Keet Seel Hike
Navajo National Monument
By Carrie Miner
Most of my life, I’ve been listening to men brag about their outdoor adventures, usually in a great giddy rush of testosterone and generally without breaking a sweat. Of course, these stories can be quite entertaining, but men always make it sound like some sort of special club complete with a secret handshake and, NO GIRLS ALLOWED!
So when I got a chance to take a rugged three-day hike to some mysterious ruins of a long-vanished civilization, I recruited a girlfriend, Theresa Mason, and we set out to investigate the ancient and compelling myth of testosteronesort of a girls’ adventure out. Theresa agreed readily, having also recently decided to go in search of the Wild Woman lurking beneath the lipstick.
We would test ourselves against a 18.5-mile round trip hike to the ancient Anasazi (a Navajo meaning the "ancient ones") ruins at Keet Seel, which is located beside a gentle stream deep in the sandstone cayonlands of northeastern Arizona. The hike sounded like a plausible test of womanhoodespecially with a five-mile side trip to the ruins at Betatakin at the Navajo National Monument thrown in for good measure. Theresa and I joined a group of hikers early the day we started. We quickly noticed we were the only ones registered for both the Keet Seel and the Betatakin hikes. Ha. Wimps.
We would start with Betatakin. Theresa and I piled into my little car and followed Park Ranger Anna Gray’s jeep down a dirt road to the trailhead. Gray, a member of the Navajo tribe, immediately launched into stories as we hiked. Along the way she pointed out indigenous plants such as scarlet penstemon, cliffrose, sage, yucca and buffalo berries. She told stories, passed down from her grandfather, about cooking, weaving and healing in the Navajo tribe. At an overlook, she told the story of the Long Walkthe forced exile of the Navajos from their homeland after U. S. Army units led by famed scout Kit Carson harried the tribe into near starvation. "The Navajo hid in these canyons," she said. She offered a distinctly Indian view of Kit Carson, who was ordered by superiors to shoot down even those bands who tried to surrender. "He was not a nice man," Gray said.
The wind gusted as she talked, causing her hair to billow in a dark ribbon. We clutched our hats and followed her from the overlook back onto the trail and down into the canyon. Once at Betatakin the Navajo word for "ledge house" we stood at the edge of an aspen forest near the base of the great arching sandstone cave which houses the cliff dwelling. The arch soars upward 450 feet and spans 370 feet. Gray told stories about the people who inhabited the buildings long before the Navajo came into the Southwest. Tree ring dates taken from beams within the ruins indicate that a few people lived at the site around A. D. 250, but no one established long-term occupancy until about 1269. The last building was erected in 1286, when more than 100 people lived, worked and played under the great sandstone arch. Mysteriously, just 50 years after the first people climbed the canyon walls to build their homes in the sheltered alcove, the Anasazi departed, leaving Betatakin occupied only by winds and wandering spirits. "The Navajo don’t bother these ruins. We leave them as they are," said Gray. "We believe they’re still walking around up there. Going in [the ruins] is forbidden. The spirits will hunt you down."
The public is not allowed to enter Betatakin, which had to be closed as part of an effort to preserve the crumbling ruins. We listened as the rippling sandstone caught our voices and threw them back at us. I wondered what it must have sounded like when 100 people lived and loved and played in this sandstone space, the shouts of children echoing off the soaring sedimentary architecture.
After a short while, our group began to fracture. People began to make their way back up the strenuous trail out of the canyona trip equivalent to climbing the stairs of a 70-story building. Theresa and I lingered to the very last, finding it difficult to walk away from the beauty. We felt faintly smug, having weathered the shakedown cruise without breaking a sweat. Besides, just men sweat. Women glow.
