8 tips for hiking to see the amazing Keet Seel Canyon ruins of Arizona’s Navajo Nation

If you’re considering adding ‘Hike Keet Seel Canyon’ to your bucket list, I highly recommend that you do it.

The Keet Seel adventure is much more than just a hike. It’s a 17-mile trek over varied terrain, while dealing with the high altitude and weather extremes. The reward is a guided tour of one of the best preserved ancient ruins sites in the Southwest.

View of Keet Seel ruins as you approach from the trail below
View of Keet Seel ruins as you approach from the trail below.
A National Parks Service volunteer shares insights about the pictographs on the back wall of Keet Seel ruins.

How Keet Seel compares to other popular hikes in Arizona

I experienced Keet Seel in September 2019 and kept asking myself, “Why isn’t this hike as popular as Havasupai or the Grand Canyon?”

I’ve done all three. If I were to rank them on a scale from, with 10 being the highest possible score, I would rate them as follows:

  • Havasupai: 10
  • Grand Canyon: 9
  • Keet Seel: 8

This simplified scale isn’t intended to imply that Havasupai and Grand Canyon are the only hiking experiences better than Keet Seel in Arizona. For sure other hikes, such as The Wave in Coyote Buttes, would score a solid 9; maybe a 10.

My point is that in the Grand Canyon State, you can’t find many hiking experiences better than Keet Seel. It offers plenty of adventure, amazing views, streams and waterfalls, plus ancient ruins. And it’s free! At the time of this posting, anyway; that could change.

Sample Keet Seel hike adventure itinerary:

Day 1

  • Attend mandatory 3 p.m. pre-hike orientation at Navajo National Monument Visitor Center

Day 2

  • Hike 8.5 miles from the trailhead to Keet Seel campground
  • Drop your camping gear in a metal bin at the campground
  • Proceed another third of a mile upstream for a ranger-led tour of ruins site
  • Return to campground and set up camp, have a meal, relax, sleep
Close up view of well-preserved ruins of Keet Seel Canyon
Once you climb the 70-foot ladder up into the alcove, you get to wander through the ruins as the ancients did.
Remnants of pottery and cookware in Keet Seel ruins
Many remnants of pottery and cookware like these are visible throughout the Keet Seel ruins. Note the pictographs on the wall to the right.

Day 3

  • First thing in the morning, grab a quick bite, break down camp and begin hiking back to the starting point
  • Feel the burn the last two miles as you climb back up rugged, rocky terrain loaded with switchbacks

8 tips to help you hike Keet Seel Canyon like a boss

1. Make reservations in advance

Call Navajo National Monument Visitor Center at 928-672-2725 to reserve a permit. The actual permit is issued in person when you attend the pre-hike orientation.

Keet Seel is only accessible to the public late May through early September, according to the schedule below.

  • Thursday-Sunday: Overnight trips and day hikes are allowed.
  • Monday: Day hikes are allowed. No overnight trips can be booked this day.
  • Tuesday and Wednesday: Keet Seel is closed to all hikes.

A limited number of permits are issued each day and weekends are in greatest demand. To improve your chances of getting a permit, call a month or more in advance and allow the flexibility to hike on a weekday.

As of the time of this post (Sept 2019), there is no charge for the hiking permit, guided tour, campsite or park entrance.

2. Get oriented with the trail

In order to get your permit for this hike, you’re required to attend a pre-hike orientation the afternoon prior to your hike. You’ll get a slideshow preview of the hike with details to help you stay on the trail. The presenting ranger will help prepare you for the challenges you’ll face along the way.

Important: Be sure to get the one-page guide with details on how to navigate the 8-1/2 mile hike to the ruins. This guide is critical. Do not set out your hike with out it.

Important: Navajo National Monument is not on Arizona time.

During the months when you can do this hike (May through September) Navajo Nation is one hour ahead of Phoenix and most other cities in Arizona. That’s because Arizona proper doesn’t participate in Daylight Savings Time but tribal territories do.

