Shonto, AZ – Navajo National Monument is located in the northwest portion of the Navajo Nation territory in northern Arizona. The monument was established to preserve three well-preserved cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloan People: Broken Pottery (Kitsʼiil), Ledge House (Bitátʼahkin), and Inscription House (Tsʼah Biiʼ Kin). The monument is high on the Shonto plateau, overlooking the Tsegi Canyon system, west of Kayenta, Arizona. The monument features a visitor center with a museum and several short informative films, three short self-guided mesa top trails, two small campgrounds, and a picnic area. Rangers guide visitors on free tours of the Keet Seel and Betatakin cliff dwellings. The Inscription House site, further west, is currently closed to public access.
Keet Seel (Kįtsʼiil), which stands for “broken house” in Navajo, is a well preserved cliff dwelling. The site was first occupied at around 1250 AD, during a time in which a large number of people were believed to be aggregating in such sites in this part of the American Southwest. There was a construction boom at Keet Seel between 1272 and 1275, with construction then slowly tapering off and halting completely at 1286. Once construction halted in 1286, there was no evidence of structures being built until its subsequent abandonment some 20 years later. It is believed that, at its peak, up to 150 people inhabited this site at one time. Due to the extremely dry climate and natural overhanging cliff the site’s dwellings and artifacts are well preserved. Keet Seel is considered by many archaeological experts to be one of the best preserved larger ruins in the American Southwest.
Betatakin means “House Built on a Ledge” in Navajo. In Hopi, the name of the place is Talastima, or “Place of the Corn Tassel”. Betatakin is smaller than nearby Keet Seel, with about 120 rooms at the time of abandonment. However, like Keet Seel, Betatakin was constructed of sandstone, mud mortar, and wood. Today only about 80 rooms remain, due to rock falls inside the alcove. Betatakin only has one kiva, whereas Keet Seel has several. Betatakin was built in an enormous alcove measuring 452 feet high and 370 feet across between 1267 and 1286. During its two-decade heyday it is estimated to have had a maximum population of about 125 people.
The structures contained within these cave sites were constructed mainly of sandstone blocks plastered together with mud and mortar. In marked contrast to earlier constructions and villages on top of the mesas, the cliff dwelling of Navajo National Monument reflected a region-wide trend towards the aggregation of growing regional populations into close, highly defensible quarters during the mid to late 13th century. Jacal walls were also found to be used at this site. Jacal walls were made from a screen of upright wooden poles plastered together with mud. The dry conditions and protection from the elements at Keet Seel allowed for preservation of these architectural characteristics.
There were also a number of structures believed to be built at the base of the cliff as well. But due to this area not being protected by the over-hanging cliff wall, its exposure to the elements led to its destruction by erosion. At Keet Seel, archaeological excavations have revealed that there were 25 room clusters beneath the overhanging wall, each that included one common living room, with anywhere from one to four storage rooms surrounding a small courtyard. The layout of these dwellings greatly mirrored that of the Pueblo III structures at Mesa Verde, whereas Betatakin had about 20 room clusters.
The Ancestral Puebloan (formerly known as Anasazi) of this area were a sedentary group that largely based their subsistence on agriculture. Their primary crop at the sites within Navajo National Monument was maize, with beans and cucurbits (a gourd) also being incorporated into their diet. While the people of the Tsegi Canyon system relied heavily on agriculture for their food, they also hunted wild game that was indigenous to the area.
It is thought that these Ancestral Puebloan lived in these cave dwellings to optimize the amount of sustainable land to produce crops. By living in these caves, and not on the mesas or the canyon floors, they were able to use those lands towards agricultural production to ensure their success in the high elevation, desert environment. The ruins that make up Navajo National Monument included a large number of rooms used for storage, suggesting that at some point their crop production was successful enough to dedicate a significant amount of their living area towards storage purposes.
Why did they leave?
Although many archaeologists agree that there is a definitive and sharp exodus from this region in the Southwest, there has been considerable debate on the determining factors that forced people to migrate out of this area. Archaeologists have determined that there was a distinct decrease in the amount of annual precipitation between AD 1276 and 1299, a period of time that is now referred to as the “Great Drought”. With the limited amount of rainfall in an already arid environment, there is no doubt that there was a considerable amount of increased stress put on the agricultural systems that these people depended on.
There is evidence later in the record to suggest the beginning of an episode of deep arroyo (a gully in arid region) cutting, that would have damaged what was left of the usable agricultural land. Increased deposition of sediment onto agricultural lands caused the lowering of the water table, thus making the land inadequate for farming. Regardless of their reasoning, near the end of the thirteenth century it’s evident that the Ancestral Puebloan people migrated towards places with more stable and abundant water sources, suggesting that the agricultural land in this area had become unsuitable to sustain the population levels that once inhabited this spectacular cave site.
Our visit did not align with one of the guided ranger trips to Keet Seel or Betatakin, but we hiked the three mesa top trails including: Sandal Trail, Aspen Trail, and the Canyon View Trail for a combined total of about 2.5 miles with about 500 feet elevation gain total. The hikes at Navajo National Monument are included in the book we used to select hikes in the region, “A Falcon Guide: Hiking the Four Corners” by JD Tanner and Emily Ressler-Tanner.
Sandal Trail is an accessible (paved, descends about 200 feet) self-guided walk that provides views of the spectacular canyonlands and rugged topography near the visitor center. Interpretive signs provide information on local flora and other topics. The 1-mile round-trip trail ends at an overlook of the Betatakin ruins across the 560-foot-deep Betatakin Canyon.
Aspen Trail branches off Sandal Trail and is a strenuous trail that steeply descends 350 feet to view an ancient aspen forest (0.8-mile round trip). This relict forest are the descendants of trees deposited in this area during an ice age 10,000 years ago.
Canyon View Trail offers a view of the head of Betatakin Canyon, the distant Tsegi Canyon and travels between the Visitor Center and the Canyon View campground as well as a historical ranger station (easy 0.6-mile round trip with minimal elevation change).
We stayed at Goulding’s RV Park, Monument Valley, Utah, which is located off of UT-163 near the Utah-Arizona border, about a 50 mile drive from Navajo National Monument. While in the region we also visited: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the Canyon De Chelly National Monument, Goosenecks State Park, the Natural Bridges National Monument, and toured areas of Bears Ears National Monument and the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch BLM Lands including the Valley of the Gods. The region is rich in scenic beauty and has many ruins from the Ancestral Puebloans (formerly known as Anasazi).