I’ve wanted to visit Betatakin for years, and we were finally going to do it. Located in northeast Arizona, in the heart of the Navajo Nation, the remote location had never been a convenient stop in our previous travels. But this time, we went out of our way to visit—and it was well worth the detour.
For starters, the landscape is beautiful. A high desert plateau, dotted with sagebrush, pinyon pine, and pygmy juniper and carved by deep salmon-hued canyons, it is a remote and peaceful place. A little more than a century ago, rancher/explorer John Wetherill (with the help of Clatsozen Benully, a Navajo guide) discovered the ancient abandoned settlement tucked beneath the overhanging cliffs. Constructed of sandstone, mud mortar, and wood, the ruins are remarkably well preserved. At the time of discovery the dwellings contained a vast array of basketry, pottery, grinding stones, and ancient tiny corncobs—all left behind when the people walked away 700 years ago.
Betatakin, which in Navajo means “ledge house,” is comprised of 135 rooms cobbled together and perched on the brink of a sheer sandstone cliff. The ruins are tightly protected—the only way to access them is with a ranger. Hikes are scheduled daily from Memorial Day until Labor Day; but from October through April, access to the cliff dwellings is closed. The Ancient Puebloans must have been smiling on us, because here we are, on a Tuesday in late October, and a hike is scheduled.
We’re taking the shorter (three-mile round trip) but more strenuous trail down to the ruins. Eight hundred precipitous stair steps and a steep trail of many tight switchbacks leads us 700 feet down into the canyon below. Along the way, Jimmy identifies native plants and tells us of their traditional uses. Pointing to sagebrush: “This one, my grandmother made into tea for headaches.” Born to a Hopi mother and Navajo father, Jimmy grew up exploring and playing in the area—his father was employed for decades at the monument, and Jimmy has volunteered here for many years.
At the bottom of the canyon, we sit in a circle while he tells us of ancient tribal ways that continue to be practiced among his people. He tells us of the coming of age ceremonies which last four days; the marriage traditions that include the weaving of the wedding basket (during which time the mother-in-law can say anything she wants to her prospective son-in-law, after that she has to hold her tongue). Married to a Hopi woman, Jimmy tells us that upon marriage, everything belongs to the wife. It is a matrilineal society, and the children are born to the clan of the mother.
Ancestors of the Hopi (the Hisatsinom) lived in this area—as they switched from nomadic hunting and gathering to farming, they built multi-storied stone masonry dwellings such as Betatakin. Other tribes, including the Zuni and the San Juan Southern Paiute, also traveled through and lived in these canyons. And for hundreds of years, the Navajo have lived in the surrounding territory. For the native peoples these sacred places are regarded as ancestral lands, and they hold deep spiritual significance in their cultural traditions.
After an hour of hiking, we have our first glimpse of Betatakin, high above in an alcove, the sun illuminating the red rock. In winter, the southern exposure provides maximum warmth and light; in summer, the dwellings are shaded from direct overhead sun. The ancient peoples farmed nearby low-lying lands, growing crops of corn, beans, squash, and corn.
We draw closer and Jimmy tells us more of life in the cliff dwelling. The rooms are small, with low ceilings—obviously the people spent most of their time outdoors. Some walls are blackened from the fires used for cooking and warmth. Some rooms have entrances just big enough to crawl through, with stones that could be locked in place to seal the entrance—these were granaries, designed to protect crops from thieving rodents. Ancient timbers still survive, hand and foot holds are worn into the steep rock face, faint symbols of the clans can still be seen painted and pecked into the sandstone. For an hour, we wander near the ruins, listen to the wind, watch the ravens catching the thermals, and imagine life as it was 700 years ago in this beautiful and secluded place.
And then, we make the trek back up, all 800 steep stair steps. For those who prefer to not take the strenuous hike down into Betatakin, an easy rim trail leads you to a terrific view from above.
About the campground: Two small free campgrounds tucked into the junipers and pinyon pines are available on a first-come basis. RV’s are limited to 28 feet or less, but we saw sites in the Canyon View campground that looked like they would accommodate big rigs. Water spigots and restrooms are available in the Sunset View campground; the Verizon coverage is decent; and it’s an easy walk to the Visitor Center and the hiking trails. According to the ranger, the campgrounds are never full.
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