Bottom line: the 3 p.m. orientation is really 2 p.m. Phoenix time.

3. Begin hiking early in the morning

The trailhead for this hike is located at 7,300 feet elevation. In the first two miles, you descend over 1,000 feet in a winding maze of rocky switchbacks and steps formed with stone and railroad ties. A couple sections consist of deep, soft red wind-blown sand that gets hot quickly in the morning sun.

Since the 8.5-mile hike takes most people 4 to 5 hours, you’ll want to get an early start to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day and allow yourself time to tour Keet Seel ruins.

After the initial descent, you’ll find yourself at the floor of the canyon, ready for your first stream crossing. There are at least a dozen more crossings before you reach the ruins.

The initial stream crossing is actually a confluence where several streams come together. This crossing is one of the trickiest because it’s the deepest and it feels like quicksand. The water’s only ankle to shin deep, but “waterproof” boots are no longer waterproof when the water is deeper than the top of your boot. Upstream from here you’ll be crossing the stream in ankle deep water many times.

This fall is called Big Waterfall for obvious reasons. There are plenty more waterfalls along the hike but none are as tall as this one.
Most of the stream bed is soft sand. This section is a flagstone-type of surface from bank to bank. Algae growth makes it extra slippery in sections.

4. Take good care of your feet

One of the best tips I can offer is to switch from hiking shoes to water shoes before the first stream crossing. That’s because your feet won’t be dry again until you reach this point on the return trip. So basically, your feet will be wet for about 12 miles of the 17-mile hike.

Pro tip: I discovered that wearing thin socks made of synthetic material with water shoes helps reduce chafing and blisters. For that reason, you’ll want to bring at least two pairs of socks. I had three – two pairs for water and one pair for dry terrain.

The dry section of this hike is short but also very steep. This is where you’re most likely to damage toenails or get blisters. I recommend high quality socks and shoes designed for rugged terrain on the dry portion of the hike.

5. Follow the white poles

Keet Seel is only one of the canyons in this region. Ending up in the wrong canyon could spell disaster. Thankfully, the National Parks Service has made it easier to find your way by installing tall white poles roughly every half mile. The poles also help you countdown how many miles left to the ruins site.

White poles spaced roughly every half mile guide the way to the ruins in Keet Seel Canyon. I was relieved to hang my pack on this painted tree at mile marker 5.5.

Along the way, you’ll cross the stream many times. You’ll also do some rock scrambling and face tricky obstacles here and there. Photo opps abound. Towering red rocks, wild horses and waterfalls are a few of the subjects you’ll focus your camera on again and again.

The stream in Keet Seel Canyon is narrow and runs at a slow trickle up near the ruins. It widens out further down the canyon.

6. Plan for no amenities after you start on the trail

This hike should be treated as a backcountry experience. With the exception of a vault toilet about a mile into the hike, there are no amenities along the way.

The Keet Seel campground consists of about a dozen sites dotted among oak trees and natural vegetation. There’s a sturdy picnic table for each site, plus two composting toilets for the entire campground. Hammock campers will be happy to know there are plenty of trees to tie up to.

7. Pack only what you need

Most people carry camping gear in their backpack and stay overnight in the primitive Keet Seel campground. This isn’t a terribly long hike, but you’ll need more than snacks and water if you’re going to stay the night. A lightweight tent and sleeping bag should provide adequate protection from the elements. Although the canyon floor really heats up during the day, I can attest that it gets quite chilly at night.

When I awoke on Day 2, I compared notes with another hiker. To help keep my pack light, I opted for a sleeping pad and left my sleeping bag in the car. She did the opposite. Although she kept warm, she declared it was her most uncomfortable night in a long time. I had a comfortable sleeping surface but had to put on all my layers to stay warm.

A husband and wife couple slept in hammocks. I’m not sure how comfortable they were, but my guess is they were pretty cold. They packed up and hit the trail at least an hour before first light.

