Finally made the backpack to Keet Seel; years after I had 1st learnt of this amazing location. After much hand-wringing over the permits, transferring the permits, attending the orientation …we were on the long road that lead to the original TH and down to the ruins! YAY! We met up at the Keet Seel Parking area at 7:00 am MST (Navajo Nation is on MST – 1 hr ahead of AZ Time) and finally started walking down the road towards the 1st of many ” you need a permit to go past this point” barriers! The actual trail down the canyon is 7 miles and a good 1.5 miles of old and not so old road walking thrown in for a good measure. Getting closer to Tsegi Canyon, we are greeted with some sun-kissed views of the sandstone cliffs and the shimmering lazy meanders of the creek.
Soon we are at the original TH and we plunge down through the sandstone cliffs on a rocky trail– may steps hewn into the rocks and in other areas the trail is held together with railroad ties, rods driven into the sandstone and some old pinyon logs shoring up the crumbling trail footbeds. The steps are huge and don’t work well with shorter legs — this is painful – especially with all the extra water we were carrying for the wettest dry camp experience! We were caching some water at the river bottom for our climb out and carrying rest for our camp supplies. 350ft descent through the rocks and then we are at the turn off for Betatakin Ruins ( That will be another hike) and after some easier walking, we plunge down a few sand hills for another 350 ft descent till we reach the “junipers” at the end of the cliff. We take a quick break to cache our water under a trail side tree…snack some and then its down to the canyon floor and our 1st water crossing. I was prepared with my 510 canyoneers so I happily waded in and was on my way … some attempted to keep their feet dry but that lasted a few more minutes. You quickly accept the fact that you will be walking in the water or in the wet sand near the water( far easier than slogging in the dry sand!). We are confronted with 3 canyons coming together fairly quickly …. follow the white logs and your will find the right canyon. Its not too hard. There is also the much talked abut “big rock” that marks the right canyon – if you attend the orientation you will know ! Lucky for me, everyone in the group but us attended the orientation (thanks ya’ll) the prior evening so we knew where to go! Its fairly easy walking in the canyon bottom — just follow the water & keep track of the white posts. Just so we know, looking down from the water cache area; Long Canyon is to your immediate left with water flowing in it. Next canyon over is Keet Seel canyon, there is water flowing thru it. About a 1/4 mile up Keet Seel Canyon – you run into Dowozhiebiko Canyon( Dry Canyon) branching right. Stay to the left after you enter Keet Seel canyon. There is a large 8′ white post marking Keet Seel canyon. Tsegi heads off in a south eastern direction draining the waters from Keet Seel & Long canyons. Soon we are at the junction of Keet Seel Canyon & Dowozhebetio Canyons & per our drilling from the orientation we turned left. In some areas there is short cuts that go over the sand banks — some of these are marked with the white posts. We pass Battleship Rock and then Kachina Mother (Pointed Cluster of Rocks that dominate the horizon). The canyon begins to narrow down and soon we are at the “Big water Falls”. You will see ATV tracks up until this point – the rangers bring some of the supplies in on ATVs up to this point. We climb up around on a steep sand hill( on the right side) . There is a tiny sign in the side canyon that points you uphill. I find the sign amusing ” Keet Seel –Up Hill! We continue on past a few more water falls….Diane gets really hungry so we break for a quick snack just before the last water fall — probably less than 1/4 mile from camp. Diane crawls into some shade and we reminisce our crawling and hiding in Copper Canyon ( Grand Canyon – Royal Arch Trip). Soon we pack up and make a quick walk to camp. Mike has hike up before us and scored us a nice campsite ( Thanks Mike) – we don’t get the prize camps at the far end with a view of the ruins but our site is nice – tables, flat ground & lovely view. Even the bathroom is close 🙂 – who would have expected a rather nice ( Ok a bit smelly) composting bathroom with TP & sanitizer after a 8.5 mile backpack! They also provided us with huge metal bins to put our packs in…how awesome is that — no rats, no ravens and not worries about getting the packs wet! Thanks NPS…. We lounge at camp a bit and then decide to walk down to the ranger station and stake out our spot to get on the ruins tour. I get out of my boots and slip into my Tevas. Diane gets into her flipflops and provides some hilarity as she crosses the stream a few times and the creek wants to eat her flipflops…. We come up to the NPS boundary again and let ourselves in closing the gate behind us ( this is to keep the cattle away from the ruins – there are still a few Navajo families that run cattle in the canyon). We are greeted by Diane -she is the wife of the Volunteer Ranger Steve Hayden who is covering the tours for the 1st 10 days after the park opens ( Park Opens Memorial Day). She banters with us, tells us stories and builds up some excitement. We hang out on the benches under the gambel oak canopy and enjoy the chitchat and get some rest. It will be another hour before our tour starts…
