Canyon de Chelly and White House Ruin

June 13, 2017

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Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

Arizona’s White House Ruin, in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "d’Shay") National Monument, may prompt modern visitors to wonder if the beauty of the setting — in addition to practicalities like the availability of water, game, arable land and shelter — played a part when Ancestral Puebloan, and later Navajo or Diné, peoples chose the chasm as a place to call home. This is also true of many other cliff-dwellings and villages built and subsequently abandoned almost a thousand years ago on North America’s Colorado Plateau and in the broader Southwest.

White House Ruin, or Casa Blanca, shown here (top photo, at bottom-center) in a photograph taken on March 3, 2017, is so named for a prominent structural wall still covered with an ancient layer of plaster, and includes buildings below and within a winking natural alcove above sandy Chinle Wash, with its perpetual creek. Around and above the ruins looms a dizzying 600 ft tall (183 m) sheer wall of red De Chelly sandstone, decorated with impressive banners of dark desert varnish — pigments and minerals streaking downward from the canyon’s rim. Cross-bedding here and there, on the cliffs and in other canyon formations, testifies to the sandstone’s origin as desert dunes, some 200-280 million years ago. The dwellings, built circa 750-1300 by Ancestral Puebloans (predecessors to today’s Pueblo and Hopi peoples), mostly face south, which gave their occupants the warming benefits of the Sun as it followed a southerly path across the winter sky. Perched in its hooded cave, the White House wall gleams in such sunlight.

White House Ruin and complexes like Sliding House, Mummy Cave, Antelope House and Massacre Cave, in both Canyon de Chelly (a Spanish/French variation of the Navajo word tsegi or tseyi, for rocky canyon) and its tributary Canyon del Muerto (a variant of Spanish for canyon of the dead), are included in Canyon de Chelly National Monument (bottom photo), established in 1931. The park is in turn part of the Navajo Indian Reservation, home of the Diné, who have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Although it's visible from turnouts along the canyon’s scenic South Rim Drive, visitors can also descend to canyon-floor viewpoints just below White House Ruin — a perspective familiar in historic photographs by Laura Gilpin and Ansel Adams. The switchback hike to White House Ruin is a steep 2.5 mi (4 km) round-trip excursion, via the only trail into Canyon de Chelly that doesn't require an authorized Navajo guide or ranger. 

Photo Details: Top - Camera Model: NIKON D3200; Lens: Tokina AT-X 124 AF PRO DX II (AF 12-24mm f/4); Focal Length: 12mm (35mm equivalent: 18mm); Aperture: ƒ/11.0; Exposure Time: 0.0020 s (1/500); ISO equiv: 360; Bottom - same except: Focal Length: 24mm (35mm equivalent: 36mm); Aperture: ƒ/9.0; Exposure Time: 0.0031 s (1/320); ISO equiv: 100.