The White House Ruins trail is the only route down into the canyon accessible without a guide. It takes off from the overlook, immediately drops you through one of two tunnels on the route, and then takes you down a series of switchbacks on the canyonside.

White House Ruins Trail, Before you Start

There are restrooms at the bottom, but bring water, as there are no drinking fountains or faucets. On the other hand, there are enterprising Navajo with coolers, so bring some cash. You’ll also find some folks setting up jewelry. Since the Navajo can enter the canyon any time they like, they just drive up to the ruins in their 4x4s.

The sign at the trailhead says two hours, but if you’re used to hiking you can probably cut that in half. I jogged down the trail to the canyon floor in about fifteen easy minutes. This being a canyon, the first half is the easy part.

There were plenty of people on the trail in mediocre-to-bad shape and they were huffing, puffing, resting a lot, and sweating, but they seemed to be making it fine. That said, I’d skip this trail if you’ve got knee trouble. The cliffside was hot, even in the early morning, but the canyon floor is pleasantly cool. Between the temperature and the greenery, it’s not hard to see what’s drawn people to this place century after century.

Watch as You Go

There are number of  really interesting little treats along this trail for the observant. On the second or third switchback (depending on where you start counting) you’ll find this rock, broken in two by what appears to be stone-tipped drills, their broken tips still embedded in the stone.


stone drill in sandstone canyon de chelly white house trail

Stone-tipped drills were used to bore into this soft sandstone boulder and split it.


You’ll also see plenty of wildlife, in the form of birds, rodents, livestock, and many, many, lizards. If you go before the soft sand on the canyon floor is trampled by tourists, you’ll find plenty of traces of last night’s activity.

Squirrel tracks, surrounded by traces of scurrying lizards.

Squirrel tracks, surrounded by traces of scurrying lizards.

Most of all, you’ll see many traces of the people who came before, from pottery shards to petroglyphs, the ruins themselves, and places like these handholds–presumably the remnants of the trail out of the canyon before the switchbacks were carved into it.

handholds in sandstone, white house ruins trail, canyon de chelly

Handholds carved into the soft sandstone near the bottom of the modern trail.

The White House Ruin Trail Itself

The view from the start is really a nice one. All the pictures of the trail are rather washed out as a result of being taken dead on into the early morning summer sun of Arizona, so sorry for that, but I think they manage to capture a fraction of the majesty of the place.

white house ruins trailhead canyon de chelly

At the top of the White House Ruins Trail

From there you drop through a short trail and right into a series of rapid and fairly steep switchbacks. If you’re surefooted and the trails not too crowded it’s a great place for a jog, and you’ll probably run into a few on your way up or down. If possible, be a good sport and make way for anyone travelling faster than you.

Looking down from the upper switchbacks. White House Ruin Trail, Canyon de Chelly, AZ.

Looking down from the upper switchbacks.

As you can see, the trail is well-maintained, wide, and just an all-round nice hike. The steep nature of the first half makes it one of those trail’s that fun for everybody. Newer hikers and people who aren’t used to exertion can slog through it, as the entire trip’s only about 2.5 miles, and experienced hikers won’t have any trouble getting their blood pumping just by picking up the pace a bit.

Canyon de Chelly, White House Ruins Trail view.

The view’s nice.

Towards the bottom you’ll arrive at another, much longer, tunnel. This one’s a bit nerve-wracking, as there’s clearly plenty a lot of rockfall from the soft sandstone within, and a lot of the chunks are plenty big enough to knock a few IQ points off the top.

Then there’s this damned stick:

stick support at white house ruins trail tunnel, canyon de chelly

This frickin stick!

Now, I don’t know if this tunnel actually requires a stick for any sort of structural support purposes, but, if so, I’m emphatically certain this is not the stick it requires; if that ceiling’s not going to hold itself up, this scion of a sickly pinion isn’t going to, either.

From here you head over a bluff and into the surprisingly wide and sandy floor of Canyon de Chelly. Traversing the wash actually could be a problem for many people, as it’s steep, more than head height deep in place, and I’m sure there’s no way to do anything but slide going up and down the soft sand that forms it. Luckily, there’s a brand new bridge.

bridge over gully at the bottom of canyon de chelly, white house ruins trail

This is a nice bridge.

A pleasant stroll through fields, and past a residence (please, no photos, it’s not a zoo), puts you at the restrooms, an impromptu giftshop of local vendors, who were just setting up when I got there. When I was there, there were several women selling (and working on) Navajo crafts, and one guy with the good sense to bring a cooler full of bottled water and Gatorade.

The ruins themselves are fenced off, but quite impressive. I couldn’t get close enough to be certain, but the upper level appeared to be inaccessible without ladders or some extremely impressive rock climbing. It’s possible there were easy routes I just could make out from twenty or so yards away, but I think it’s safe to say this was defensible position.

White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruins. Note the petroglyphs.

After a few minutes to cool down, and a pleasant chat with a couple of the vendors, I turned around and made my way up the way I’d come. The trail up, without jogging, took about forty-five minutes, and I left wishing I’d had more time to explore the canyon, and money to hire a guide. A horseback camping tour through the canyon is absolutely going on my bucket list of Arizona.


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