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.
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
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."
And Parrish notes how the ancestral lands and ruins continue to be intimately connected to today's Hopi. With the evocative Betatakin walls surrounding her, the great cavern ceiling arching high overhead, she observes that certain sites are linked specifically to the Hopi clans, and spiritual ceremonies are occasionally still performed here.
Her point is reiterated in the park's brochure. "Keet Seel/Kawestima was inhabited by Fire Flute and Bighorn Sheep clans," it reads. "Betatakin/Talastima was home to the Deer, Fire, Flute and Water clans. Inscription House/Tsu'ovi is a Rattlesnake, Sand and Lizard clan village."
Today Betatakin still gives visitors a palpable sense of how life was lived in the region 700 years ago.
As Parrish's little group trudged back to the rim, a few encountered backpackers returning from Keet Seel, farther down the Tsegi canyons. They were impressed by the ruins there, but said essentially that if you've seen one, you've seen the other because Keet Seel and Betatakin look so much alike.
Tom Bryson, from Phoenix, and Joe Carr, from Madison, Ind., were members of Parrish's morning hiking party. Both thoroughly enjoyed the experience of actually visiting Betatakin, instead of simply seeing it from high above on the rim near the visitors center, as most visitors do.
Bryson had also hiked to Keet Seel. Keet Seel is bigger, he said, but "Betatakin is excellent."
"If you've got the physical ability, it's well worth it at the end of the hike," Bryson said. "It's not just the ruin, it's the setting. This is a great time of the year to visit."
Carr seconded Bryson's observations.
"I've been to a lot of Arizona Pueblo sites, and it was quite good not restored," he said of Betatakin.