A sign says “Navajo National Monument.” It is barely twenty miles out of your way. Stop!
Even though things appear similar to everything else you see in that area, you learn some things are different.
The canyons along the way are different: Fir Canyon, Tesgi/Lenaytupqua Canyon and Betatakin Canyon are narrow, steep and deep. Sunshine has a hard time getting down into them, and that creates an interesting climate change.
Usually, when you go higher, the air becomes cooler. Mountains trap rain, so often you find more and bigger trees. Well, the same thing can happen in a deep narrow canyon. When the sun can’t find its way in, the air is cooler and there is less evaporation. Plants and animals normally seen higher on the mountains are also deeper in these cooler more humid canyons.
Ground level, at this altitude, is zone 3 growth with Juniper and Piñon trees. Lower down, zone 2 has Ponderosa Pine. At the bottom, zone 1 supports Douglas Fir. The botanical mountain is upside down.
Ancestral Puebloan people farmed, hunted and flourished in the canyons about 700 years ago.
During the winter season from October to Memorial Day, only three self-guided trails near the visitors’ center are open. Sandal Trail, Aspen Trail and Canyon View Trail are rim trails near the ancient 135-room Betatakin cliff dwelling.
In the summer, there are longer guided-tours to the dwellings at Betatakin and Keet Seel.
Ask about an easy trail. The ranger replies, “oh, the Sandal Trail is very easy.” It is only about a mile round-trip on a paved trail, and you can see the Betatakin/Talastima cliff dwelling. What she fails to appreciate is that a significant descent is involved. Florida residents, even those without disabilities, find climbing at 7300 feet challenging. We puffed and puffed but survived.
The summer Betatakin guided-tours are 3 and 5 mile hikes labeled “very strenuous.”
Keet Seel, another cliff dwelling, is 17 miles round trip and requires advanced reservations and a back country hiking permit. It is limited to twenty people per day. But if you can do it, unlike most Puebloan structures, little has changed in Keet Seel in seven hundred years.
Ancestors of the Hopi people lived in the area for thousands of years. The Zuni believe several of their clans originated here, “the northern canyons” of their tradition. The Southern Paiute tribe also lived here for hundreds of years with Hopi and Navajo neighbors.
Nothing at the park is particularly devoted to the Navajo but the Navajo Nation surrounds the park. Related to the Apache, they moved into the area around 1800. They had been hunter-gatherers, but became sheep ranchers.
Considering how long others lived in the area, many names for the park might have been more appropriate. However, it is one of the earliest National Monuments (the sixth). It is also in the Navajo Nation surrounded by sites sacred to the Navajo. It was created in 1909 through legislation signed by President Taft as a result of negotiations with the Navajo. Perhaps a more accurate name would be Navajo Nation First American National Monument — but that’s just me being fatuous.
Click on photos to enlarge.
P.S. Devils Tower in Wyoming was first National Monument.