Betatakin cliffs dwellings in the Navajo National Monument

The south-facing Betatakin cliff dwellings in the Navajo National Monument. 

Betatakin, Navajo National MonumentLuckily for us, our western USA camping tour included a brief stop at a site not mentioned on the original itinerary—the Navajo National Monument.

Named for the people who now occupy the region, the monument protects Betatakin, Keet Seel and Inscription House—three well-preserved collections of dwellings that were built hundreds of years ago by Ancestral Puebloans (sometimes called Anasazi).

About 800 years ago, the land surrounding the national monument was dotted with Ancestral Puebloan farms. Their villages were nearby and they traded in goods such as cotton, turquoise, sea shell and parrot feathers. Rainfall was scarce back then and the Puebloans were eventually forced to move on or relocate to the cliffs.

Betatakin, Navajo National Monument

The Betatakin cliffs and dwellings were what we visited. Well sort of. We hiked the 1.3-mile Sandal Trail that took us to a spot where we overlooked those dwellings.

As an aside, Inscription House is closed to the public and getting to Keet Seel takes many, many hours.

The Ancestral Puebloans lived in Betatakin from about 1250 to 1300. Their agricultural fields were on the canyon rims and floors, but they lived in the cliff face’s alcove. The alcove was deep enough to provide shelter from bad weather and, because it faced south, was able to make the most of sunshine in summer and winter.

Archeologists think about 125 people lived in Betatakin in the Puebloan heyday. They reckon the people spent most of their time outdoors, tending fields. About 135 rooms—used for food storage, living and ceremonies—have been documented.

Views in Betatakin, Navajo National Monument
Views in Betatakin, Navajo National Monument
Views in Betatakin, Navajo National Monument

The cliff dwellers stayed for about five decades, and then moved on. No one is sure why they did, but theories abound—drought, erosion, social pressures, religious dictates or other unknown causes? Tree-rings show that a 20-year drought ended about 1300.

These ancient dwellings were rediscovered in the late 1880s.

Our stop included a bit of time at the visitor centre, where artefacts—especially pottery—are displayed.

P.S. All the scenery pics are from our walk along the Sandal Trail, so not every pic has a caption.

Dinosaur footprint, Navajo National Monument
Pottery collection, Navajo National Monument visitor centre
Pottery collection, Navajo National Monument visitor centre

Some definitions
Anasazi—Navajo (Diné) word meaning ancient ones.

Ancestral Puebloans—they also lived at Mesa Verde (coming soon), Chavo Canyon, Aztec Ruins, Wupatki, Walnut Canyon and more.

Betatakin—Navajo word meaning ‘ledge house’.

Diné—Navajo name for their own people.

Keet Seel—Navajo for ‘broken pottery scattered around’.

Betatakin, Navajo National Monument

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