Friday, October 2, 2009

Navajo National Monument - Betatakin

Growing up in the southwest exposed me at an early age to the presence of people who lived here long before I arrived on the scene. Not far from where I was raised is an excellent example of prehistoric occupation, the ruins at Casa Grande National Monument, shown at the left in a picture from the early 1900's.

Casa Grande is only one of many abandoned ruins and dwellings found in the Colorado Plateau region, and they represent a rich legacy of ancient cultures and people who called this place home. In the north where I live today, inhabitants known commonly as the Anasazi developed a culture and lifestyle that flourished in the Four Corners region from around 500 A.D. until 1300 or so.

Anasazi is a Navajo word, translating roughly as "ancient ones" or "ancient enemy", and the use of the term has fallen out of favor, being replaced by a more accurate description - ancestral puebloan peoples. Although the actual culture as studied by paleontologists no longer exists in the modern world, there is ample evidence of their lives in the form of abandoned cliff dwellings and pueblos found all throughout the Colorado Plateau.

Some of the more well known of these are Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and Montezuma Castle, although many others exist. These ruins provide a fascinating look at a prehistoric way of life where traditional hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers, settling into communities in which agriculture replaced nomadic migrations tied to the seasons and wildlife.

One of the least visited but best preserved homes of the ancestral puebloans is located at Navajo National Monument in northeastern Arizona. Here three intact cliff dwellings present the history of a people who lived in harmony with their surroundings, using all the natural resources at their disposal to feed, clothe, and shelter their families in an often harsh and unforgiving environment.

On a recent visit, I was fortunate to take part in a ranger-led hike to Betatakin, the closest and "easiest" to access of the three ruins.

Navajo National Monument

The sprawling Navajo Reservation is vast, larger than many eastern U.S. states. Covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado it also completely surrounds the Hopi Indian Reservation - somewhat of an irony since the Hopis lived in the region long before the Navajo migrated into the area from the north. It is the Hopis who are believed to be the descendants of the ancestral puebloan people whose dwellings are found throughout canyon country.

Likewise with Navajo National Monument, home of Betatakin. This small but very well managed unit of the National Park Service is bounded on all sides by the Navajo Reservation, although the ruins and remnant culture are associated with the Hopi tribe. The Monument is located nine miles north of U.S. Highway 160 which travels between U.S. 89 and Kayenta, 20 miles to the northeast. The well signed junction onto Arizona 564 climbs up on the Shonto Plateau, where the many canyons cut into the Navajo sandstone provided shelter for the inhabitants.

Navajo National Monument is unique among western parks in that there is no admission fee, no charge for ranger led hikes, and no cost to use the campgrounds. Despite the lack of collected revenue however, the Monument is clean, well run, has excellent exhibits at the Visitor Center, and the staff is friendly and helpful.

The three ruins located here are Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House. Of the three, only Keet Seel and Betatakin are open to the public - Inscription House has been closed to visitation since the late 1960's to preserve the fragile structures. Both Betatakin and Keet Seel can be viewed only with a ranger at scheduled times, which vary according to the season. Getting to them is definitely more of a challenge than the ruins at some parks - Betatakin is accessed by a 5 mile round trip hike into the canyon, and Keet Seel is best seen as part of an overnight backpack of 8.5 miles each way.

The Rim

As Monument headquarters are located on the plateau and the cliff dwellings are found in the canyons below, reaching them can be a challenge for the average visitor. A descent of 800 feet is required, along with hike of 2.5 miles to reach the alcove where Betatakin is situated. During the hotter summer months, the hike could be difficult even for people in reasonably good shape, as along the trail shade is infrequent and no water is available in the canyon.

For those unable or unwilling to make the trek to see the dwellings up close, there is the paved Sandal Trail, a one mile round trip along the rim to an overlook of the ruins.

Along the way is a short spur trail that descends 300 feet to a view of a "relict" forest of aspen trees within the canyon. This normally high elevation species grows in the shadier, cooler protection of high canyon walls, remnants from the last ice age over 10,000 years ago.

In addition to the rim trail, those not inclined to more strenuous activity can explore the Visitor Center for displays of ancestral puebloan life, including baskets, pottery, weaving, tools, and construction techniques. There are also lots of books and other resources for sale detailing more about native arts, culture, geography, and the natural history of the area.

The heavily forested rim also offers the Canyon View trail, which leads to different perspective on Betatakin Canyon, as well as leading .3 of a mile to Canyon View Campground, one of two at the Monument.

