Two Colorado Gems Delight Visitors Unawares
Joyce Kiefer

The Trail of the Ancients is a name straight out of a fantasy novel, but the Ancients it refers to were real people and began their trek through the Southwest as early as 10,000 years ago.  They carved V-shaped humanoid creatures with or without heads on the canyon walls. They built cities under cliff overhangs and lined the canyons with stone towers in a land of sweeping vistas.  My husband Bill and I followed their footsteps to visit some of what they left behind around the Utah and Colorado border.

The Trail, now a Scenic Byway, winds hundreds of miles through the Four Corners area where these two states meet Arizona and New Mexico.  It includes Monument Valley Tribal Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.  Several times we’ve joined crowds of summer tourists on ranger-led tours of the beautifully preserved cliff palaces in Mesa Verde.This time we wanted to feel like explorers.

We decided to check out two less traveled places in the vicinity of Cortez, Colorado – Canyon of the Ancients (how could we resist the name?) and Hovenweep National Monuments.  These places are back-to-back far from the beaten path.  In fact some of the roads not paved but doable for a passenger car.

Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded in Canyons of the Ancients and more tantalizing spots wait to be examined.  We got acquainted with the Ancients at the Anasazi (“ancient people”) Heritage Center about 12 miles north of Cortez.  Run by the Bureau of Land Management, it interprets the history and culture of the ancestral puebloans who inhabited the Four Corners area during the European Middle Ages, then suddenly departed in the 1300’s.  The receptionists were helpful with information and directions. I was fascinated by displays of how archaeological digs are done with modern technology and sense of preservation.  I know my grandkids (ages 6 to 20) would have all enjoyed doing the computer simulations and examining  samples under the microscope.   They would like the gift shop, too.  They could start exploring ruins right on the museum grounds.  

Bill and I set out in the morning to visit Lowry Pueblo, the best restored site.  Hilly green ranchlands presented a peaceful contrast to the sandstone, scrubby landscape of our destination. We were the only people there.   Interpretive signs and brochures helped us imagine the place filled with its 11th century dwellers, bustling about the 40 rooms, eight kivas and the great kiva itself. 

As we headed toward Hovenweep, we had one more stop - Painted Hand Pueblo. I felt like an archaeologist as we walked through the scattered remains of buildings and cultivated areas from the 13th century. A pictograph of hands is outlined on a rock. The round, partially crumbled tower perched on a boulder and the sense of discovery made going there worthwhile.

At Hovenweep, towers of all shapes and sizes surround the edge of Little Ruin Canyon.  The more you look, the more you see. Defense, storage, water protection, astronomical calculations – no one knows precisely what they were for. 

The most accessible site lies along the Little Ruin Trail, which circles the Square Tower Group and then crosses the canyon.  This two-mile loop took a little over an hour to hike with me stopping to take lots of pictures. An eight-mile loop connects this trail with another that leads to the less accessible Holly Unit and a backcountry experience.  Other ruins can be reached by dirt roads but they are poorly marked.  Ask the ranger for specific directions.  

Hovenweep has a nice little visitor center and picnic area, as well as a 30-site campground.   The rangers offer interpretive programs and pull out a large telescope on good nights for viewing when the nights are as clear as they were for the people who built the towers.  


Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah

Anasazi Heritage Center, Colorado

Cortez has a number of motels but we loved the Best Western Turquoise Inn and Suites for its excellent accommodations and courtyard with a fountain.

Joyce Kiefer is a columnist for Bay Area Family  




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