After a week in Ridgway we packed up and headed south. Betsy chugged along Highway 145 over another section of San Juan Scenic Skyway. And once again, driving here at this time of the year was well-timed for enjoying more of Colorado’s gold. Steve had to focus on the road as we climbed Lizard Head Pass, but I was free to snap away at the vibrant autumn hues on the hillsides and mountain peaks.
Canyons of the Ancients
Southwest Colorado is part of the Four Corners area (Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado) where the Anasazi or Ancestral Puebloan cultures thrived between AD 300 to 1300. Within a broad expanse toward the north of that area, abundant relics left behind by the Anasazi have been discovered and excavated. One of the three large protected areas of ruins and artifacts lies within the Canyons of the Ancients. It’s home to a huge number of archaeological sites – more than 6,000 recorded so far – representing Ancestral Puebloan and other Native American cultures. The other two protected areas are Mesa Verde National Park (which I visited later in the week) and relatively well-known Cedar Mesa (that we checked out previously while in Bluff, Utah).
The best way to get our bearings and begin exploring in this wide expanse was to visit the Anasazi Heritage Center right up the road from our campground in Dolores. While there we learned the history and methods archaeologists use to reveal the past and preserve artifacts from excavations in the Four Corners area.
The Canyons of the Ancients is not concentrated in one place, but rather crossed by several paved roads and a greater number of unpaved routes. It’s easy to get lost and many of the sites are far apart, separated by wide open space. We visited Lowry Pueblo first, originally constructed around AD 1060, and the only fully developed site in the national monument. To our surprise the great house in the central section is protected by a metal canopy roof, which we though somewhat spoiled the overall appearance of the ruins.
We learned from the displays that Lowry Pueblo was built on top of an even older pithouse, as building techniques changed:
With a storm approaching, we drove to Sand Canyon Pueblo (22 miles from Anasazi Heritage Center), which was one of the largest settlements in the area. We discovered the relic of the pueblo is now mostly a mound of rubble, and in some areas just low depressions or overgrown piles of stones. Sometime between AD 1245 and 1290 there was a bustle of activity in the 14 towers, 100 kivas and over 400 rooms that existed here.
Several plaques along a short walking loop gave us a glimpse into the lives of the native people, from their shrines and towers to agricultural fields and sweat lodges. After following the trail and reading the displays we were able to decipher what was what, and we tried to imagine what it would be like to live here nearly 800 years ago in a community positioned around a spiritual spring. All excavated artifacts from the pueblo are curated at the BLM Anasazi Heritage Center that we had visited.
On the south side of Sand Canyon Pueblo, we followed Sand Canyon Trail which gave us access to an array of small ruins deserted by the Ancestral Puebloans centuries ago. This was a moderate 6.5-mile trail that meandered through juniper and pinion pine forest and offered spur paths to viewpoints of the ruins.
These were not spectacular ruins by Mesa Verde standards, but seeing them along a regular hiking trail added a refreshing sense of discovery not found on paved national park trails.
Mesa Verde National Park
Meaning “green table” in Spanish, Mesa Verde offers the largest and most numerous collection of Anasazi ruins in the southwest. This is the only national park that protects man-made structures as a spectacular reminder of the ancient culture that existed here. The dwellings are remarkably preserved, allowing archaeologists to locate more than 4,800 sites (including 600 cliff dwellings) dating from about AD 550 to 1300.
Steve had already visited this park, so I enjoyed some “alone time” on my trip. What he failed to mention was how huge it is, and just reaching the heart of it involved a slow and winding 21-mile drive that took an hour or so. Had I known, I could have planned better for it takes time to visit Chapin and Wetherill mesas, especially if taking a ranger-guided tour of the three big cliff houses. And of course I wanted to enjoy the spectacular panoramic views from the pull-offs along the way. A few hours here simply wasn’t enough!
From the exhibits and displays at the visitor center, I gathered that around AD 750 the Ancestral Puebloans grouped their mesa-top dwellings in villages, many of which were moved into recesses in the cliffs. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived here, building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls.
With the time I had, I drove around Chapin Mesa, the most visited section of the park. Here were dozens of easily accessible cliff dwellings, ruins and other historic features, although the majority of the thousands of archaeological sites in the park have not been excavated. At Cliff Canyon overlook, Fewkes Canyon intersects with Cliff Canyon and is believed to have been the center of a vibrant thriving community. About ten cliff dwellings are identified for viewing, along with a few unrecognizable units.
