July, 2015 Edition

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Deep Into the Backcountry

Exploring the Deep History of Keet Seel

We hike only a mile before we take our first break. We’re not tired but the scenery demands that we pay it some attention. We take off our heavy backpacks and leave them on the trail, and carry our cameras to the wind-scoured edge of the overlook, where centuries of wind has twisted centuries-old junipers into foliage-tufted knots, and exfoliated the surface of Kayenta sandstone on which we stand into a scoriated pattern resembling Damascus steel.
We’re standing on top of a cliff 700 feet high, called Tsegi Point. From our lofty vantage we can see Long Canyon, Keet Seel Canyon, Dowozhiebito Canyon and Tsegi Canyon spreading away from us in four different directions, like the starfished arms and legs of a husband napping alone in bed.
In every direction we look, ancient streams and flashfloods have carved the peach-colored Kayenta Sandstone into fins and curtains, pinnacles and spires, arches and alcoves.
I’m traveling with Dustin Williams, a photographer who moved to Page from Missouri four months ago. To him the wide open desert vistas, canyons and cliff walls are still fairly new.
“Holy smoke,” he said when he first saw it. “I could spend hours taking pictures from this overlook.”
We spend several minutes on the edge shooting numerous frames. Then, once we’ve satisfactorily filled our memory cards we once again hoist on our backpacks and continue down the trail. From Tsegi Point it’s one mile down, seven more to go. Our destination is the Anasazi ruins of Keet Seel. Keet Seel and another Anasazi ruin, Betatakin, are both located inside Navajo National Monument, which itself is located in northern Arizona inside the Navajo reservation.
Keet Seel is located eight miles deep into desert backcountry and the only way to reach it is to walk there. Because of its remoteness and the fact that if you want to get there you have to carry a backpack over eight miles of very rugged desert terrain, it’s one of the least visited sites in America’s national park system. If you have the ability to do it, do it.
The National Park Service allows only 20 people per day to visit Keet Seel but most days it’s visited by fewer than that.
After hoisting on our backpacks, Dustin and I leave the overlook and start down our first series of switchbacks cut into the Kayenta Sandstone on our way to the canyon floor 700 feet below us.
The temperature, though not exactly cool, is considerably cooler than it normally is for late May. It’s about 70 degrees on top of the mesa, warming to 80 degrees in the bottom of the canyon.
The vegetation we walk through is made up of juniper and pinyon trees, narrow-leafed yucca and numerous spring wildflowers in yellow, pink, purple, white and blue.
After four sets of switchbacks, and numerous photo breaks to capture the amazing desert-scape unfolding around us we reach the canyon floor, about an hour after beginning our descent. Our quadriceps are burning from the effort of holding back the weight of our packs. When we reach the floor of Long Canyon we take off our packs and rest for about 10 minutes.
We had been told by a ranger at the trailhead that a flashflood had ripped through the canyon just two days prior to our hike. He warned us that the canyon floor was still saturated in many places and to be wary of quicksand as we navigated our way through the canyons.
Because of the recent flashflood, one of the first things I notice upon reaching the canyon floor is that the earth still holds an iron-rich smell of churned sand and crushed sandstone, like the working end of a blacksmith’s forge.
After we catch our breath we again heave on our backpacks and wade across the stream flowing in the bottom of Long Canyon, and follow the trail onto a sand dune, its wind-rippled trail looks like a long, rumpled elephant trunk.
This is the maziest part of the canyon; where the four canyons – Long, Keet Seel, Dowozhiebito, and Tsegi canyons – all merge together. Because of that, the park service has marked the route through it with tall white poles to help the backpackers navigate their way through.
About a half hour later Dustin and I enter the mouth of Keet Seel Canyon. Our final destination – the ruins and campground – are still five miles away. From here all the way to Keet Seel the trail and the stream slither around each other like courting snakes, like a transverse wave seducing a sine wave. My point being, when you do this hike don’t bother trying to keep your feet dry.
Walking along the riverbank, still damp from the flashflood of two days ago, feels like walking across a soggy, felt quilt. Several times while walking through the stream, I step into a shallow pocket of quicksand, a feeling like falling eight inches through a trapdoor to have your foot clutched in the mud’s weak-grip. It makes a spaghetti slurp when I pull my foot free.
Keet Seel Canyon is absolutely beautiful. And yes, the amazing, mysterious Keet Seel ruins which lie at the end of it are reason enough to embark on this worthy quest. The stream is lined with grass and bursting with a variety of yellow and white

After four sets of switchbacks, and numerous photo breaks to capture the amazing desert-scape unfolding around us we reach the canyon floor, about an hour after beginning our descent.

