Betatakin and Arizona's Navajo National Monument

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

The Colorado Plateau has been carved by streams seemingly intent upon creating a maze of canyons. Today, the region around Navajo National Monument is a dry desert, but Parrish says water runs year-round in the bottom of nearby Tsegi Canyon. Occasional flash floods can make the river rise five to six feet.

The Kayenta people faced similar conditions in the 13th century and before, scientists say. The harsh but beautiful setting comes into sharper focus during the hike to Betatakin.

Beginning at 7,230 feet above sea level, the trail begins to descend from the sandstone rim by following a primitive road, from which branches a path leading down a slickrock canyon. Soon this trail splits, a longer trail leading into Tsegi Canyon and toward Keet Seel, a 17-mile round trip.

Parrish takes a trail to the right, leading her charges into Betatakin Canyon, 500 feet below the rim. Ultimately she opens one final gate.

An oasis appears. Utah pinyons, juniper, Gambel oak — even aspen and fir trees — thrive here, creating a surprisingly lush environment. There is less evaporation of rainwater at the bottom of the canyon compared to the top, creating the inverse of a mountain hike; the forest is down, not up.

Then, the ruins of Betatakin appear — a lost village frozen in time, nestled in a gaping alcove 452 feet high and 370 feet deep, as if an improbable scene from an adventure yarn.

Seven-hundred years ago, Betatakin bustled. At one time there were 135 rooms tucked in here, Parrish says. Some 125 people may have lived at Betatakin and tended corn and squash fields nearby. Corncobs still lay untouched in some of the ruins, she says.

Evocative (but modern) log ladders sprout among the ruined walls. Many roof timbers, however, are original. Wood samples show Betatakin was built about 1260-70 A.D.

Today there are about 90 rooms, Parrish says. Slabs of rock falling from the cavern's roof and walls are a continuing problem. Centuries ago, when the Kayenta still occupied Betatakin, a rockfall wiped out an entire middle section of the apartment-like complex, she says, pointing out the damaged area.

"It's very risky to live in here," she says. And it is dangerous still.

"All that's been done is stabilization only," Parrish says, in contrast to Mesa Verde National Park and other popular cliff dwellings where some reconstruction has taken place. Nevertheless, about two feet of dirt had to be taken out of the Betatakin ruins, she says.

Like most alcoves used by the Ancestral Puebloans, Betatakin faces south. The angle would have given the pueblo needed sunlight warmth in the winter, when the modern park can receive several feet of snow, and cool temperatures in summer, Parrish says. These early Americans preferred such alcoves because the sheltering rock reduced wind, water and erosion forces, preserving their homes and requiring less maintenance.

Parrish says that where the Betatakin residents came from and why they left remains a mystery. However, scientists believe a long drought may have forced the ancient Pueblo people to move to other locations — the nearby mesas, for instance, where the Hopi still live, and the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico, also the home today of many Puebloans.

'A wonderful time'

Though Navajo National Monument remains relatively remote, it does attract visitors.

About 108,000 drop by each year — a low number compared to most national parks and monuments in the Four Corners area. The lack of crowds, of course, offers an excellent chance for solitude and serenity, as well as a window into the past.

As she guides hikers into the canyons, Parrish adds Navajo tribal perspectives and legends, for the monument is on their vast reservation. The single informational placard on the Keet Seel/Betatakin trail, at Tsegi Point, reiterates that this is their home.

"The Navajo Indian reservation surrounds you," it says. "Hogans, sheep-camps and fences indicate the need to respect the privacy of Navajo residents."