Diane & I can’t wait to see the ruins so we run off to the ruins overlook and sit there in the hot mid-day sun gawking at the amazing scene before us — hundreds of rooms – an entire village tucked back in the massive alcove. I had seen many pictures of this place but just being there is something else…. If it even remotely on your list — go! Soon the hot sun gets our attention & we get back to the shade and wait for Steve to finish the tour. We learn that Steve Hayden’s grand father Irwin was the head of CWC project of 1934 that excavated the ruins and stabilized them– their work is what lends shape to the Keet Seel of today. We also learn Steve’s father – Julian – a young 23 yrs old worked on the project as the cataloguer and help dejour. This happens to be one of the many project that was funded by the CWC when the country was gripped in the throes of the “Great Depression” — this was a time that folks worked hard and made a living wage and government lent a helping hand through the CWC program putting people to work on public projects – the park service stood to benefit from many of these projects, in fact I think they worked on about 12 sites for stabilization of ruins in AZ ( I think I heard this right) . Irwin was a Harward educated archaeologist looking for some work & fortuitously ended up leading this project. For rest of the story we have to wait for Steve…. Meanwhile, Diane ( Steve’s wife) is showing me where there a Mouqi steps — they are all over that area — quick scary ascents ( I cant fathom how you descend these…) to the rim. She also mentions there is an easy walk up round the bend to the rim…so all the more “why these steps?”. Perhaps these are associated with rituals, quests or just fun ? Soon the other group walks back with Steve and after a short break Steve joins us for our tour. After some background and introduction … Steve takes us up to overlook and continues to share with us the lives of this people — what was impressive was the images he shared from 1910 …the front of the ruins is a plain farm-able land with just the beginnings of arroyo back cutting …. Markedly different from the deep gullies that cover that area — just last year ( or 2 yrs ago ?) the 75yr old trail to the ruins. Dramatic changes in landscape in a short time …more on this later. We hear about CWC, his grandfather Irwin & his dad, their work at the site, what conservation meant in 1934…and finally Steve leaves us hanging with the fact that his grandfather just picked up and walked to Kayenta one day — no trip report was ever submitted for this work back in 1934. This has remained a mystery for a long while — until Steve found his grandfathers diaries from that time at their family home in Tucson. ( Web search tells you Steve lectures based on this information from time to time!). He leaves us wondering and we make our way across the brand-new trail — briefly pausing to look at midden that is eroding out …Basketmaker period we are told. We are soon at the base of the alcove …its cool, shady and well protected from the elements, the summer sun never gets to the ruins ( full sun in winter for warmth)- these old time builders knew solar gain & studied the direction of movement of the sun over time. We stop by to examine examples of pottery sherds and the corn cobs that are scattered every where. I catch sight of corrugated, Kayenta Black on White, Tsegi Orange, KeetSeel Black on White …and few more that I don’t know, shards of bowls, ladles, pots are scattered everywhere. Steve tells us the stabilization work and specifically on how the retaining wall is built up…we learn that the CWC built up quite a bit of that wall — using same techniques that were used by the people that originally constructed these walls. You can tell where the walls are original & where the reconstruction starts – this is intentional. We climb up the 70 ft ladder — easy climb, we see evidence of some steps hewn in sandstone towards the higher end. This puts us on the main street of this thriving village – it is easy to see a bustling community overlooking thriving farms – paradise in a land of plenty with water food and shelter.
People began settling in Keet Seel around A.D. 950. In A.D. 1250, a new group of settlers arrived and a steady influx kept the village growing until it contained more than 150 rooms. Part of the ruins are closed – these are the unrestored ruins – much of it is intact and well preserved. You look down main street and see may homes with windows facing the street line this path. Each house seems to be built at different times, slightly varying in style and details, there are tall poles that line this path – perhaps birds / animals were tethered to these?, were they used for hanging things one wonders… some walls are masonry and others are “wattle and daub” construction.
