Sunday, January 3, 2010

Navajo National Monument - Keet Seel

I am most fortunate to work in a spectacular mountain setting, with my office door opening onto a grove of stately aspen and a mountain peak looming just around the corner. One thing however that does occur in winter is my time is no longer my own, at least for most of December.

Because I'm a staff member of a ski area near Flagstaff, when the frozen white stuff comes flying out of the sky it's time to get busy on opening for skiers and snowboarders who will flock to the slopes for some winter recreation. With a large staff to hire, train, and oversee I don't have much free time which is why I've let my blog languish for these last two months.

Now it's January, the resort is open and the holiday crowds are starting to thin, so I'll take a deep breath and resume some trip posts from last fall.

Keet Seel

On a trip in September I made an unplanned detour to visit Navajo National Monument in northeastern Arizona. While there I was able to participate in a ranger led hike to Betatakin, one of three preserved cliff dwellings in the Monument. Accessible via a 5 mile roundtrip walk into the surrounding canyons, I was impressed with the beauty and significance of the ruins and made arrangements to visit again in November for the longer overnight hike to another of the sites - Keet Seel.

This trip is best done as an overnight backpack, as the 8.5 miles each way comes with a steep descent of 1000 foot on the way in and the same climb on the way out. The trail is not especially difficult, but carrying a 50 plus pound pack on sandy and unimproved terrain makes for a long day, especially since you'll want to spend as much time exploring the ruins as conditions permit. Rangers allow up to five persons at a time into the ruin, with a maximum of 20 persons per day. Tours are given regularly during summer months, but spring and fall trips are limited to the second weekend of the month, and no tours are available in winter.

The Hike

The end of fall in northern Arizona can be absolutely beautiful, or as in the case of this trip cold and snowy. Ironically all of October and most of November had been clear and dry, leading me to hope I would get lucky enough to have nice weather for the hike, but two days before departure the skies turned gray and threatening. Cold does not scare me - after all, I work outdoors in winter and have the necessary gear. But anytime you venture outdoors in a wild and rugged environment where potentially life threatening conditions occur you'd better be ready for just about anything.

The beginning of the hike follows the same route as that to Betatakin, using an old road out to Tsegi Point before dropping steeply into the canyon. For a route description and pictures of the first part of this hike read the earlier post HERE. Once you descend about halfway in, the routes split with the trail to Keet Seel heading roughly northwest. Unlike the trail to Betatakin which stays higher, the route to Keet Seel continues down until reaching the canyon bottom.

Upon reaching the canyon floor you'll experience the first of many crossings of the creek. The stream is shallow in most places, but there is lots of sandy mud and some areas where you'll definitely get your footwear wet; I strongly recommend a second pair of dry shoes for camp.

This is also where the trail becomes more challenging to follow. At the Visitor Center hikers are given a photo orientation and written description, and the route is marked at 1/2 mile intervals, but careful attention to landmarks is required to stay on the path. Livestock are grazed in the canyon, and their paths in and out of the streambed have led many hikers astray.

The skies had been threatening all morning, and as I made the turn northward into the canyon where Keet Seel is located the promised inclement weather arrived. There were times when the snow squalls were so fierce I took temporary shelter in side drainages while waiting for the weather to improve.

Fortunately the snow showers were on again/off again, and I made pretty good time heading upstream. When the skies weren't full of snow, the beautiful Navajo sandstone walls were laced with ribbons of white, and occasionally glowed pink and red with infrequent breaks in the clouds.

Along the way several waterfalls break up the streambed, and cascades of water sheet over the slickrock.

Over the last 2 miles the hiker has the option of climbing up onto the bench above the creek or staying down low along the water. The upper route has more ups and downs as it winds along the cliff faces, but in summer during monsoon season the cautious visitor should probably opt for the high road to avoid the possibility of flashflooding and quicksand.

After 6 miles of trudging through water and sand, a sign appears on the right side bank advertising the primitive campground. Nestled in a grove of Gambel oak, the tent sites are little more than flat spots on sandy ground with picnic tables and a composting toilet nearby, although the majestic setting offers plenty of other attractions.

After dropping my pack at a likely site, it was time to continue 1/4 mile upstream to contact the ranger and arrange for a tour. On the day of my visit, only 4 other intrepid hikers made the trip, leaving all of us with ample time to explore the ruin and ask questions of the Navajo guide.

The NPS ranger assigned to the ruins must also hike in and out, and stays for the duration in a modern version of a Navajo hogan. Although rustic, it has many more comforts than my tent, including a woodstove and bed which I found myself wishing I had when temperatures reached a frosty 15 degrees overnight.

The ruins lie just beyond the hogan, and just like Betatakin are recessed into the cliff wall in such a way as to get maximum winter sun and summer shade.

The name Keet Seel is of Navajo origin, and translates as something like "many small broken pieces", referring to the abundance of pottery sherds lying about the area.

The ruins occupy a large ledge under the alcove, and modern day humans must climb a 70 foot ladder to reach them.

The preservation level of the cliff house is remarkable. Except for some retaining wall rebuilding and stabilization done in the 1930's the ruins are very much as the inhabitants left them in the late 1200's.

Like Betatakin the ruins at Keet Seel hold many clues to the ancestral puebloan peoples who once thrived in the region. Petroglypghs, potsherds, and other artifacts give archaeologists and paleontologists a look at prehistoric daily life in the canyons of the southwest, where once nomadic folks settled down to become farmers and craftspeople, trading knowledge and goods with other cultures to the south.

These incredibly tiny beads on a necklace fragment speak to the skill of some long ago artisan.

After spending a couple of hours learning about the past of the people who once lived here, it was time to head back to the campground before dark and set up my tent. Not long after sunset I crawled into my sleeping bag for a long, cold, and snowy night. I awoke early the next morning to clear skies, and realizing it would be several hours until the sun climbed over the canyon walls I eagerly set out down the trail looking for warmth.

The hike out was more enjoyable than the semi-blizzard of the day before. As morning progressed the rays of the sun melted much of the snow and gently warmed the air. By the time I reached the climb out I was down to just base layers, and soon even those became too warm as I huffed my way up the steady ascent.

Though the trip was quick, the memories I have will last a lifetime. The insights I gained into how people lived here for centuries before what we call modern life gives me a different perspective on what real difficulty is.

I wonder how many of us could live as the ancients once did, relying on the natural world for all that was needed to survive. Who knows... All it would take is some sort of large scale disaster or unforeseen disruption of what we take for granted to put that theory to the test.

There are far too many pictures of this trip to post here. Anyone who wants to see more can visit the photo album HERE.