The main throughfare in the Keet Seel alcove…
Time in Arizona can be a tricky thing to someone from out of state. I was reminded of this in early September of 2013 as I embarked on a quick backpacking / photo trip to visit Keet Seel – a historic site near the Navajo National Monument in AZ. Accessed from the National Monument via a ~19 mile round-trip hike, Keet Seel is home to some of the best preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff-dwellings in the United States.
I acquired a permit about a month before my trip and planned to hike in on a Wednesday morning and hike out the following day before heading off to Las Vegas for a friends bachelor party. Hikers are informed that if they do not arrive by 9am on the morning of their hike they risk forfeiture of their permits. Therein lies the rub. That morning as I raced up the 160 towards the Navajo National Monument it dawned on me that the Navajo Nation, unlike the rest of Arizona at that time of year, observes Daylight Savings Time. The moment I crossed over its borders the clock was an hour ahead of where I thought it was. In an instant I was late.
Anxiously, I hurried into the visitor center and kindly announced to the man behind the counter that I had a permit reserved for a hike to Keet Seel. He hesitated for a moment before looking at the clock on the wall behind him, then back to me. After a beat he politely informed me that it can easily be over 90° in the canyon bottom at mid-day which is why they recommend that hikers are on the trail no later than 9:00 am. Furthermore, the last tour of the ruins would end at 4:00 pm and the hike was 8.5 miles or more.
I assured him I was aware of the risks and explained my lateness. Without saying anything he stepped into a side room and mentioned to his co-worker that I was there to hike to Keet Seel. They exchanged a few hushed words and I began to worry that I had blown it. As my mind was coming up with contingencies he came back to the counter and pulled out a white 3-Ring binder and to my delight began my impromptu Keet Seel orientation. He explained the route I was to take with corresponding pictures and soon I was bid farewell with permit in hand. Phew.
The trail begins on a rocky 4×4 access road that makes its way across the sandstone mesa-top towards the edge of the canyon. The road wanders through Pinyon-Juniper woodlands and overlooks Betatakin Canyon to the south before meeting the foot-trail which drops 1000 ft into Tsegi Canyon, crosses Laguna Creek, and heads up some of its tributaries to the Keet Seel village site.
With my gear packed and my hike finally under way, I walked quickly down the access-road – wondering about rocks laying here and there that looked as if they had been flaked for tool use. Eventually I reached the mesa’s edge near Tsegi Point and began the descent down into the canyon. I stopped here for a moment to fully appreciate the vista – Tsegi Canyon below me, Betatakin Canyon meeting it at my right, Laguna Creek snaking its way into the distance – everything dappled with sunlight streaming through the clouds above, red rocks glowing, a slight breeze. After a few pictures and a moment of quiet contemplation I headed down the cliffside trail, continuously mesmerized by the varnish-streaked ochre landscape around me. After 2.5 miles I made my first water cache for the return trip and deposited a 1-liter bottle just off trail in the low crook of a juniper trunk. The rocky ground turned to sand as I approached the canyon bottom and soon I was sloshing across Laguna Creek – my ‘waterproof’ boots doing their best to keep out the water that managed to find its way in anyway.
A false step and you’ll sink right in…
Upon crossing Tsegi Canyon the trail hugs Keet Seel Creek as it wanders up Dowozhiebito Canyon before veering off to the north up towards Keet Seel. It was along here that I began to probe the wet banks ahead of me with my trekking pole, as recent rains had left pockets of quicksand and deep mud everywhere. Immediately I made a misstep and almost lost my boots to the sucking mud. The day was hot but I did not find myself overly oppressed by the heat. The surrounding landscape and a steady breeze kept my spirit content and I experienced the familiar sentiment that there was truly nowhere else I would rather be than traveling down a backcountry trail winding through some of the most beautiful country in the world.
Over the next few hours I sloshed up Keet Seel Canyon towards my destination, caching water every 2.5 miles for the return the next day. At one point I mistakenly followed the trail up away from the creek bottom and along the mesa edge above. The trail quickly deteriorated and I had to carefully work my way back down to the creek. Otherwise it was a pleasant hike and I made good time, passing only one other hiker who was on the way out.
Keet Seel creek…follow it all the way up…
Upon arriving at Keet Seel I found myself in very much the same situation as I had been in earlier at the visitor center. After stashing my pack at the backpackers campground, I hurried the short distance up-canyon to the ranger cabin. The ranger informed me that tours ended at 4:00 pm and that he might not be up to a tour. I told him I understood and apologized for my lateness, explaining my misunderstanding of the way time works in Arizona. Finally after letting me sweat it out for a bit he told me to wait down the trail and he’d be along shortly for a tour.