The next day we loaded up our groaning packs and made our way to the trailhead just in time to see the sun rise. As my pack, laden with jugs of water, settled on my shoulders, I had a twinge of concern. No men. No mules. Heavy packs. Oh well, nothing ventured... Besides, the salmon-colored Navajo sandstone, called the Kayenta formation, gleamed with a burnt umber under the morning sun. A layer of purplish-red mudstone added its line of color. Theresa and I agreed that women are perfect for adventures. We have a highly developed appreciation for beauty.
We stared at the spectacle before tightening our packs and making our way towards the empty houses of Keet Seel. The trail branches off the Betatakin trail after three-quarters of a mile, heading into the extensive Tsegi Canyon system. Theresa and I skittered down the sand dune at the base of the mesa as though skiing down a slippery slope. We turned and stared back up the slope, dreading the return trip. I had a sinking feeling about the hike ahead.
Before descending the last slope into the narrow valley, we looked nervously up to the cliffs towering overhead. We stashed two quarts of water each under a straggly piñon tree. We would retrieve them during the return trip. No one else was in sight although four other hikers had signed up for an overnight trip. We appeared to be the first group on the trail. That, at least, meant someone might find our bodies.
The trail descends to Laguna Creek, where white posts guide hikers from the main canyon into the tributary canyon leading to the Keet Seel ruins. During an orientation, a ranger had told us that the primitive trail crossed the stream several times in the next six miles. After a few crossings, Theresa and I decided to keep our boots dry and our feet cool by changing into hiking sandals. Bad idea. Every time we crossed, we winced at every step as we waded through green, brackish pockets of still water and squishy green-black mud, a product of cattle which wander through the canyon and drink at the stream. It’s no wonder that humans don’t drink the water.
Hiking along the stream bed, Theresa complained of a pebble in her shoe. She turned toward a boulder just off the trail where she could sit down to remedy her problem. I started to repeat the ranger’s warning about quicksand near such stream-bed boulders, but before I could finish the sentence, Theresa abruptly sank into mud up to her knees. She shrieked. I doubled over with laughter as she floundered wildly towards dry land. She slogged through goo, emerging with mud-caked legs and a gritty grimace. She glared at me a moment, not entirely appreciating my sense of humor. She looked down at her filthy legs and produced into a small chortle.
Occasionally, the trail left the stream and lead through sandy beaches where tall fields of bee weed bloomed. The bee weed reached up to our chests and the lavender-tipped flowers added a splash of color. We quickly discovered how the plant got its name. Hundreds of buzzing bees dogged our progress. Overhead, a flock of gray flycatchers swooped in fearless aerial displays, wings cutting the brilliant blue sky with quick strokes. Caught up watching the flycatchers’ antics, I failed to notice an inquisitive bee until it nearly landed on the button of my shirt. I fled, like a bee weed with legs, the bee in hot pursuit. I dropped my pack and tried to outrun the bee until I realized my shirt was the same color as the bee weed. I quickly stripped it off and flung it to the ground. The bee happily investigated the buttons for a few moments. It decided Theresa’s buttons had more potential, and it offered me the comfort of seeing her strip down as well. We decided to avoid the bee weed and stick to the stream bed. Better stuck than stung.
Just when it seemed we’d see nothing but muddy, meandering waters and flat strips of sand, we came to a waterfall. Realizing we had to climb to the top through ankle-deep sand, we pulled on our boots and trudged up the slope. Finding no sign of the trail, we pulled out the map and eventually decided that we’d missed the upper trail. No sweat (or glow). The ranger had said we could always follow the stream bed. After we had hiked another hour, the lack of mile markers began to make us nervous. When a pair of scrub jays took notice of us and began following us deeper in the canyon, real worry settled in. I could swear those birds were laughing at us. After a quick discussion, we decided that we couldn’t have missed the trail so we slogged on through mossy waters and over sandy hills.
