On the trail of the ancients

Explore the lesser-known gems of an archaeological treasure trove near Colorado's Mesa Verde

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A center of ancient culture

About 40 miles west of Cortez and straddling the Utah-Colorado border, Hovenweep National Monument is perhaps the most intriguing of the region's smaller sites. The complex dates back to approximately 1200, a time when Ancestral Puebloans began to move into elaborate structures.

What is initially most striking about Hovenweep is the beauty of its architecture. Instead of the low, crumbling walls that one sees at many locations, Hovenweep has a number of masonry towers ― round, D-shaped, and square ― that invariably bring to mind images of castles.

The six sites within the national monument were part of an extensive agricultural community on the mesa, where corn and other crops grew.

"It's hard to imagine how people who were limited to foot traffic interacted so intensively," says Mark Varien, director of research at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. "But the Ancestral Puebloans were remarkably connected to one another and to the environment that shaped them."

Driving from site to site along our route tends to reduce the significance of the distances these people once covered on foot. We've kept this route short so you can take the time to slow down, walk the trails, and study masonry that has endured for centuries. Go slowly enough, and look carefully enough, and these settlements ― left behind so long ago by Ancestral Puebloans who migrated to New Mexico's Rio Grande Valley and the Hopi region of north-central Arizona ― begin to come alive.

 

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