On the trail of the ancients

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

Sleeping Ute Mountain looms over southwest Colorado, its low, dark profile instantly recognizable as a supine figure. In the mountain's shadow are numerous archaeological sites that, like Sleeping Ute Mountain, can quickly stir the imagination to envision what life may have been like more than 1,000 years ago, when the Four Corners region was the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world. The remains of villages and structures here represent the greatest concentration of ancient sites anywhere in the United States. Together they help reveal the 1,300-year heyday of a culture that dates back more than 10,000 years.

The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park are the best known of the Ancestral Puebloan settlements in the Four Corners region. But other sites, including the Lowry Pueblo Ruins and Sand Canyon, have recently gained additional recognition ― and protection ― as part of the 3-year-old 164,500-acre Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Lightly visited, these sites make an ideal driving tour for anyone who has come to the Four Corners to see Mesa Verde. While the ancient sites in the new park and at other locations in Utah and Colorado may not be as grand as Mesa Verde, together they can deepen our understanding and appreciation of what is considered the nation's richest archaeological region.

Segments of our 90-mile loop drive (see map below), an easy day trip from Cortez, are also part of the longer Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, which covers nearly 500 miles in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.

 

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.

 

Hitting the trail

PARKS AND MUSEUMS

Along with archaeological sites, we've listed good museums to visit before heading out. Cortez, Colorado, has the largest selection of restaurants and lodging in the area. For a travel planner and map, contact the Mesa Verde Country Visitor Information Bureau, (800/253-1616).

Anasazi Heritage Center. Don't miss the collection of artifacts and 12th-century archaeological sites next to the museum. 9-5 daily; $3. 27501 State 184, Dolores; (970) 882-4811.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. There are two easily accessible sites worth visiting. Lowry Pueblo Ruins dates back to 1060; it once may have been home to 1,800 people. It consists of the remains of 40 rooms and eight kivas. 9 miles west of Pleasant View off County BB. Sand Canyon Trail leads 7 miles (one-way) into some beautiful red rock country. It passes several small structures within the first couple miles; there are good turnaround points if you don't want to do the entire hike. From U.S. 666, take County G west 12 miles to trailhead parking on right. For more on the monument, call (970) 882-4811.

Cortez Cultural Center. Interpretive exhibits and occasional Native American dances. 10-5 Mon-Sat. 25 N. Market St., Cortez; www.cortezculturalcenter.org or (970) 565-1151.

Hovenweep National Monument. Of the six sites here, Square Tower is the largest and easiest to visit. It's a short walk from the monument's visitor center. The monument is about 45 miles from Cortez--fill up with gas before heading out. Take U.S. 666 to County G and follow signs. 8-5 daily; $6 per vehicle. (970) 562-4282.

Mesa Verde National Park. Set in alcoves beneath the rims of sandstone canyons, the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde are the country's best-known Ancestral Puebloan sites. No trip to the Four Corners is complete without a walk through its most famous spots, such as Spruce Tree House. Even after more than a century of study, Mesa Verde continues to yield surprises; wildfires in summer 2000 helped uncover numerous sites. Arrive early and allow a full day to visit. $10 per vehicle. www.nps.gov/meve or (970) 529-4465.

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