
Sightseeing on horseback provides a unique perspective -- a timeless sense of viewing the land the way our ancestors may have seen it. In addition, horses are capable of reaching pristine areas inaccessible by car. You travel far more slowly than you would on wheels, enabling relaxed and quiet contemplation of nature's beauty. Sitting tall in the saddle, you have a higher vantage point than in a vehicle or on foot, and you also have the added advantage of covering distances in far less time than you would hiking.No riding experience? No problem. Some canyon outfitters can accommodate first-timers. To get a horse you'll enjoy, be honest about your experience. For those identifying themselves as beginners, there are quiet animals needing little direction. But if you claim decades of experience, you're likely to be assigned a feisty steed with racing bloodlines.
Saddle UpBased in Chinle, Ariz., Justin Tso and his crew have been taking riders into the canyon for 25 years (call 928-814-1505 for reservations). His groups usually stay at three campsites on a five-day trip: Spider Rock, a dramatic sandstone formation that looms more than 800 feet high; the Mummy Cave ruin; and at the junction, where the canyon splits into its two main sections. The outfitter trucks food, camping gear, and portable toilets to each site. They set up an outdoor kitchen in which Justin's wife, Evelyn, and her daughter Carletta produce the meals, including tasty regional dishes like Navajo tacos and mutton stew. Their handmade flour tortillas outshine any I've tasted, and the array of breakfast choices, including locally grown melons, would put many fancy restaurants to shame. The road at Chinle Wash, the main entrance point to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, is broad enough to accommodate a six-lane highway in a more populous area. The level, sandy trails become deeper in the canyon, but it's almost always possible to ride two or more abreast. There may be shallow creeks to ford, depending on rainfall, and the surrounding embankments can be rather steep, but the terrain doesn't faze the tough little horses.
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