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Sewing-machine leg is never fun, but it sure is memorable when scaling an escalator-length ladder bolted to slickrock. I look ahead and try to focus on what’s to come when my hiking partners and I enter a huge undercut in the cliff: a Pre-Columbian settlement, sheltered from weather and time. On solid ground, legs finally still, I notice the alcove’s acoustics, which amplify every word. But we keep our voices down, subdued by the empty doorways cut from stone, pictographs daubed on the back wall, and pots as old as Europe’s cathedrals sitting on a beamed rooftop as if their owners left only yesterday. It feels pleasant in here, out of the sun. I imagine the long-ago residents. Their dwelling shaped them, as ours does us.
Turn-by-turn from the visitor center
1) Hop on the Keet Seel Trail, a faint path that leads east across the mesa before plunging to the floor of Long Canyon at mile 1.5.
2) Stay on the trail as it doglegs east through Tsegi Canyon and immediately into the mouth of Keet Seel Canyon at mile 1.8.
3) Head north into the arroyo of Keet Seel, following sandstone walls and weaving across the stream (low, easy water year-round) to camp near mile 7.2.
4) Ditch your overnight gear and continue .5 mile to the backcountry station (a hogan) near the ruins, then check in with the Navajo ranger for the guided afternoon tour.
5) Retrace your steps to camp, then, next day, the trailhead.
Campsite: Oak Grove (Mile 7.2)
Pull off the trail at this obvious, creekside Gambel oak grove (first-come, first-serve; there’s room for everyone). Scan for colorful potsherds, but don’t take any, of course. Haul in all your water; drinking from the creek isn’t allowed.
Tsegi Creek gouged the band-shell alcoves and undercuts from the Navajo sandstone in Keet Seel Canyon. (Some 800 years ago, Ancestral Puebloans likely used these as shelters because they were so easily defended.) At mile 6, look up to see cascades flowing over purplish Kayenta sandstone ledges—sweet music on sweltering days.
An extremely dry climate and the rock overhang make Keet Seel—“Broken Pottery” in the Navajo language—one of the Southwest’s best-preserved cliff dwellings. Built around 1100 AD, it housed 150 people before being abandoned in 1300 AD.
DO IT Trailhead 36.6881, -110.5338; 60 miles northeast
of Tuba City on Tsegi Canyon Rd. Season Late May to mid-September (Thursday to Sunday only); May, June, and September are best to avoid extreme heat and monsoons. Permit Required (free); reserve by phone and arrive at the National Monument a day early to obtain it and attend a mandatory orientation at the Visitor Center.