A good majority of the rooms are intact with ceilings. Its very interesting to see these living rooms & storage rooms – a few hearths, loom pole holes, ledges, shelves, some matates and lots of pot sherds and corn cobs. You see evidence of sharpening – axes, blades – some predating the ruins. We descend to a different level — the village looks to be laid out along 3 main streets that together run the length of the alcove broken up by small courtyards, kivas and granaries. There are 4 different kivas, each build differently yet serving the common cause of community gathering- some burnt down by the freak fire, evidence of rapid construction as well as very careful detailed work – some of it very beautiful, a few pictographs ( Canada geese, turkeys…and human figures and patterns, one 4 fingered hand print in yellow and black) a petroglyph of snake ( evidence of Snake Clan association with this site ?). The yucca & turkey feather ropes still bind roof beams together — it all looks so new – testament to the protective dry desert alcove that has preserved so much of the ruins in the Desert Southwest. We hear more about the restoration work, the attention to detail and the philosophy back in 1934 of conservation, how ruins were viewed, how the white man was the “discoverer” of so many places that clearly show signs of current and prior habitation … Steve walked us to a wall where there was a interesting window – he goes over how the unstable wall was shored up and then for the great reveal about his grandfather leaving the site – Well! Its Steve’s story so you will just have to walk up to Keet Seel in the 1st 10 days of the season to find the answer! Further on we hear about macaws and how the community raised turkeys, of lush fields and granaries so full that rooms in houses were converted to store grain….that they traded far and wide…with the surplus of grain they definitely had the bartering power.
We peek into a room with deep marks of axe sharpening – these predate the ruins, we see dark soot deposits on the alcove again predating the ruins, pottery of different time litter the site… timber has been reused on the site – all evidence of a repeated occupation of this location. Steve tells us of native lores of many lands – the Hopis, Zunis talk of Kiet Siel in their migration stories – look like Keet Seel was a stopping point for millennia. I wonder if the “Clovis man” made it here …perhaps someone will find a Clovis point ( After all they have found one in the White mountains at Casa Malapias). We wrap up our wanderings at the home of someone well-to-do: multiple rooms with fine details on the walls , an open courtyard near the kivas…. trappings of a power of bygone eras. Steve talks about the end times — there is evidence of hasty reconstruction, walls, towers part built…. Haphazard conversion of rooms into granaries …. The theory is that the sand dam at the mouth of the canyon blew out in a massive water event ( or perhaps just over population leading to tree cutting and erosion and hence the loss of wetlands ?) and that dropped the water table, accentuated erosion and soon the delta was being washed away – the people saw this loss of a land and soon tried to build kivas to hold ceremonies to appease the spirits …but they knew its was soon time to move …..they had done this before in many places…soon the elders decided it was time to move, they put up a huge log across the threshold to the village – they were closed.
Families sealed doors, stored corn in pots in their granaries and sorted out their pots, stashing them for when they would return. They carried with them the essentials to start life in a new place …there were no horses or mules, what they were carrying will be on their backs…. One last night under their alcove that had been so good to them, they woke to a wondrous morning and took their 1st steps out of the canyon …Babies in arms, mothers walked, elders lead the way and the young men forged ahead … looking for a new land to live. I sure there were many a backward glance at their village – the rooms where they lived and loved, their farms and granaries, the bubbling springs, ceremonial kivas…. They were walking away in small family groups looking to the future…. their time here was done , just like their forefathers who came here from their other settlements; they now walked forth not knowing where they will end up. Perhaps they ended up on the mesas of Hopiland? Or did they walk further on …
I think of these thoughts as I drift off under the stars ….next morning we too pack up and head down the canyon. We make quick time along the canyon, briefly pausing at the waterfalls, overall the canyon views are pretty: the early light warming the cliffs and throwing golden reflections in the creek. We encounter the herd of Wild Horses of Keet Seel: its an impressive display of thundering hooves as 8 of thunder on by to catch up with a mare and her foal. What a treat!
….we tick of the miles and soon are at our water cache. We stock up and soon are headed up hill — sand hill and then the stone steps past the sandstone buttes …. The creeks dropoff behind us, the day warms… soon we break the rim and at the TH and the long walk back to the car park feels like the longest part of the hike….
A quick stop at Tsegi overlook and onto navajo Tacos at Cameron Trading post. We toast to fond memories of our hike to Keet Seel and soon we are speeding on towards the urban lights of Phoenix on a ribbon of asphalt… a far far distance from our morning of walking along the glittering creeks re-tracing the pathways of the Anasazi elders and those that came after … in a slower time when one had time to live in sync with nature. What a trip – an opportunity to reach out and touch the past in the company of some wonderful friends, lifetime memories and a pause to appreciate the way it was…. In the wonderful Desert Southwest that is keeper of so many special memories! Interesting Read on the Weatherill Controversy: http://wetherillfamily.com/keet_seel.htm