Betatakin and Arizona's Navajo National Monument

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Sheltered by a huge, arching grotto, Navajo National Monument's Betatakin ruin sits above a forested oasis in northern Arizona.

Ravell Call, Deseret Morning News

NAVAJO NATIONAL MONUMENT — On a crisp, fall-like Saturday morning, Cassandra Parrish leads five hikers into a deep, salmon-to-red tinted canyon south of the Arizona-Utah border. Their goal is Betatakin, an ancient pueblo nestled precariously inside a stunningly cavernous grotto.

Betatakin (Beh-TAH'-tah-kin), abandoned more than seven centuries ago, is one of three villages at the heart of off-the-beaten-track Navajo National Monument.

"Even locals need permission to travel here," Parrish, a National Park Service ranger and a Navajo, says as she opens a gate near the trailhead.

For the next three hours, she points out significant sites, offers history and insights and answers questions from her small contingent.

Betatakin is actually visible at a distance from the park's visitors center, on the canyon rim above. And the view from there is definitely rewarding.

However, the moderately strenuous, ranger-guided five-mile round-trip hike lets modern explorers get an up-close look at the pueblo and the remarkable cavern in which it is perched — a grotto so large it seems capable of sheltering a cathedral or a domed state capitol.

Wide-angle camera lenses are the best choice at Betatakin, there is so much to see at once.

Ancestral Puebloans

Betatakin (Navajo for "ledge house"), Keet Seel ("scattered broken pottery") and Inscription House are the three ancient treasures of Navajo National Monument, sheltered villages built by an agricultural pre-Columbian people variously known as cliff-dwellers, Anasazi (a Navajo word for "ancient ones"), Hisatsinom (a Hopi word for their predecessors) and, more commonly of late, Ancestral Puebloans (a reference to the villages of both the historical Hopis and their ancestors). They are also called the Kayenta, for the area in which they lived. The Hopi names for the three pueblos are Talastima, Kawestima and Tsu'ovi.

With ranger/guides and permits, hikers can visit Betatakin and Keet Seel, Arizona's largest single cliff-dwelling. Because of the fragility of the ruins there, Inscription House is currently off limits, as it has been since 1968.

The pueblos were unknown to European settlers until the late 19th century, when the Wetherill brothers — ranchers and traders who also explored and told of the ruins of Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado — found Keet Seel in 1895. Navajos had avoided the area, for their traditions instruct them to avoid burials and places where people have died.

Then the Wetherills and University of Utah professor Byron Cummings discovered Inscription House and Betatakin in 1909. As a result of the spectacular finds, President William Howard Taft established Navajo National Monument on March 20, 1909. The park will celebrate its centennial in 2009.

Modern roads into the area were not built for several more decades. In 1957, the nearest paved road to Navajo was 70 miles away. Now U.S. 160 makes a diagonal cut across northeastern Arizona between Tuba City and Kayenta, on the Navajo Nation reservation. Famed Monument Valley is nearby to the north. A paved tributary road from U.S. 160 to the park's visitors center was completed in 1965.

Today the visitors center offers travelers a quick education on the area's inhabitants, ancient and modern, as well as books, souvenirs and advice. Two self-guided mesa-top trails begin behind the center, offering great views of Betatakin from on high. Nearby are two small campgrounds and a picnic area.

Travel beyond the public areas requires permits and/or guides — like Cassandra Parrish.

The lost village