Keet Seel

We left off yesterday with Brett and me hiking down a dusty road in Navajo National Monument with packs on our back, headed down into the canyons below.

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Our goal was the remote Keet Seel cliff dwelling, reputed to be the most complete and original site of its type in the southwest. The only way to get to it (unless you are a Park Ranger) is to hike nine miles, down 1,000 feet of elevation to the canyon floor and then crossing a meandering stream dozens of times. There is no road other than a rough jeep trail that the Rangers use, and even they have to dismount at a waterfall and hike in the final two miles.

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There are no services available in the canyon, no cellular coverage, not even potable water. You have to bring in everything you need, and pack everything back out again. There are two basic approaches: either bring a tent to spend the night in the primitive campground (basically a few open spots in a forest of oak trees), or do the entire hike as a single-day trip which means you have to complete the entire 18-mile round-trip between sunrise and sundown.

Hiking down into the canyon is of course fairly easy. The trail descends sharply, losing about 700 feet of elevation in just over half a mile. But every step is a reminder that you’ll have to go back up again, and in moderately thin air compared to what most of us are accustomed to: 6,300 to 7,300 feet elevation.

Once at the bottom, there’s a stream. The trail crosses this stream constantly, and for some of the hike it’s easiest just to walk in the water.  We counted on the way back and found that we crossed it 82 times. So we switched from hiking boots to water shoes at this point, and did the remaining 6 miles or so that way.

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The silty river bottom sometimes gets a bit sticky and soft, and there’s even the possibility of quicksand. DSC_4538 It’s not the “Gilligan’s Island” sort of quicksand that looks like cooked oatmeal and sucks in people whole; it’s more like very unstable sand that can take your shoes off if you linger. We ran into a little bit here and there.

The water in the stream is pretty lively with small creatures, insects, and microscopic organisms from upstream pollution (from cattle and horses). So it’s not safe to drink without treatment, and the NPS just tells everyone to bring a gallon of water per person, per day. For us, that meant 32 pounds of water to carry in.

We weren’t psyched by that, and decided to use a Katadyn Vario Pro water filter, followed by a Steripen UV water purifier. This combination cleans the water and sterilizes any microscopic baddies that might have slipped through.  We ended up drinking about 2.5 gallons each of treated river water and it was fine. (Even tasted good, after the charcoal filtration!) The Vario clogged up by the end of the trip, due to a fair amount of sediment in the river.

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We didn’t see a lot of wildlife on the hike. Plenty of birds, one harmless snake, two wild horses, and a few field mice that checked out our tent after sunset.

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You might be getting the idea that the actual cliff dwellings weren’t the entire point of this hike, and you’d be right.  This trip proves once again that it’s more about the journey than the destination. With beautiful blue skies, surrounded by sheer walls of red Navajo sandstone painted with ancient natural varnish, and a stream babbling beneath our feet, the miles of walking passed surprisingly quickly.

When we arrived at the camping area we decided to pitch the tent but leave off the rain fly since the weather was hot and sunny. This turned out to be a minor error, since the ruins of Keet Seel were about a quarter-mile away. We hiked over (now feeling very light with our packs ditched back at camp), knocked on the door of the resident Ranger, and arranged to meet him for our tour. Shortly after, we heard thunder and saw clouds building to the south.

Max the Ranger was very patient. I guess you’d have to be when you are stationed at a lonely outpost for 5 to 8 days at a time, waiting for visitors to drop in. He agreed to delay our tour until I ran down the hill, across the stream (again), up another hill, and into the campsite to put up the rain fly, and then back again. That took about 20 minutes.

Finally we got our tour of Keet Seel. The site has been abandoned since about 1250 AD, but was in use as a “city” for a long time. I don’t want to give away the full story (you could write a book, and I’m sure somebody has), so I’ll just say that of all the cliff dwellings I’ve seen, this is the most complete, original, and artifact-rich one ever.

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You approach the site by climbing a 70-foot ladder. The ladder is modern of course, since the ancient dwellers “closed” this dwelling when they left, leaving a large white fir log symbolically across the entrance. The nearby Hopi, who regard themselves as descendents of the people who lived here, say that someday the people will return to this place.

After climbing the ladder, the dwelling is revealed, complete with homes, courtyards, granaries, pottery, corn cobs, turkey bones, petroglyphs, pictographs, and much more.

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We spent over an hour with Max discussing the site, and it was fascinating. We were the only people to hike the canyon that day, so he wasn’t expecting any other visitors and he wasn’t in a hurry. We explored about half of the ruin (the other half is off-limits due to fragility).

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Since we started early, the hike, camp set up, and tour were all completed by about 3:00 pm. We had the rest of the afternoon to do basically nothing, which was (for both of us) a rare privilege. We were lying in the tent reading paperback books, admiring the view of the nearby cliffs, and listening to the insects buzzing by, when Brett finally said, “Do you know how long it has been since I just read a book outdoors with nothing else to do?”

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The interpretive guides suggest that we should leave behind as much of the modern world as we can when we visit this site, and I agree. Our cell phones would not work, so no one could reach us with problems and questions from the “outside” world. We had nothing to call us away, nowhere to go. It was only an afternoon of enforced relaxation, but it was great and memorable.

The next morning we rose with the dawn and began the long hike back out. The river had declined slightly, since there was no rain overnight, and the temperatures were cool in the shadows of the canyon until late in the morning.

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DSC_4494Like all good trips in my experience, we of course had a minor mishap. Talking as we hiked, we completely missed the turn-off from the river and hiked an additional mile or so down the canyon. Only when we encountered an unexpected waterfall did we realize the mistake. So our return trip ended up being about 10 or 11 miles.

That wasn’t too awful in the big picture, but I have to say that the combination of altitude, heat, and a heavy pack made the 1,000 foot ascent seem much steeper. I ran out of air several times above 6,500 feet and so we stopped frequently to rest, eat energy snacks and drink water.

It’s not an easy hike. It’s not a short one. You’ll spend most of the day wading through water and dodging quicksand. But it was one of the most rewarding hikes I can recall. Instead of the usual mountaintop view, we had a private encounter with a sacred cultural site that is nearly as it was left 800 years ago. You can’t visit a place like that and not have your perspective changed, at least a little bit.

After the hike we collapsed into the Airstream Interstate Grand Tour and fired up the hot water for showers. It took a couple of hours to clean up and re-pack before we were ready to head onward. Our next destination was Farmington, NM, about 150 miles to the east, for the WBCCI International Rally.  I’ll talk about that in the next blog.

(If you want to see more photos from this trip, check out my Flickr album entitled Navajo National Monument.)