Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Long, beautiful canyon hike
Chinle Wash is long and the hazards are manifold. Quicksand abounds throughout the Chinle Canyons through Comb Ridge. Access is spotty and difficult - once you're in the canyon, it is very hard to get back out if you have an emergency. Chinle Wash is often flowing, and is usually thigh deep or deeper and dozens of crossings of the Chinle are required to complete a full descent of the canyons. During times of spring runoff, the water coming down from the mountains can swell the stream and make it icy cold. During summer monsoons the creek can flood over its banks. Despite this, water is often scarce as the Chinle runs as muddy as the Paria River, and springs through the length of the canyons are rare. Rattlesnakes are common on the benches above the river. There is almost no shade. Despite these hazards and challenges, the rewards of hiking along the Chinle are numerous, unexpected, and worthwhile if you are up to the effort.
Chinle Wash forms from many tributaries flowing down out of the Chuska Mountains, passing through the twin canyons of Canyon del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly in Canyon de Chelly National Monument. The Chinle heads north towards the Utah border where it encounters Comb Ridge. Comb Ridge is a massive monocline that stretches from Kayenta, Arizona north across the San Juan River, and eventually ends on Elk Ridge west of Blanding. David Roberts has described Comb Ridge as one of the wildest stretches of country in the southwest, without a single mile of established trail.
The Chinle was also a prime area for living for the Anasazi, from Basketmaker times through the abandonment around 1300. All along the canyon walls outside of the wash bottom ruins abound, and rock art dot the cliff faces and boulders. Some of the sites along the Chinle are simple granaries while others are enormous - the largest cliff dwelling in Utah lays somewhere along the length of the Chinle in the Comb Ridge canyons.
Most hikes along the Chinle start and end at the mouth of the Chinle. Multi-day rafting trips make the Chinle a stop, and usually lead quick hikes up the mouth of the Chinle to several small to medium Anasazi sites. This is probably the best way for anyone not experienced or comfortable to get a taste of the Chinle. The guides are experienced with the area and can lead you up the wash without serious risk.
With a private rafting trip you can perform a similar trip and hike further up the canyon. The only other serious access into the Chinle is along Navajo Route 6440, along the eastern flank of Comb Ridge. This allows you to get into the southern end of the Chinle canyons through Comb Ridge. In either case, you will be required to cross the Chinle dozens of times and bushwack through willow and tamarisk thickets along the banks to make serious progress, and the going is slow. Heading downcanyon from 6440 it is often possible to stay on benches above the willow flats and the wash. This provides slightly faster going, and you can cut off stream meanders, saving stream crossings. The benches are also a good place to see most of the Anasazi ruins and rock art. During Anasazi times the Chinle flowed on a floodplain above its current level. This ancient floodplain is where the Anasazi raised their crops, and is still represented by the mud banks above the current floodplain.
Eventually though the ancient flood plain will meet the wall, and you will need to descend back down to the stream level and make another crossing. In some places there is no place to leave the creek bed, and multiple crossings of the Chinle, interspersed with thicket bushwacking are unavoidable. It is in these places where quicksand is most commonly found. Quicksand is not a real danger in terms of death, but that sticky mud can add a lot of weight to your boots and clothes. Quicksand can be very frightening, however, especially if you have never encountered it before. The first step to avoid being stuck is to keep moving, especially on damp, springy mud. If you have to slow down and begin to get stuck, don't panic and struggle. Movement only makes you sink further. The key to extricating yourself is to lay flat on your stomach and crawl your way to solid ground. Doing this takes your body weight and distributes it over a greater surface area. This prevents the breaking of the surface tension of the quicksand, in the same way that a water-skate bug can walk over water without sinking.
Traveling down the Chinle, be mindful of the current residents of the area, the Navajo. Several homesteads dot the benchlands surrounding the Chinle on either side of Comb Ridge, and their cattle roam at will across the Chinle Canyons. It is essential to respect their private property and not harass the livestock. Several areas around the reservation have been closed to hikers due to people disrespecting Navajo livestock and property, disturbing ruins and hiking without a permit. Make sure you have one of those too before embarking on this trip.
Logistically this hike requires some forethought. If you are hiking downstream from near NR6440, you will either need to hike out of the wash to a prepositioned vehicle on one of the roads leading towards Comb Ridge from US191, or arrange a meeting at the San Juan River with either a commercial or private raft trip. Hiking upstream from the San Juan provides another similar problem. The raft still has to be taken out of the river, and a vehicle prepositioned off of NR6440 where you're planning to come out of the wash.
This hike is demanding and should not be done by less than two people. In addition to standard hiking gear a good rope would be highly recommended, not necessarily for reaching Anasazi ruins but also to help any hiking partners that may not be used to quicksand, ferrying gear across the wash if it is high, and lowering packs when getting down from some of the benches above the wash. This hike is very rewarding, but proper preparation, gear, and knowledge are important. Recommended reading for anyone attempting this hike includes Sandstone Spine, but David Roberts, and House of Rain, by Craig Childs.
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