The Hike

The trip into Betatakin begins in front of the Visitor Center, where you'll be introduced to the guide. On my visit we had the pleasure of meeting a Navajo volunteer who had retired from the Park Service several years past. As a tribal member, he brought his unique cultural perspective to the land and peoples who used to inhabit the region, as well as insights to life on the reservation today. After a brief orientation was presented, it was off to the trailhead.

Because the Monument and ruins are located on tribal lands, only people with a Park Service escort are allowed to visit the cliff dwellings. This becomes obvious once the hike begins as several locked gates must be negotiated along the way. The trail initially follows a little used road along the crest of a ridge between canyons, offering outstanding alternating views to either side.

After less than a mile of walking, the trail drops steeply off the ridge into the canyon below. Steps initially incised into the Navajo sandstone by CCC workers during the 1930's have been further rounded and sculpted into the rock by thousands of hikers who've passed this way. Dropping over 800 feet to the sandy wash bottom, there are excellent views downstream into the intersecting canyons.

Once the trail levels out, the perspective changes to towering walls of smooth, rounded sandstone heavily streaked with black desert varnish.

The trail heads up canyon, passing through small groves of Gambel oak. Along the way are many different plants native peoples used for various purposes in daily life. Juniper, cliffrose, Mormon tea, sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and pinon pine all provided some use or function - as natural materials for weaving, coloring and construction, and for food, medicinal, or ceremonial purposes. As our guide explained, everything a person needed for survival came from the environment, and the natural world was the native person's supermarket.

After a pleasant and scenic walk through the canyon bottom, the arching alcove of Betatakin rises over the trees, and the trail climbs to reach the ledge where the ruins are perched.


Betatakin is another Navajo word meaning "ledge house" and it's an appropriate term. There are many aspects of alcoves that made them attractive to early inhabitants, and Betatakin is no exception. Formed over many thousands of years by the slow action of water, the alcove was gradually transformed into a sheltering space from wind and wet weather.

The creation of the alcove is a result of rain or snow falling on the region, which seeps through the porous sandstone until it reaches a less permeable layer such as shale. There the water must move laterally, and this results in two very important processes. First, it accumulates in the overlying rock, and an endless cycle of freeze and thaw gradually carves the relatively soft rock into the shape we see today. Secondly, where water emerges at the base of the sandstone we find life giving springs like those found at Betatakin.

Aside from water the most important factor making this a good choice for settlement is the east-west orientation of the canyon and the south facing aspect of the alcove. In summer, the sun is high overhead and the alcove remains shaded and cool. In winter the low angle sun shines directly into the alcove for much of the day, warming walls and people.

Visitors are led into the alcove after appropriate warnings from the guide about falling sandstone (and not to touch!) - after all, people may have abandoned the area but nature is still hard at work on the landscape.

Close examination of the ruins reveals several clues about the former inhabitants. The foremost impression is they must have spent the majority of their time outdoors, as the rooms are very small with low ceilings. Places where humans sheltered from the elements have blackened walls from smoky fires, and during the long cold winter is must have seemed claustrophobic.

These people hunted game on the plateau above, but what made their lives more predictable and secure was farming. Corn, beans, and squash were plants that provided a food supply which could be easily stored through the winter, and unlike wildlife it was not necessary to move seasonally to obtain it. Although the crops were located nearly a mile downstream at a suitable location, they were still near enough to make living in the alcove practical.

Other parts of the construction indicate tightly mortared walls with doorways that could be secured. These areas served as food storage, where corn and other staples were kept away from rodents like this packrat - a resident who still calls Betatakin home.

It is estimated that at the height of human occupation, Betatakin had around 120-150 rooms hosting several extended families. The dwellings were only occupied a relatively short time before being abandoned, around 50 years or so. The actual reasons for the departure can only be speculated at, but drought and a decrease in wild game may have played a role. Today is it widely accepted that the ancestral puebloans are ancestors to the Hopi, who now live on the mesas to the south.

A few petroglyphs adorn the walls above the rooms on the east. Their significance to the story of these people is that modern day Hopi recognize the sign of the Fire Clan, an existing tribal family.

Others drawings are not so clear, but echo those found in other prehistoric sites throughout the southwest.

The story of Betatakin is familiar to students of southwestern history and native cultures. Unfortunately it seems most visitors to the region bypass Navajo National Monument in favor of other larger and more well known sites like Mesa Verde. I for one am glad I took the time to visit the ruins at Betatakin, and I will return soon to make the journey to Keet Seel. When I do, you can sure I'll let you in on it.

Note: For a link to the photos from my visit to Navajo National Monument and Betatakin, click HERE

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