Finally, and thankfully, we spotted the sign, and we cheerfully lumbered up the last stretch to the Keet Seel campground, feeling like Balboa staggering into sight of the Pacific Ocean. We collapsed gratefully under the nearest tree, and we shared one of those bonding moments that animate most "buddy" movies based on the satisfaction of having survived. We set up camp. After a quick rest, we headed back across the stream and covered the last half-mile to the ranger’s cabin.
One couple had passed us on the upper trail, but we all met up with the ranger, Geneve Meyers, at picnic tables near the ruins. Meyers took us along a short trail to the ruins, narrating as we walked. At the base of the towering cliff, she showed us a collection of artifacts, including broken pottery, corncobs, squash rinds, yucca fiber rope fragments and stone tool flakes.
Theresa didn’t pay much attention to the stuff on the ground. She was fixated on the ladder rising dizzily upward. It would conduct us up to the ruin, which, unlike Betatakin, we could enter and visit. "Oh my," she said in horror. "I’m afraid of heights." Meyers rolled eyes and shook her head. Oh perfect. Wouldn’t the Iron Man Society get a laugh out of this? Theresa gulped and stared wordlessly at the bottom of the ladder.
"You go first," I said. "Don’t look down. I’ll be right behind you." She started the climb, faltering at first, but then she gained courage. I followed. I lost courage. The ladder creaked. The wind blew. A cold sweat I mean glow broke out on my forehead. I discovered my own fear of heights, which I’d evidently suppressed all of my life, and now I discovered its existence at this particularly awkward moment. I looked down and clutched the rungs with whitened knuckles.
When we reached the top, we both devoted a few minutes to recovering our composure. Breathing exercises from childbirth classes found new purpose. We peered into soot-darkened rooms and examined the stone masonry. We marveled at the view stretching out below. Meyers explained that a marsh and aspen forest once lined the valley floor. But the wetlands withered and died when the water table dropped due to deforestation resulting from the Anasazi need for timbers and firewood. She also discussed the lifestyles of the Anasazi, and she pointed out the petroglyphs painted high above on the rippled sandstone walls.
People began settling in Keet Seel in 950, nearly 300 years before construction began in Betatakin. In 1250, a new group of settlers arrived. A steady influx kept the village growing until it reached more than 150 rooms. The diversity of Keet Seel residents is reflected in the building styles used to construct four distinctly different kivas (ceremonial chambers), three common streets, and a retaining wall which stretches 180 feet along the eastern half of the village.
As we readied ourselves for the climb down, we looked over the cliff edge, savoring the view and the climb and the adventure. I wouldn’t say a man couldn’t have done it. But he would have been sweating.
When You Go
Location: 50 miles northeast of Tuba City, Arizona, 20 miles southwest of Kayenta.
Getting There: From Kayenta take U. S. 160 southwest to Arizona 564. Turn right and follow the paved road nine miles to the park.
Lodging: Thirty camping spaces with water and restrooms. No hookups. Wood fires not allowed.
Attractions: Visitor Center, an arts and crafts shop featuring Native American craft work, and two overlook trails (both under one mile round-trip).
Tour Information: Betatakin and Keet Seel tours are conducted daily from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend. Free tickets for the Betatakin hike are handed out at 8:00 a.m. daily on a first-come, first-serve basis for the first 25 hikers. Free permits are available for the Keet Seel tour with a limit of 20 people a day. Reservations can be made up to two months in advance for Keet Seel. The Navajo Nation is on Daylight Savings Time and is one hour ahead of other Arizona locations during the summer months.
Travel Advisory: Beware of rock fall hazards and flash floods. Stay on trails to avoid quick sand. Livestock pollute the stream so carry drinking water. Take a minimum of two quarts of water per person for the Betatakin hike and 4 quarts per person for the Keet Seel hike. No pets are allowed. The trails run primarily through Navajo land and all hikers must stay on designated paths. Carry out all trash, do not burn or bury it. All natural, historic and prehistoric features are protected by federal and tribal law.
Navajo National Monument
HC-71 Box 3,
Tonalea, Arizona 86044-9704
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