TRAIL OF THE ANCIENTS
This is the Colorado most people don’t know. The Rocky Mountains loom large on the landscape of the mind, so this remote, un-crowded southwestern corner of the state seems almost forgotten. To the east lies the sky-scraping Continental Divide, yet the rugged cliffs we’re facing are no less spectacular. Rust-colored rocks stand ancient and proud against the deep sapphire sky.
GHOSTLY FOOTSTEPS. We’re at Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a place that claims the highest concentration of archeological sites in North America. Ancestral Puebloan people built elaborate stone towns here, and then after spending centuries living here, every last one of these ancient folks packed up over the span of a few decades and left their homes and handiwork behind. Our family is looking for their spirits.
The trip plan takes us in a rough circle around Sleeping Ute Mountain, in southwest Colorado. Much of our route follows the Trail of the Ancients Scenic and Historic Byway, with spurs to Four Corners, McElmo Canyon, and Mesa Verde National Park. Along our path, one Forest Service and two National Park Service campgrounds offer places to bed down.
We began at the Anasazi Heritage Center, near Dolores, Colorado. This world-class museum excels at helping visitors understand the ancient cliff dwellers. An interpretive trail leads to a hilltop ceremonial site with 360-degree views. Pick up maps, directions and invaluable advice here.
MCPHEE FIRST. We spent our first night on the Trail of the Ancients at McPhee Campground. The turnoff for the McPhee campground lies 3 miles north of the Anasazi Heritage Center. Scattered in a pinyon-juniper forest, 76 campsites offer picnic tables, fire grates, drinking water, showers, flush toilets, electrical hookups and a dump station. A short hike leads to the Ridge Point Overlook, with signs identifying surrounding mountain ranges. McPhee Reservoir and the Dolores River Canyon stretch out below.
From the Anasazi Heritage Center, it’s a half-hour drive to Lowry Pueblo, in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This partially restored ruin has 40 rooms, eight kivas (circular ceremonial rooms) and the Great Kiva. Interpretive signs, brochures, a shady picnic area, vault toilets, and drinking water are available here.
The monument’s Painted Hand Pueblo is remote and not developed for visitors. Miles of empty dirt roads and a rough four-wheel-drive track lead to a patch of slickrock on a mesa’s edge; then a half-mile hike leads to the unexcavated ruin. From the trail, we glimpsed Shiprock monolith off in the distance of New Mexico. A stone tower at the site greets visitors. Pictographs of hands show faintly on a rock wall below.
HOVENWEEP. A few miles south along our circle route is Hovenweep National Monument Visitor Center. Hovenweep’s hiking trails venture across slickrock to mute stone structures perched on cliff tops — some of the finest examples of ancestral Puebloan stonemasonry in the world. From there, your gaze will stretch across the borders of four states.
From the visitor center, a wide cement sidewalk arcs to Little Ruin Canyon. There, the bony remains and empty eye sockets of Stronghold House peer over the rim as we approach. The rest of the trail, a rough, 2-mile, self-guided tour lends great insight into the people who built structures throughout the canyon and how they made their living in this arid land.
At Hovenweep National Monument, 30 tiny campsites are scattered across a small mesa top. A few sites will hold an RV of 25 feet or less, but most are designed for tent camping. All are first-come, first-served, and offer picnic tables (a few with shade structures) and fire grills. Drinking water and flush toilets are available. Canyons carve the hills below the campground, their jumbled cliff faces hiding hints of past lives.
FOUR CORNERS. A classic country-western twang kept the rhythm with miles of broken rock as we ate up the road driving toward Four Corners Monument. From KTNN-AM 660, Navajo Radio, Hank Williams alternated with Native American drumming until we reached the point where we could get out of our car and stand in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona all at the same time. A slab of cement and geologic marker notes the exact location. Nearby, visitors can enjoy fry-bread, dripping with honey, and peruse the turquoise jewelry and sand paintings on sale.
CORTEZ CRUISE. From Four Corners, we traveled 40 miles north along Navajo Wash, between Sleeping Ute Mountain and the soaring ramparts of Mesa Verde. Scattered gas stations and used-car lots appeared as we entered Cortez, the largest town on our circle tour. You can find restaurants, grocery stores, camping supplies and RV campgrounds there, including a KOA. The Cortez Cultural Center offers Native American performances during the summer evenings.
McElmo Creek, a year-round stream, cuts a wide gulch straight west of Cortez. Sandstone walls flank the canyon floor populated with scattered farmhouses, cattle herds, apple orchards and newly cultivated grape vines. Across the street from Sutcliffe Vineyards, a broad patch of slickrock forms the parking area for the Sand Canyon Trail. One of a few designated trails into Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, the path takes you on a 6.5-mile journey past alcoves filled with cliff dwellings. Easy and moderate stretches lead to a steep section with 30 switchbacks that climbs 680 feet out of the canyon. At the end of the trail lies Sand Canyon Pueblo, a huge, mostly buried ruin built around a spring.
MAGNIFICENT MESA. Highway 160 stretches 10 miles east from Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park. This is the culmination of our search for the ancients. The huge mesa soars 600 feet over the valley at its feet. Desert streams carve deep canyons into Mesa Verde, dividing it into several smaller mesas. You can choose self-guided trails or sight-see via tour bus, tram, or on a ranger-led hike to such icons as Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House. Stop first at the Far View Visitor Center to purchase tickets. The nearby Chapin Mesa Museum houses thousands of artifacts and exhibits explaining Anasazi cultural development.
With 435 sites, the Mesa Verde campground is the largest in the National Park system. Drinking water, flush toilets, picnic tables and fire grates are available. Evening campfire talks are held nightly during summer months. Morefield Village, next to the campground, has some services: a gas station, convenience store, laundromat, showers and cafés. In spite of the fact that it lies near the Village, the quiet campground teems with wildlife, including abundant mule deer.
The spectacular Knife Edge Trail traverses the cliff-edge of Mesa Verde, offering hikers grand vistas extending over the Montezuma Valley. For the really big view, though, take a quick detour to the Park Point fire tower, the highest elevation in the park.
However, our favorite stop on the trip was Long House on quiet Wetherill Mesa. Fewer than 15 percent of Mesa Verde visitors drive the 12 winding miles to the park’s second-largest cliff dwelling. We sat alone in its alcove, feeling the cool humidity from its seep-spring, watching cloud-shadows race across over the canyon floor, and touching cool stones that some long-ago mason carefully placed. In the silence, we could hear the voices of the Ancients.
WHEN YOU GO
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado: 970/882-4811; co.blm.gov/canm
McPhee Recreation Area/Campground, Colorado: 970/247-4874; fs.fed.us/r2/sanjuan/recreation/campgrounds/mcphee
Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado: 970/562-4282; nps.gov/hove
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado: 970/529-4465; nps.gov/meve
Far View Lodge (and bus/tour reservations): 800/449-2288;