Explore Southwest Colorado’s Desert Ruins, From Mesa Verde to Hovenweep and Beyond – Greeley Tribune

Long before Colorado was occupied by white settlers, Spanish immigrants or the Utes, and hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus sailed the blue ocean, the Four Corners region was home to an indigenous people who left his mark on the landscape: the Ancestral Puebloans.

They lived in the deserts of the Southwest and unlike the mostly nomadic peoples of the time, built houses and cities, palaces and towers, with only rudimentary implements and mud. Civilization died out in the late 1200s, but many of their homes remain, a lasting testament to the ingenuity of this mysterious people.

Think: will your house still be standing in 1,000 years?

Although a long drive from Front Range, visiting these ancient ruins should be on every Colorados bucket list. Walking quietly through these settlements, listening to the wind whistle through the rooms, corridors and kivas (round ceremonial halls) is like stepping back in time. How did they survive such a harsh desert landscape? Where do water and wood come from? And why did they abandon such places after so much hard work? (There are many theories on the latter, from wars to climate change.)

Here is an introduction to exploring the ancient ruins of the Four Corners region. There are many other places in the southwest where you can see such remnants of these communities, but we’re focusing on those that are accessible in Colorado or just across the border. This area can be very hot in the height of summer, so plan ahead. The advantage: you can camp quite comfortably in the area until November.

Sun Point Pueblo, carved into cliffs in southwestern Colorado, can be seen in Mesa Verde National Park. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

Mesa Verde National Park

This national park is the most famous of the ancient sites in the region and for good reason. It has the largest and best-preserved ruins, built into the cliffside and within massive caves called alcoves, protected from the elements and, in some cases, meticulously restored by the National Park Service.

The climb is dizzying and you will be amazed at the effort it took to build such wonders. nps.gov/meve/index.htm

•When you go: Stop by the visitor center at the entrance to the park and book your visit, as most of the ruins can only be visited on ranger-guided walks. They can also be reserved in advance on Recreation.gov.

•Fees: $30 per vehicle, valid for 7 days (also available online); annual pass, $55; America the Beautiful parks annual pass, $80; $8 to $25 per person for visits to the cliff dwellings (2 years and under, $1).

•Where to stay: The Far View Lodge, located high on the mesa, offers hotel-style rooms and a restaurant and bar ($176-$186/night). Campers can stay overnight at the bottom of the mesa in Morefield Campground ($38/night).

The ruins of a structure in ...
The ruins of a structure at the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Thousands of archaeological sites have been recorded in the monument, and thousands more are waiting to be documented and studied. Some are marked, some are not. Everything must be respected and left intact. (R. Scott Rappold, special for the Denver Post)

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

This sprawling national monument in the shadow of Mesa Verde is quite the opposite, small pueblos and isolated towers scattered across 176,000 acres of windswept desert and parched canyons. Ask yourself why people would live here compared to the relative safety and protection of the cliff dwellings.

Hikers will enjoy a walk through Sand Canyon, where tiny houses built into shallow alcoves provide a stark contrast to the majesty of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. blm.gov/programs/national-conservation-lands/colorado/canyons-of-the-ancients

•When you go: Make your first stop at the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum in Dolores, where you can view exhibits, pick up maps, and ask helpful rangers questions.

•Fees: $7 per person for the Visitor Center; free to enter this national monument

• Where to stay: McPhee Campground is just outside of Dolores and makes a great base camp for exploring the national monument. Primitive camping can also be found on some dirt roads (see blm.gov for ideas)

According to CU-Boulder professor Steve Lekson, who led the excavations.  Royalty at Chimney Rock -- a
Research at the Chimney Rock archaeological site suggests that local elites ate elk and deer, unlike the workers who built the site, who ate smaller game. (Provided by the University of Colorado)

Chimney Rock National Monument

This unique site is perched atop a steep cliff west of Pagosa Springs, marked by two massive natural pillars visible for a long distance in all directions. The settlement ruins haven’t been restored like others, so you’ll have to use your imagination, although tour guides can help fill in the gaps. Experts believe it was a ceremonial site of great significance to the entire ancestral Puebloan civilization. Plan your visit in advance with the full moon and book a guided night tour. chimneyrockco.org

•When you go: Stop by the visitor center and sign up for a tour of the ruins, or put on your hiking boots and walk to the top of the cliff on your own.

• Fees: tours cost between $16 and $25 for adults

•Where to Stay: There is nowhere to stay at the National Monument, although there are several campgrounds along US 160. Pagosa Springs has many hotels and famous hot springs.

One of the many ruins in Hovenweep...
One of the many ruins in the Hovenweep National Monument. Most structures in Hovenweep were built between 1200 and 1300 AD. There are a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and numerous kivas. (R. Scott Rappold, special for the Denver Post)

Hovenweep National Monument

This national monument is just 2 miles away in Utah, and some sites are in Colorado. Unlike the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings or nearby small canyon houses, Hovenweep has many spectacular freestanding structures, most accessible by an easy trail from the park entrance. Other peripheral sites require driving on rough roads but are also worth the detour.

Once home to over 2,500 people, Hovenweep comprises six villages built between 1200 and 1300 AD. Add adventure to your trip by camping and hiking to the Holly Group through two canyons. nps.gov/hove/index.htm

• When you leave: collect a map from the visitor center

• Fees: no entry fees

•Where to stay: There is a first-come, first-served campground adjacent to the main ruins, so you can walk from your campsite ($15/night).

One of approximately 4,000 prehistoric and historical archaeological sites in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a UNESCO World <a class=Heritage Site in 1987. (Photo by R. Scott Rappold, Denver Post Special)” width=”960″ data-sizes=”auto” src=”https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=620%2C9999px&ssl=1″ srcset=”https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=620%2C9999px&ssl=1 620w,https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=780%2C9999px&ssl=1 780w,https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=810%2C9999px&ssl=1 810w,https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=1280%2C9999px&ssl=1 1280w,https://i0.wp.com/www.denverpost.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/TDP-L-Ancient-Chaco.jpg?fit=1860%2C9999px&ssl=1 1860w”/>
One of approximately 4,000 prehistoric and historical archaeological sites in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. (R. Scott Rappold, Denver Post Special)

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

This site in northern New Mexico is a long trip but worth the trip. Experts believe it was the cultural and perhaps political center of civilization, a magnificent canyon with many large communities and towering towers to impress and perhaps humiliate visitors. Ancient roads branched off in all directions, suggesting that this was also a center of trade. Some sites require long hikes to reach, so bring your boots. Pay attention to the petroglyphs. Yes, it is captivating as they say. nps.gov/chcu/index.htm

•When you go: stop at the visitor center to pay the entrance fee and visit the small museum. Trail maps are $2.

• Fees: $25 per vehicle, valid for 7 days

•Where to stay: Gallo Campground is located just before the Visitor Center ($20/night).

Explore the ruins

•Take plenty of water, as you won’t find any among the ruins.

•Dogs are not allowed in the ruins or on the interpretive trails.

•Do not touch the walls, which may be fragile.

•Don’t take any relics you might find, such as old pot shards. It is illegal and disrespectful.

What about Manitou Cliff accommodations?

You may have seen these “Old Cliff Houses” along US 24 at the base of Ute Pass near Manitou Springs. They look like what you’ll see in southwestern Colorado, but they weren’t built or inhabited by native people. The stones were taken from an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners area more than 100 years ago — long before federal antiquities law made such activity illegal — and used to build structures that resemble dwellings. from the cliffs of Mesa Verde.

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