wildflowers. And patches of pink verbena. So tiny, delicate. A cluster of six or seven of them would make a perfect bouquet for Lego man to give to his Lego wife. And globemallows, preferring drier conditions, grow in the dunes that border the streambed.
And bordering us on all sides are the magnificently sculpted walls of Kayenta sandstone. We pass a double alcove, rough-sketched and sour-squinting, like a lime-sucking jack-o-lantern. Farther on the cliff walls are crenellated like theater curtains. And every sidecanyon has spire-tipped cathedrals tucked into the back of it. Navajo Tapestry drips down the cliff wall like a warrior’s sweat-streaked warpaint, or tar dripping down the hull of a man o’ war.
We pass several waterfalls of varying heights along the way. Blocks of sandstone, ranging from the size of briefcases to gun-safes, and having fallen into the streambed, are actively dissolving back into sand. It is an absolute joy and pleasure walking up Keet Seel Canyon, with every one of our senses awake and flirting with our surroundings, on an 80 degree spring day.
Except for the last two miles.
Having carried my backpack up and down numerous hills, by mile six my office-grade conditioning has been worn away –I think scraped away is a better term – beneath the friction of my 40-pound backpack. The formerly bouncy cartilage in my knees has been compressed into tinfoil. In short, during those last two miles before we reach the Keet Seel campground, I feel like a kernel of corn carrying a mano down the Metate Trail.
Dustin is getting tired too.
“I think we’re gonna get to camp right about nap time,” he says.
So it is with great relief that we come upon a sign that says “Campground” with an arrow pointing to a trail branching away to our right.
The camp is beautiful. It’s tucked inside a grove of white oak, box elder, aspens and cottonwoods. The ground is covered with lush grass. It’s shady and 15 degrees cooler beneath its foliage. Cotton from the cottonwood trees drifts around like October snowflakes.
Dustin and l place our backpacks in one of the camps to claim it as ours, then we walk to the ranger’s residence hoping to catch him before he gives his last tour of the day.
We meet Dave and Hope, also waiting for a tour of the ruins, then we all meet our guide Steve Hayden, who says goodbye to the group he’s just led on a tour and says hello to us. We follow him along a sandy trail that winds through elderberry trees to the mysterious, amazing Keet Seel ruins.
Our guide is very accommodating and kind and brings with him a knowledge of Keet Seel that runs three generations deep. When Keet Seel was being reconstructed in the 1930s, his grandfather worked as the project’s archaeologist and his father worked as the artifact cataloger.
Hayden leads us through the ruins slowly. Visiting Keet Seel is a very interactive experience. The southern part of the ruin is closed to tourists to help protect it, but most of the rest of the ruin is open to visitors. We’re allowed to go inside some of the rooms where we get a better idea of how the dwellings were constructed.
As we make our way through Keet Seel our guide tells us it’s history. Keet Seel was discovered in 1895 by the Wetherill brothers, Al, Richard, John, Winslow and Clayton. They were cowboys from southwestern Colorado.
The ground below the ruin was one big midden heap where the Keet Seel inhabitants threw their garbage. Archaeologists found it stacked deep with broken pots, corncobs, and animal bones. The ground in front of the ruin is still littered with 1,000 year old corncobs, and thousands of pot shards.
One of the more interesting artifacts archaeologists discovered at Keet Seel was the skeleton of a macaw from southern Mexico. Archaeologists think the macaw may have been sacred or special to the inhabitants, because they found it buried in a special area.
After extensive analysis, archaeologists have determined that Keet Seel has been occupied on three different occasions, each time quite briefly. The first period was from 950-1000 A.D. The second period was from 1180 to 1210 A.D. and the third period was from 1250 to 1300 A.D.
They grew beans, squash, corn and cotton and raised turkeys in the canyon bottoms in the area.
The structures are constructed mainly from sandstone blocks plastered together with mud. The majority of the rooms were used for storage, some for living.
Keet Seel also contains several kivas and pit houses. At its peak Keet Seel had more than 150 rooms, and is believed to have been occupied by about 150 people.
When you go:
Navajo National Monument is located in far northern Arizona inside the Navajo Reservation. The neareast town is Kayenta. It’s only open for visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
A permit is required to hike to Keet Seel. The permit is free. To obtain a permit call Navajo National Monument at 928-672-2700. Only 20 people per day are allowed to visit Keet Seel.
It’s eight miles to the Keet Seel campground.
Navajo National Monument is also home to Betatakin Ruin which is also very well-preserved. The distance to Betatakin is 5.5 mile round trip, but includes an elevation loss of about 350 feet.