Home away from home…
The Keet Seel site is amazingly well-preserved and you can almost feel its history in the air. The stillness is haunting and the village evokes a chuch-like reverence. As others before me have noted, one almost expects to see faces appear in the windows of the adobe structures pressed into the cliff side alcove. The scattered lodegpole ladders leaning against the orange mud walls create a striking image that is unique to the southwest. As my personal tour progressed, the sky began to darken – right on schedule for an afternoon thunderstorm at this end of monsoon season. It began to rain as we reached the rangers cabin and he looked at me and smiled as he said “you better run.”
Keet Seel in its entirety…
The entrance to the alcove above…
Top of the ladder…
Splashing down-canyon I arrived at camp on high ground under a full deluge. A metal sort-of-bearbox kept my pack dry while I sat the rain out under a tree – already too wet to bother with my rain gear. The rain felt like bath water and passed quickly – allowing me to dry off before I set everything up for sleep. I was alarmingly low on water and had barely enough to rehydrate a backpacker meal, although the rain had helped to top off my cup for a little to drink.
I spent the evening reflecting on the day and on my surroundings. No emails to check, no arbitrary commitments to burden my mind. No sounds other than the dribbling creek below, the aspens rattling in the breeze, the swishing of my pants as I strolled around, the chirping of the birds. The pace of nature. Real therapy. I walked around the campground looking at the trees, the cliffs above me, the landscape turning pastel in the setting sun. Alone with my thoughts, existing for a moment outside of clock-time, away from it all amidst the beautiful silence.
Keet Seel glows with reflected morning light…
I slept straight through the night that evening in Keet Seel Canyon – a first and only in my many nights of sleeping on the trail. I woke up in the morning and as the sun moved higher in the sky I walked to the north end of the campground and, from a bluff overlooking Keet Seel creek, used my telephoto lens to capture the illuminated Keet Seel alcove blazing neon orange with reflected morning light.
After a quick snack I packed up and headed back down-canyon, eagerly anticipating my first water cache, where I stopped, made some oatmeal and drank my fill. On the way out I met a group of feral horses who stood and eyed me cautiously as I passed. I moved at a relaxed pace back towards the main canyon, stopping to watch a sphinx moth pollinate some wildflowers. The hike back up to the mesa-top from Tsegi Canyon felt like a slog but soon enough I was up top looking back at the ground I had covered the day before. A few hours later I was Vegas-bound, feeling a bit reluctant as I skirted the Utah-Arizona border, speeding past so many beckoning trailheads and 4×4 roads that I had scouted on google earth and topo-maps. It is hard to leave an area I love so much without time to immerse myself even further in it. Another day I suppose.
Feral Horses keep an eye on me…
I highly recommend the hike to Keet Seel. Even more so I recommend spending the night if you can. If you are a heavy water-drinker on the trail I would bring as much water as you can carry for caching. I brought just shy of 6 liters and would have liked to have one extra liter. Your boots and feet will get wet as much of the hike is in the creek bed. Neoprene socks and water-boots would come in handy although I did the entire hike in wool socks and leather boots with goretex liners. If I did it again I would use draining water boots or canyoneering boots. The folks working at Keet Seel are knowledgable and helpful and were kind enough to be flexible with me when I arrived late. Keep in mind the time differences to avoid my mistake. As always, follow all rules in our few remaining wild places. There are good reasons for all of them. Protect and enjoy these lands – we need them now more than ever. One of these days I will return to the Navajo National Monument and tour Betatakin. Stay Tuned…
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Distance: ~19 Miles Round Trip
Time Needed: Doable as a long day-hike, more fun as an overnight
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.
Gear Considerations: You will need to cache water, so you will be walking in with 6 liters or so. If you are backpacking be sure to pack as light as possible. Water-boots with neoprene socks are also highly recommended as you will be walking in the creek for most of the trip and your feet will be wet, it is unavoidable. I suggest bringing some lightweight croc-type shoes to slip into once in camp.
Photo Tips: You’ll want a polarizer. I brought a wide lens (16-35) for vistas and a zoom telephoto (70-200) to isolate landscape elements. I brought a lightweight tripod but did not end up using it. Keet Seel glows with reflected light in the mornings just before the first tours start…if you have a telephoto you can photograph it from the bluff at the north end of the campground. Tripods are not allowed in Keet Seel itself and it can get pretty dim once in the alcove – you’ll want a fast lens with stabilization and a higher than usual ISO. At times I shot as low as 1/30 shutter and in most cases made it work. You might get away with a monopod but my tour was personal and I was not permitted to use one.
Logistics: A reservation for Keet Seel can be made by calling 928-672-2700. Click here for all the Permit and Logistics Information. And here to download a PDF with the latest Keet Seel hiking information.
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