Canyon of the Ancients

Far southwestern Colorado is synonymous with archeology, cliff houses and Native American history. But visitors don’t need to follow packed tours and camera-toting masses to experience the area’s wealth of Ancestral Puebloan culture.

Just west of Dolores, the Anasazi Heritage Center makes a great preface for a trip through the region. The center features special and permanent exhibits that help interpret the history behind the people who once inhabited the area.

“This is the place where folks who want to see the landscape can understand what they’ll be seeing,” said Victoria Atkins, the museum’s supervisory interpretive specialist.

Understanding the term “Ancestral Puebloan” is one place to start. Local hotels, restaurants and even the center itself carry the name Anasazi. But the modern descendents of the people who once occupied the region, Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona, prefer the term Ancestral Puebloan over the Navajo word Anasazi.

The towers at Hovenweep exhibit careful construction. Many were built atop odd-shaped boulders, yet they remain standing after some 700 years.

Take a break from history with hands-on endeavors. Visitors can attempt corn-grinding the old-fashioned way and experience the work necessary to have lived in a time free of machines and microwaves. Metates, the smooth concave stones used in the process, are one small part of the center’s many interactive exhibits.

Children and their parents can try weaving or hold real artifacts collected from local sites. A microscope area reveals the features of ancient pottery, while the life-size replica of a pithouse displays the living quarters of the earliest Ancestral Pueblo people.

One permanent exhibit details the process of archeological excavation. Displays include mugs, bowls, sandals and baskets. “Archeology Grows Up: 1906-2006,” a museum-produced special exhibit, shows the history of the region’s archeology from early digs to modern computer techniques.

Complete with a background on how to visit sites respectfully, travelers can explore ruins accessible from the museum by a paved trail. At Escalante Pueblo, 28 rooms encircle the large kiva, an underground ceremonial room. The smaller Dominguez Pueblo was likely home to a family of four to six people, who probably cooperated with the residents of Escalante.

About 25 miles from the center, Lowry Pueblo is one of the larger sites within Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. A constant wind sweeps across Great Sage Plain, where the stabilized walls, 40 rooms and eight kivas of the preserved Lowry Pueblo stand today.

Visitors will see faraway mountains rising in three directions. Sculpted canyons cut into the 1,500 square miles of plateau and it’s hard to imagine farming this dry land nearly 1,000 years ago. But the Ancestral Puebloans cultivated corn, beans and squash. Tree ring dates and a variety of building styles tell archeologists that people inhabited Lowry Peublo for about 165 years.

The colorful collared lizard is a common sight at both Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients.

Farther south, but still within Canyons of the Ancients, Sand Canyon includes many fragile sites. Though the sites can be difficult to see, a quiet six-mile (one way) trail through the canyon reveals the isolated and rugged terrain faced by early Pueblo people.

Set along the Colorado and Utah borders, Hovenweep National Monument feels similarly remote. A few travelers may linger in the visitor’s center, but like Canyons of the Ancients, Hovenweep is punctuated only by the rush of wind and the washed-out greens of the piñon/juniper forest.

This national monument is known for its towers. Square, round and D-shaped towers line the canyon’s ledges and stand over awkward boulders. Because of such odd positioning, archeologists believe the structures were designed to protect — possibly the people inside, or a coveted natural spring.

Towers aren’t the only traces of previous inhabitants. While researchers have found some evidence of nomadic hunters from 10,000 or 11,000 years ago, most studies fix on a different time period. Around 700 A.D., people began living in small communities and multi-room homes. By 1100, structures stood higher and eventually gave way to towers and multi-level buildings. The remnants of such structures continue to draw travelers to Colorado from all over the world.

While the grandeur of Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace cannot be denied, the windswept plains of Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients offer a different kind of experience. From remote sites in Sand Canyon to the impressive towers at Hovenweep, the land is steeped in Ancestral Pueblo culture. So try taking the dirt road and explore a little deeper into the rich history of Colorado’s far southwestern corner.

Sleeping Ute Mountain rises behind Hovenweep House, part of the Square Tower Group.

If You Go

Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, (970) 882-5600
www.co.blm.gov/ahc

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
www.co.blm.gov/co/st/en/nm/canm

Hovenweep National Monument, McElmo Route, Cortez, (970) 562-4282
www.nps.gov/hove

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.

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