Round Trip Distance: 18.9 miles
Elevation: 6294 - 7229 feet
Elevation gain: 4277
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 9 hrs. 30 mins.
Trailhead: Keet Seel
Attractions: Cliff dwelling, waterfalls
Keet Seel is an Anasazi cliff dwelling located between Kayenta and Tuba City, Arizona in the Navajo National Monument. The site has one of the best preserved Anasazi cliff dwellings found in the southwest. Getting to Keet Seel requires descending from the mesa at Tsegi Point into the canyons of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation. Once in the canyons hikers follow a marked route with numerous stream crossings and several waterfalls until they arrive at a Ranger Station just below the ruin. A Park Ranger will then take them on a guided tour of the site. Visitors must make a reservation and obtain a permit, which is available for free after taking part in a special orientation, before being allowed to enter the canyon. Those that would like to split the long journey over a 2 day period can backpack in and stay at the campground located near the site.
The first stop is at the Visitor Center for the orientation and to get a permit. To get there from Kayenta drive west on Highway 160 for 19 miles and turn north onto AZ-564 for another 9.5 miles. If coming from the Tuba City direction drive east on Highway 160 for 52.5 miles to get to the turnoff. Keet Seel is only open between Memorial Day and Labor Day so plan accordingly. Be sure to visit the Navajo National Monument website for information on how to make your reservation.
They will provide the directions to the trailhead at the orientation. The permit needs to be displayed on your pack. When you arrive at the Keet Seel Ranger Station the ranger will tear off the bottom stub before taking you on the tour. That way they know that you arrived at the ruin and that you have the necessary permit.
From the parking area the route follows a road that takes it through the parking area for the Betatakin trailhead at the half mile point. The two trails share routes from there and continue to follow the road out to near the end of Tsegi Point. From there they begin descending down a series of uneven steps into the canyon.
Near the 1.8 mile point the two trails separate as the Betatakin trail breaks off on the right.
The trail continues descending into the canyon and just before the 2.5 mile point it reaches the first stream crossing. They go over all of this during the orientation and when they give you your permit they also give you a map with some of the directions printed on the back. One thing that is nice to know before you arrive though is that you will be crossing streams a dozen or more times. We had people that didn't come prepared for that and ended up not going on the hike. The water when we were there was shallow enough to usually find a place to cross where it was only ankle deep.
The first 6.5 miles of the trail are well marked. There are mile posts every half mile that show the remaining distance to Keet Seel. There are also other posts and markers at all the critical junctions that help hikers to stay on the correct route.
There are several nice bonuses while making the hike. The beautiful canyon surroundings are obvious but there are also 3 picturesque waterfalls along the way.
Another bonus, if you are lucky, is to see some wild horses. That was one of the first things that others would ask was whether we saw any wild horses. We encountered these two both on the way in and coming back out. We have been around wild horses most of our lives and even had family members adopt them. If they start to approach you it is usually a good idea to shoosh them away. Some of them have bad habits like biting and kicking.
We included an elevation profile of the trail to point out not only the dramatic descent into the canyon but the steady uphill climb enroute to Keet Seel. The climb is gradual and hardly noticeable until you have to get above the waterfalls. The descent isn't the drop off that the profile makes it appear to be because it is all scrunched up to get it to fit on the page. The slideshow at the end of this post should have enough pictures to give a good enough idea of what it is like as well as the rest of the hike also.
The trail comes to the campground right before reaching Keet Seel. Backpackers can take their gear up and drop it off before they meet up with the ranger.
The campsites are semi primitive. There is a metal box to put your packs in to keep the squirrels out of them as well as a few picnic tables and another restroom. Camping stoves are allowed but campfires aren't.
Once you check in with the ranger they will give you a half hour to eat your lunch and use the restroom before beginning the tour.
Keet Seel is about as spectacular an Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling as you will see anywhere. It is truly awe inspiring and remarkable how well it is preserved.
The name Keet Seel comes from the Navajo language and it is referring to all of the broken pottery that is found at the site. Various fragments or sherds of Kayenta black-on-white, Tusayan black-on-red and Kayenta polychrome decorate the ground below the alcove.
Getting up to the alcove requires climbing a 70 foot ladder. It has a good lean to it so it doesn't really require much in the way of strength. In our opinion it is much easier than climbing the ladder up to Balcony House in Mesa Verde National Park.
The ranger will point out a ton of interesting features that even someone that is accustomed to visiting such places might miss on their first visit.
We found it remarkable that there were lashings still in place after all the hundreds of years since they were first tied. One of the roof beams in this picture still has a noose attached to it from which a pot once hung.
With rangers living on site and accompanying everyone that comes to visit there is good reason to hope that Keet Seel can be preserved for who knows how many more hundreds of years providing the alcove itself remains intact.
The crux of the hike is probably the climb back up Tsegi Point from the canyon to the Shonto plateau followed by the remaining mile and a half or so that it takes to get back to the trailhead. We heard someone say that on average it takes about 10 hours to do the hike counting the time the tour takes. It took us 9.5 hours and that included pausing to take over 500 pictures along the way. It is suggested to arrive the day before your scheduled appointment so that you can catch the afternoon orientation and get your permit. That way you can leave early in the morning while it is still cool and arrive at Keet Seel in time for a tour. The rangers don't do tours after 3 pm. Visiting Keet Seel takes some advanced planning but a place like this is well worth it. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.