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Keet Seel Overview

Keet Seel is an amazingly preserved pueblo village in the depths of the canyons at Navajo National Monument. First occupied as early as 700-900 AD, it was not until approximately 1250 AD when the current visible structures were built. During that period, Keet Seel was home to about one hundred Anasazi farmers. Now, the ruins are accessible (via a fairly rigorous hike – 17 miles round trip) to those who want to see and walk amidst a fascinating piece of the American Southwest’s history. If Navajo National Monument and Keet Seel are on your itinerary, be sure to also include Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley!

The site is often compared to the well-known Mesa Verde ruins in Colorado. Keet Seel has an overall smaller footprint than Mesa Verde, but is made up of about the same number of rooms. The inhabitants of Mesa Verde actually migrated to Keet Seel before continuing to the Hopi Mesas.

Because preservation is so important at Keet Seel, you must get a permit and make a reservation to visit. Keet Seel is accessible from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day each year. See the “Logistics” section for more information about obtaining a permit.

The site is managed by the National Park Service (NPS), but the first part of the season the effort is led by Steve and Diane Hayden, who have been volunteers at the site for over a decade. Steve’s grandfather, Erwin Hayden, was one of the original archaeologists who worked at Keet Seel in 1934, so the couple are knowledgeable about the site and take great pride in it. They usually visit the site during the first 2-3 weeks of each season to help set things up and give tours during the busiest part of the accessible season. Ranger Max is a full-time ranger at Keet Seel, and he and his associates are available for the rest of the season to provide tours.

Logistics

You must obtain a permit to visit the site; only 20 permits per day are available (group size maximum of 10). As of 2016, the number to call to request reservations is 928-672-2700. Reservations can be made starting each February.

Keep in mind that the first three weeks of the season are the busiest (early June). Not only is this the coolest time to go, it is also the time when flash flood risk is lowest, meaning it is less likely that your permit will be canceled.

The Visitor Center (where you will check in and begin your hike) is located at the end of AZ-564, which is off of the US Highway 160. The pin at the below map will take you to the Visitor Center.

If you are completing the day hike, the easiest place to spend the night if you want a hotel is in Kayenta, AZ – about a 30 minute drive to Navajo National Monument. There are campsites at Navajo National Monument if you prefer camping.

The Hike to Keet Seel

The 8.5 mile hike to Keet Seel has been done in as few as 1.5 hours and also in as many as 10 hours (each way) — it depends on your group’s hiking ability and fitness level how quick a hike it will be! There is a designated campground near the ruins, if you wish to stretch your trip over more than one day. Our group took about 3 hours to get to Keet Seel and 3.5 hours to get back to the trailhead (we are active 20-30 somethings that didn’t do any special training for the hike). The hike has been drastically reshaped since 2012, when flooding washed out the original path; park rangers even used to be able to ride an ATV all the way to Keet Seel. Now they have to stop 2.5 miles short of it.

The hike will be in the altitude range of 6300-7100 feet above sea level. While you might suspect that this will mean cooler temperatures, the canyon floor regularly reaches 90-100+ degrees during the open season, even in June. The heat combined with the altitude can be exhausting; bring plenty of water! An orientation is required before you set out on your hike – this can be completed at 8 a.m. the day of the hike or 3 p.m. the day before your hike. In any case, if you are only doing the day hike to Keet Seel, you will not be allowed to go if you are not on the trail by 9 a.m.

If you obtain permits, you will receive detailed instructions from the National Park Service team at your orientation (in my opinion, the orientation was overkill – it was designed for out of shape idiots that have no business doing the hike in the first place…but then again, that is likely by design to scare off the incapable! 😉 ). There are white posts along the trail about every 1/2 mile keeping you on track. As long as you enter the correct canyon of three options, you won’t have a problem (go north after the huge boulder in the middle of the creek and head up the middle of the three canyons).

Some sources online mention sand dunes along the trail. I wouldn’t call them “dunes” exactly, just a couple really sandy portions of the trail. Some of them are at an incline (about 10-15% grade). A tip for hiking in sand: rather than stepping down on the sand, step into it, like you would if there was a pick on the end of your shoe/boot. You’ll also cross the creek a few times along the way, so keep that in mind when selecting your footwear (more on that below).

The hike provides some nice flora and fauna viewing opportunities. In June, we saw primrose, poppies, and datura (angel’s trumpet). We also saw tadpoles in the creek, plenty of butterflies, and even some horses. We were lucky enough to have a nice breeze accompanying us on our hike, which kept the flies, bees, gnats, and mosquitos at bay. Mosquitos in the area have been reported to carry West Nile virus at times, so cover up as much as possible and bring your repellent and apply it liberally!

