Adventure in the Desert: Reaching Keet Seel

Taking the eight-mile trail in Navajo National Monument, Arizona to Keet Seel is a vigorous way to restore the body and soul of the canyon adventurer.

Keet steel, Cr-flicker

Keet seel, Cr-flicker

The steep trail down from Tsegi Point (7,280 feet) into in  Navajo National Monument, Arizona is just the beginning of a soul-refreshing journey to the Keet Seel ruins (6,640 feet) eight miles away. The hiker needs to carry two gallons of water (eight and a half pounds each) if he is to camp overnight just a quarter mile shy of the ruins themselves. It is best to stash brightly painted quart bottles of water every two miles on the way in order to have sufficient water going back, whether or not an overnight stay is planned.

The Beauty of Desert Canyons Is a Constant Delight

All the way down the 1,000-foot vertical drop into Tsegi Canyon offers incredible views of a desert canyon land studded with pinyon pines and juniper trees. Canyon wrens are in abundance with their constant chirping. Once down at the bottom, the hiker can easily follow white posts from Tsegi to Keet Seel Canyon and Keet Seel itself some four hundred feet higher and six miles distant. The desert adventurer must cross and re-cross the Keet Seel Canyon stream dozens upon dozens of times as the trail avoids steep and dangerous banks. It is necessary to avoid ankle-deep quick sand that gathers around big boulders or incoming side streams.

By the time the hiker reaches the first (and largest) of three waterfalls, the desert has begun to enter deep into the psyche. Turquoise-blue skies with puffs of cloud, rising red sandstone walls, the bellowing of occasional Navajo cattle here and there, gliding hawks high above, the sound of a shallow, gurgling stream all add a touch of desert to the inner being whether the hiker is trail-weary or not. Two more waterfalls to traverse and huge dark blocks of rock to pass by, and the desert adventurer at last enters the realm of “Keet Seel” (that translates into “broken pottery” in Navajo).

The Spirit of Keet Seel Seeps Deep Within the Mind

It is best to hike up to the campground nestled in a dense grove of oak trees, unload that heavy backpack, and set up camp before proceeding a bit farther to the ranger cabin. The ranger will set up a time to conduct his tour or begin immediately to lead the visitor right up to the ruins via a seventy-foot ladder that curves over the sandstone base of the ancient Anasazi village beneath a giant roof of cliff rock. Each step up takes the hiker into a different world.

Climbing ever higher, the ranger-led hiker at last stands high above the valley floor as he peers into one of many smoky rooms of Keet Seel. The entire village spreads 120 yards in the hollow of the cliff that once housed 150 souls between 950 and 1300 AD. There are living quarters and storage chambers and ceremonial kivas all built of sandstone. Logs jut out of the upper sides of the buildings with roofs made of pine logs and willow springs bound together with reinforced yucca fiber–reinforced with turkey-feather quills pinned inside. Anasazi pots line the walls and the strong smell of centuries-old smoke still permeates the air!

The Anasazi Method of Desert Survival Is Ingenious

Here and there are turkey pens that housed wild turkeys that were never killed for meat (they preferred mountain sheep and deer for meat), but used for their feathers and fresh eggs. Just below Keet Seel is a large spring that furnished the residents with cool and fresh water and, along with rain water, helped create muddy seeps where corn, beans and squash grew in abundance. They used the “three sister” method of growing crops with corn in the middle, beans beneath, and prickly-vined squash at the outer edge that kept away harmful insects.

What the corn took out of the soil, beans put back in. Perhaps the adventurer will begin to sense the presence of the ancient ones lurking in each alcove of Keet Seel.

Below the ruins, on the way back to the campground, lay thousands of broken pottery shards — hence the name Keet Seel — some are orange and black, some are black and white and some are corrugated gray. They are to be left alone for others to enjoy. Once back at camp after a boiled freeze-dried meal along with dried fruit and water, the desert adventurer can lie down in his sleeping bag and look up at the setting sun through quivering leaves of oak trees, and, as the stars begin to glimmer, and owls begin to hoot, the body and soul can take their rest, refreshed with an ancient land and its people.

Sources:

Navajo National Monument Park Ranger Patrick Joshevama, Keet Seel Guide.

Reg Saner, Reaching Keet Seel. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998.

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