the sandal trail through navajo national monument

Named for the people who now occupy this region, Navajo National Monument in Arizona protects three well-preserved dwellings built hundreds of years ago by the ancient people of the Four Corners region, called Ancestral Puebloans.  The dwellings are Betatakin, Keet Steel, and Inscription House, dating from 1250-1300.  In the cliff faces and terraces of the Tsegi Canyon system, modern Diné (Navajo) life carries on today, hand in hand with the distant past. The Diné are sometimes called Anasazi, or “ancient ones,” or “ancestors of the aliens,” however the preferred term is Ancestral Puebloans.

Around 2,000 years ago, a distinct culture of farmers emerged, and by 1200 the land surrounding the National Monument was dotted with farms of the Ancestral Puebloans. Rainfall was as scarce as it is now, but usually they adapted their lives and crops to the drought conditions.  Harder times prompted the people to move their farms and villages, sometimes into the cliffs.  After flourishing here for five decades, the people began to move away.  Theories for their departure include: drought, erosion, social pressures, religious dictates, or other unknown influences.

The Ancestral Puebloans were great traders.  They made ceramic pottery for trade.  Rocks from elsewhere were used for grinding stones, tools or arrowheads. They traded for turquoise, shell, parrots, and macaws.

Visits to Betatakin and Keet Steel must done on a ranger-guided hike.  Inscription House is closed to the public.  The hike to Betatakin is a strenuous 5-mile round trip hike that takes 3-5 hours. The Keet Steel hike is a strenuous 17-mile round trip hike, wading at times through water.

Since we didn’t make reservations, and we didn’t have time to do the ranger-led tours, we opted for the three shorter trails in the park, starting with the Sandal Trail. This paved trail from the visitor center leads to an overlook with a stunning cross-canyon view of the ancient village of Betatakin, framed in its sandstone arch.

South of Sandal Trail, we enjoyed a magnificent view of Fir Canyon, filled with lush vegetation.  The deeper and narrower the canyon, the less sunshine reaches into its depths, meaning less evaporation of rainwater. Because of this, plant life flourishes.


Fir Canyon

It is said that the climate of Fir Canyon is like an inverted mountain; the bottom is cooler and more humid and thus encourages plant growth and animal life. Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and aspen flourish in Fir Canyon.


Fir Canyon


atop the Sandal Trail with Betatakin Canyon to the north

The Navajo Indians created the sturdy fork-stick hogan, made up of three poles with their forked ends interlocked at the top, as their desert dwelling.

The miniature fork-sticked hogan without a smoke hole is an effective bath, an ancient solution to keeping clean in a place where water is scarce.  In the sweathouse, stones are heated in a fire, then rolled in, or carried in on a wooden fork.  The bathers undress outside then crawl inside.  A blanket is hung over the opening.  Radiant heat then does its work; people relaxed their muscles and sang sweathouse songs.  The bathers then emerged to rinse off with water, if any was available, or to rub dry with the soft, absorbent sand of Navajo country.


Hogan & Sweathouse

Both Navajos and Hopis used sagebrush to make medicine for stomach aches.  The Navajos used it to cure colds and headaches.

The roundleaf buffaloberry was used as a salve to treat irritation in sheep’s eyes.  As the first domestic sheep were brought to the Southwest in the 16th century, it wasn’t used until white men came to the area.


Roundleaf Buffaloberry

The fruit of the Grizzlybear Pricklypear cactus was widely eaten, fresh or dried, by Southwestern Indians.


Grizzlybear Pricklypear


Juniper on Sandal Trail

As with the narrowleaf yucca, native people ate the fruit of the broadleaf yucca, and shredded and twisted the leaves into cord and rope. Soap came from the crushed roots and was used as a shampoo in Navajo and Hopi ceremonies.


Broadleaf Yucca

Mormon Tea, when made into a brew, was medicine for stomach trouble, kidney afflictions, venereal disease, and coughs.

The Utah Juniper had many uses.  Many roof beams in Betatakin were juniper.  Fires were started with juniper: the shredded bark was used for tinder and the wood was used for fuel.  The shredded bark also served as diaper pads, was braided into rope, and was coiled into rings to support pottery jars.  A brew from the leaves was used by the Hopis as a laxative, and when people were hungry, the berries were eaten.

Finally, we arrived at the Betatakin Overlook.  We could see the south-facing alcove, which provided winter and summer shade, shelter from the elements, and springwater for drinking and cooking.  At its height, 100-125 people lived here in clan or family groups.  They didn’t spend much time indoors; most activities took place in open courtyards or agricultural fields.  Archeologists have documented 135 rooms, some now destroyed by rockfall.  Rooms were used for food storage, living, and ceremonies.  The people used sandstone, soil, wood, bark, reeds and grasses either alone or in combination. Smoke residue indicates fires for cooking, warming or ceremonies.



The Puebloans grew cotton, using dry-land and irrigated farming techniques.



Betatakin, a Diné word for “House on a Ledge,” is also known as Talastima, which means “Place of the Blue Corn Tassels.” Today, this place is surrounded by the Navajo Nation, as it has been for hundreds of years.


Betatakin Canyon



Tree-ring dating shows that a 20-year drought ended about 1300.  The farmers who had a close relationship with the land took this as a message that it was time to move on to find the spiritual center of the world. Hopi oral history says this sacred site is not abandoned; the builders are still here with us.

The Sandal Trail is said to be 1.3 miles round trip, but somehow we mapped three miles.  Of course, I got my National Park passport sticker and stamp! 🙂


Navajo National Monument

*Saturday, May 12, 2018*


On Sundays, I plan to post various walks that I took on our Four Corners trip as well as hikes I take locally while training for the Camino de Santiago; I may also post on other unrelated subjects. I will use these posts to participate in Jo’s Monday Walks or any other challenges that catch my fancy.

This post is in response to Jo’s Monday Walk.