You’ll see natural landmarks along the way, including Arrowhead Butte (pictured right) at about the halfway point, and a waterfall at about 6.25 miles in. Both are beautiful! Though, be sure to NOT drink the water (more on that below).

Keet Seel Arrowhead Butte

Arrowhead Butte Pictured Upper Left – Halfway Point Along Trail

One final note: I have read other reviews of the Keet Seel hike that make it sound scary and extremely difficult. While it is certainly no walk in the park, it seems to me that many of those hikers may not have been adequately prepared for their experience at Keet Seel. If you follow the above guidelines, bring all the right equipment, and are in good physical shape, you will be fine. Not only that, but you will get to visit a site that is naturally beautiful, historically fascinating, and culturally significant. Prepare yourself and give it a shot!

Gear and Gadgets

Water, water, water. Make sure to bring plenty of your own water. Even though you are hiking up through the flowing Keet Seel creek much of the time, this water is not potable and is rumored to have relatively high levels of giardia (yuck!). I brought 6 liters (~1.5 gallons) and wish I brought more, but that said…I sweat more than most! Others in the group got by fine with 4 liters/1 gallon. Think about bringing an additional water bladder along to pack in your backpack.

I would recommend bringing your preferred hiking shoe/boot AND water shoes. Much of the “trail” takes you through and frequently across Keet Seel Creek. Use your dry hiking shoes/boots for the initial descent and for touring around the ruins, but use your water shoes for the rest (and bring a compact towel like this along to dry off your feet!).

When you make your reservation, the National Park Service will mail you an exhaustive list of things to be aware of, items to bring, and warnings about the potential dangers of the hike. A few highlight son potential hazards are outlined below.

  • West Nile Virus: transported by mosquitos and sometimes gnats. Prevent by bringing and wearing insect repellent.
  • Giardia: bacteria present in the stream water. Do not drink from the stream, even if you plan on using a filter. Filters may not remove all the organisms from this water that is contaminated with animal feces. Do you really want to take the chance? Seriously, just pack in your own water (and plenty of it!).
  • Quicksand: can occur following heavy rains, usually in the eddies around large rocks in the stream. Be careful, and bring a couple ropes that are divided up among members of your group. Real life quicksand along Keet Seel creek isn’t Hollywood’s quicksand; just keep moving and stay away from rocks where water can create eddies.
  • Wild animals: mainly just wild horses. A mountain lion sighting is possible, but this is extremely rare and is more likely to occur when someone is traveling alone (which you’re not doing anyway, right?).
  • Flash floods: thunderstorms in the area come on quickly and can be powerful. In the case of rain, get to high ground quickly and do not cross the stream. If inclement weather is suspected, your permit may be cancelled.

As always, check out my Day Trip Gear Guide for gear recommendations, as well as the Leave No Trace principles for reminders about how to respect the land and the site.

The Keet Seel Ruins

Because of the relatively dry climate, remote location, and protection from the cliff overhang, Keet Seel is in uniquely good condition. To keep it that way and to take into account the tight quarters, only five people at a time are allowed to explore the ruins (with accompanying National Park Service guide). If your party is larger than that, some will have to wait near the volunteer hogan and/or the shaded benches in the vicinity. Preference on tours of Keet Seel is given to day hikers (as opposed to overnight campers), in order to ensure the day hikers have enough time to get out of the canyon before dark.  

You will notice black stains on the rocks — those actually predate the structures themselves, and are residue from fires built from previous cave dwellers.

You will also notice a retaining wall holding up the ruin; this was part of the ancient structure but was rebuilt by the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA) in the 1930’s. 

Another defining characteristic is the large log that covers the entrance to Keet Seel. This was left by the Anasazi as a sign that although they had left their home at Keet Seel, they had not abandoned it (so they thought… 😉 ).

Though the site is subject to sudden closures because of inclement weather, if you happen to (safely) arrive to the site before a big summer afternoon storm, prepare for an amazing sight, as a giant, curtain-like wall of water drapes the cave (Keet Seel becomes an enormous waterfall grotto). For other amazing photo opportunities, try to visit around 5:00 in the evening during the summer; the sun will not have set, but will be at the perfect angle for light to bounce off of the east canyon walls into Keet Seel (perfect lighting!).  

Remember that the majority of the hike is on Navajo land and the ruins itself are on a very small island of the National Park Service’s Navajo National Monument. There are local Navajo people living in the area, and they may visit the site or you may see them along the way. Do not take pictures of the residents, especially any children.

Further Reading

Leave No Trace Principles

Outdoors and Wilderness First Aid

Day Trip Gear Guide

Ruin’s Echo & The Anasazi by Reg Saner

About The Author

Jeremy Meek is a native Arizonan with a passion for adventure and discovery of unique experiences. Whether exploring Arizona or setting out on an adventure abroad, Jeremy is constantly scouting truly great adventures and experiences.

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