Thanks to a program study that Mesa Verde National Park created and implemented, archaeologist were able to study 4,700 known archeological sites in the park and help preserve the legacy of the Ancestral Puebloans. Through preservation, we are able to get a glimpse of the ancient people to learn how adept they were in building and skillful at living in a difficult land. But as with many other ancient cultures of the southwest, the Mesa Verde area was abandoned quite suddenly around 1300 AD and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that their settlements were rediscovered.
I was amazed by the first village and how the pit house from 850 BC was preserved:
The campground where we stayed in Dolores lived up to its name, The Views Campground. Our backyard at site #45 was a wide expanse, with views of Mesa Verde, Sleeping Ute Mountain, Shiprock Mountain in New Mexico and the Chuska Mountains in Arizona:
Our week stay in Dolores was capped by meeting our dear friends John and Pam. Thanks to the impending bad weather descending on southwestern Colorado, they had altered their route and we were able to meet up for dinner. Having a sticks and bricks house now, they’re free to say “to heck with the weather, let’s go home where it’s dry and warm.” We’re happy to have a standing invite to their home in Boulder City, Nevada! See you there soon!
I agree….coming upon those ruins in the course of a normal hike are so much more impactful to me than when I see them in a more controlled setting. I know that there is such a risk of vandalism when the ruins are unprotected, but it seems magical somehow when they suddenly appear along the trail. I love the campsite you had in Dolores, and the chimenea! Did you enjoy the Yak bones the next day?
Yes, the braised Yak bones were delicious and tender!
Such amazing views from your beautiful campground! It’s been many years since we’ve been to Mesa Verde and we’ve been wanting to return. It looks like you were there at the perfect time, with few other people around. Canyon of the Ancients is also on our must-return-to list. You really did plan your visit perfectly for the fall colors. And how fun that you got to meet up with Pam and John! (Yak ribs!! What did they taste like? Not chicken, I’m guessing :-))
Yak ribs were delicious! We love our park, quiet, spacious and great views!
OMG what a beautiful place! Exploring ruins is one of my favorite hobbies these days. I’ve featured some of the AZ ruins sites on my blog if you’re ever down this way and want to preview some.
Stay safe out there!
We spent several winters in the Tucson area. I just read your blog and there are areas we have not been to yet, so those will be visited when we get back to the southwest.
That opening picture of the colors at Dallas Divide is splendid. 6 thousand archaeological sites is amazing. I really hope they are all protected. The metal roof is unfortunate but better that than deterioration of the site. Those numbers of towers, kivas and rooms boggle my mind. I would really love to hike the Sand Canyon Trail. Thanks so much for putting it on my map. Although not the tarantulas so much. We absolutely loved Mesa Verde and spent days there. Your picture of the canyon road is spectacular. Your campsite views are amazing. What fun to be able to meet up with John and Pam. Great picture of you 4.
Thanks Sherry, we were blewn away with the concentration of Ancestral Puebloans in the area. We tried to imagine the bustling communities that thrive there for centuries living on cliffhouses and building homes using materials they had at that time. Amazing culture.
We’ve only seen three tarantulas so far, and one of those was dead. I don’t know how I’d handle them “all over the trail.” Egads! I could handle a bunch o’ them yak ribs all over my plate, though. Looks like you had another glorious autumn adventure 🙂
Even if the Tarantulas were sort of creepy but they looked harmless 🙂 And the Yak ribs were not only delicious it was tender and juicy.
We will most definitely be returning to redo this trip so we can hike Sand Canyon and do the other Wetherill Loop at Mesa Verde. I can’t believe what yucky weather came upon that whole area. But the silver lining of changing our plans was to meet up with you two before you head east. We look forward to hosting you here in BC!
Agree Pam, you need to revisit your failed planned in southwest CO for there are a lot of trails that we know you would like to do in the area. We were very happy that your rerouting included meeting us even for just a short dinner. It will perhaps be over a year before we see you again!
This post had me thinking that we are long overdue for a visit to Mesa Verde. You couldn’t have had a nicer campground site. The views looked spectacular. Fall looks like the ideal time to be there. What fun to meet up with Pam and John, the icing on the cake!
Exactly, meeting John and Pam was the icing to our adventures while in southwest CO. Too bad we missed you by a few days when you were in NM. I agree Fall is the best time here for it is less crowded.
It would have been great to all be together in NM. One of these days. 🙂
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