Sample packing list:

Gear

  • Properly fitted backpack with waist belt and hydration bladder
  • Two pairs of footwear – one for dry mountainous terrain; one for the stream
  • Two to three layers of lightweight clothing; be able to cover your entire body
  • Three pairs of socks – two for walking in water; one for dry sections
  • Hiking poles really help distribute weight for water crossings and steep trail sections

Water and food

  • One gallon per person per day – that’s two gallons for most people. Even people hiking out and back in one day should follow this guideline. (See my water tips below.)
  • Lightweight snacks that require no cooking or other preparation.
  • Hi sodium foods can help you retain water and stay hydrated.

Other stuff

  • Your favorite pain reliever, sunblock and small first aid kit
  • Toothbrush and basic hygiene products (there is tissue and hand sanitizer in the bathroom)
  • Change of clothes since you’ll do a lot of sweating and splashing in the stream
  • A bag for your trash – you’ll need to pack out what you pack in

8. Carry and stash plenty of water

Rangers recommend at least a gallon per person per day. I can attest that’s a solid recommendation. Remember, the hike once you reach the canyon floor is about 12 miles, round trip.

On your way down to the canyon floor, look for a good place to stash a couple liters under a tree near the 6.5-mile post. That will lighten your load and ensure that you have water for the steep hike out of the canyon.

Although you’ll be walking in water for much of the hike, rangers advise against drinking water from the stream and falls, even if you filter it. Contamination sources include horse, cow and wild animal feces plus murky runoff from frequent rain showers.

I ran completely out of water before I began the return leg of the hike. Even though I stashed a gallon for my hike out of the canyon where the initial steep descent meets the canyon floor, I was facing a five mile stretch without water. Thankfully, I found the spring described below.

Insider’s tip: There is a natural spring source of water about a mile downstream from the Keet Seel campground
Blue aluminum Clearly Filtered water bottle leaned at an angle to gather water from a spring.
After drinking all the water in my pack on the hike to Keet Seel, I was fortunate to find this fresh spring about one mile downstream from the campground on the hike back out of the canyon.

I filled up a few bottles from the spring in order to make it the next five miles to the water I stashed. I filtered the water through my Clearly Filtered water bottle and did not get sick.

Look for the spring on a portion of the stream that runs east-west, just past a large rock overhang on the right if you’re facing downstream.

Where to stay the night before and after your hike

For the night before and after the hike you can camp free at either Sunset View or Canyon View campground. Both campgrounds are well maintained and there is a picnic table and metal grill for cooking at each campsite. Neither offers electric or water hookups. If you prefer modern lodging, there are hotels in the town of Kayenta 30 miles away.

Sunset View campground is the larger and more modern of the two campgrounds at Navajo National Monument. The campsites are spaced out pretty well and offer easy access to multiple bathrooms with running water. If you stay in Sunset View you’ll need to drive to the Keet Seel trailhead and leave your car there overnight.

Canyon View campground is more primitive, with composting toilets and a few small trash receptacles as the only amenities. One plus is that most campsites are walking distance to the Keet Seel trailhead.

Tent in foreground with spectacular view out over a sunlit canyon
View from campsite #6 in the Canyon View Campground in Navajo National Monument. Amenities include a picnic table, barbeque grill and composting toilet nearby. On the morning of the hike, I was able to catch the trail to Keet Seel by walking down the bank directly in front of the tent.

The Keet Seel Canyon hike experience ranks up there with Havasupai and Grand Canyon. Best of all, permits are easier to get and there is no charge for the hike, camping or ruins tour. As with many great experiences, a little advance planning is required. Follow my tips above and you’ll be checking Keet Seel Canyon off your Arizona bucket list before you know it.

Have questions? Post them in the comment box below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Tap the map below for directions to Navajo National Monument Visitor Center.

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2 Comments

  1. Looks like a beautiful but strenuous hike. I’m confused by the distance. You mentioned 8.5 miles one way, several times and that guide sheet states 6.5?

    Great informative article, thanks. Loved the photos!

    1. I noticed that too. I guess I better clarify it with a caption. That sign is two miles from the current Trailhead. Once upon a time you could park right near that sign.

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