From the south rim, Canyon de Chelly looks impenetrable. Sheer sandstone cliffs plunge hundreds of feet to the valley floor below. Yet a sign at the overlook where I've parked assures me that, preposterously, there is a way to go from here down to there on foot. And indeed, in a nook of the canyon I find a tunnel that leads to a sketchy path—a prehistoric trail, sometimes little more than handholds and toeholds, used for centuries by sheepherders.
Now, in the late afternoon, most visitors have dispersed and the Navajo people who call the canyon home have the run of the place. I mean that literally: As I descend, at least a dozen joggers pass me at a trot, most with headphones in their ears. Me, I take a more leisurely pace so I can absorb my surroundings at the end of this beautiful October day—rust-colored, 600-foot cliffs; a cloudless sky; cottonwoods vibrant with ochers and golds.
After finally making it to the bottom of the trail, I walk out onto the canyon floor, past an old hogan and over to a south-facing cliff where the ancient stone towers of the White House Ruin have stood for hundreds of years. Despite some raggedy edges, their grandeur is undimmed. I can still see wooden beams, spooky dark windows, and the mud plaster that was hand-patted centuries ago.
In the hundreds of square miles of canyons that sprawl through the Southwest, Canyon de Chelly, about a five-hour drive northeast of Phoenix, is singular. Human beings have lived here for 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest inhabited places in the Colorado Plateau. The canyon is filled with the stories of its residents: the nomads who left faint petroglyphs thousands of years ago, the Ancestral Puebloans who built magnificent stone palaces around a.d. 1000 to 1300, and the Navajo who live here today.
The canyon is beautiful in any season, but to my mind autumn is the best. The weather is crisp, cool, and dry, with skies that are often still and cloud free. The summer crowds have ebbed and rich foliage shimmers in the bright sun. At this time of year, Navajo families harvest corn, squash, and pumpkins; sell their bounty at local fairs; and move their livestock out of the canyons and onto the rims for winter pasturing.