The Betatakin cliff dwellings, tucked under a monumental arch

Santa Fe, New Mexico, occupies a unique position in the spacious geography of the American Southwest. We bask in the invigorating climate of the Southern Rockies, which mount up to our north and east. The great rift valley of the upper Rio Grande opens south of us, into the classic Basin and Range country so characteristic of the more arid parts of the West. Further east: the High Low Country of the Great Plains, stretching off seemingly forever like an ocean, treeless and lonely. And to our west, a short drive brings you into a landscape unique on the planet, hauntingly familiar to all Americans – the warm glowing mesas, buttes, and spires of the Colorado Plateau.

Blessed with this address – and not to mention the unique cultural charms of Northern New Mexico – Santa Fe makes the perfect base for a visit to the Southwestern States. Short day trips will take you to wonderful examples of each of the landscapes I’ve mentioned. But a longer trip has to include a tour of the Colorado Plateau and the Four Corners with all its scenic splendors. Many of these are well known: The Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly come immediately to mind. Some treasures, however are far less visited, and can offer the creative traveler access to landscapes and archeological sites of amazing power. One of these treasures is Navajo National Monument, in Northern Arizona.

Tsegi Canyon in the heart of Navajo National Monument

I made this trip in mid-September, the perfect time to explore the Four Corners country, and my notes remind me that a mid-morning departure from Santa Fe left time to set up camp with plenty of light. In the picture above, you can see the sunset lighting Tsegi Canyon, a short walk from the campsite after a cup of tea.

Navajo National Monument is on the Navajo people’s ancestral land, and as such, requires you to arrange guides or backcountry permits – supplied by the National Park Service – to explore its canyons and cliff dwellings. The walk down and back to Betatakin, one of the great cliff dwellings of the Americas, must be made with a guide, but the walk is free, and I think I learned more from our Navajo guide, Cassandra, than I have from any other ranger I’ve ever had.

The morning of the hike to Betatakin

Cassandra’s great-grandfather was a Navajo shaman – or doctor – and she seems to have inherited much of his knowledge and intuition. The walk down the steep setback walls of the canyon was transformed into journey through a natural healing cornucopia of herbs, lovingly described. One aspect of their use particularly struck me: the gatherer of medicine asks the healing plant for its help, and then harvests one just like it, after leaving a small offering. Any partially used herbs are put back, with a thank you. Contrast that with Western pharmacological medicine!

The hike down Tsegi Canyon is beautiful.

A monumental wall of Navajo Sandstone

Natural sculptures abound:

An oddly shaped outcropping. What do you see?

Trees take on special significance simply by virtue of their shape and setting:

An ancient pinyon pine

Soon you reach the staggering sandstone arch that embraces the village of Betatakin, as Cassandra would refer to it.

The great arch over Betatakin

No cliff dwelling I’ve ever seen has a setting like this. Cassandra explained that ‘BeTAT’ ‘a kin’ meant ‘tucked in’ ‘4-sided home’. She was also quick to explain that ‘Ah NA suhzi’ – Anasazi – referred to ‘ancient other people’, rather than ‘ancient enemy’, as one often hears translated further east.

Ruined dwellings in Betatakin

The sandstone walls near the village are covered in petroglyphs:

Rock art near Betatkin village

The glyph on the left is the symbol of the Deer Clan. (Cassandra is a member of the Bitterwater Clan) The handprints could mean ‘life – we are here!’, or they may simply mean ‘water here’. In this country, that’s about one and the same thing. You can see some loom holes just to the right of the deer symbol. In those times, men wove. There are many circular designs like the one you see on the right. They are frequently divided into four quadrants, representing the four seasons, the four directions, or perhaps the four worlds. Even now in matrilineal culture of the Navajo People there are four clans, although these families came long after the Anasazi had mysteriously departed.

Approaching Betatakin

The ground around the cliff dwellings is littered with broken fragments of pottery. There are entire aprons of rubble covered in large painted shards. For those of us who grew up back east and might have found an arrowhead once, this abundance of artifacts is almost overwhelming. In fact, another cliff dwelling, much further back in the canyon, is called Keet Seel>, which means ‘broken pottery’.

There is no lodging immediately near the Monument, but you can find good motels in Kayenta, Arizona, which makes a perfect stop for a next-morning drive through Monument Valley in any case. Navajo National Monument has an excellent campground aptly named Sunset Campground, and I highly encourage you to try and make such an arrangement – either tenting or in a travel trailer – if you can. The most magical times in the plateau country come at sunrise and sunset. Or – as in this evening, Palm Sunday, linked to the lunar cycle in an ancient resonance – a full moon rise:

Moonrise at Navajo National Monument