It’s called Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, and it was established in the Four Corners region just 10 miles west of Cortez, Colorado, in 2000. Mesa Verde County says it has the highest know density of archaeological sites in the country — more than 8,000. And ancient it is. People have lived in this area for at least 10,000 years, most of their “footprint” having been eroded over time.
Three major ruins
Still, Canyons of the Ancients monument is there, comprised of three, fairly contemporary sites, dating to around 1100 CE. The major ruins are Lowry Pueblo, Painted Hand Pueblo, and Sand Canyon Pueblo, along with the Sand Canyon Trail taking you to Saddlehorn and Castle Rock ruins.
Time is a constant in our lives. It never stands still, and time machines are as fictional as Marty McFly. So, for want of a time machine, if you want to experience the culture of the Ancient Puebloans and learn about our past, now’s the time to plan your journey.
National monument defined
The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is 174,000 acres of rugged, breathtaking landscapes. The ancients grew corn, beans, and squash here. Farmers still till the soil today. And because this archaeological monument is an “outdoor museum,” historic sites aren’t always apparent to the untrained eye. That’s why the place to begin is the Canyons of the Ancients visitor center and museum.
Visitor center gets you started in the right direction
The visitor center is located on Highway 184 in Dolores, Colorado. Discover these people’s past through artifacts, microscopes, looms, and other hands-on items. Get a feel for their way of life, both from cultural and archaeological perspectives. The visitor center will highlight what you’re about to see in the field, orient you, and get you started.
You go at your own pace in this self-guided exploration. What you’ll see at Canyons of the Ancients are ruins of pueblos, check dams and reservoirs, cliff dwellings, shrines and petroglyphs, sacred springs, and sweat lodges.
Access to the monument is $7 per adult 15 years or older. The four main roads to the ruins are paved, although most other roads in the monument are unpaved and primitive. Read that: high-clearance vehicles recommended, along with a really good map. Perhaps the best way to see the four ruins is on foot or mountain bike — even horseback — on designated trails. Pets on leashes are welcome.
Lowry Pueblo stabilized for visitors
The Lowry Pueblo, the most northern of the ruins, was built around 1060 CE. It is the only developed site within the monument. You can examine the structures along a trail, which is wheelchair accessible. When pueblo construction ended, it had 40 rooms, whose walls have been stabilized so you can walk through them. It also has eight small kivas and a now-reconstructed giant kiva used for religious and societal ceremonials.
An “album” of painted-hand pictographs
The Painted Hand Pueblo was a small village of about 20 rooms. It was named for the pictographs of painted hands on a nearby boulder. The outstanding feature of this ruin is a tower perched on a boulder. While the pueblo has never been excavated, stone rubble shows where rooms were built against the cliff face.
Largest pueblo was Sand Canyon
The largest of the pueblos is Sand Canyon. It had 430 rooms, 100 kivas, and 14 towers. Once it was a bustling village, although what remains today is mostly rubble. After excavating the site, archaeologists reburied it so they wouldn’t have to stabilize the walls.
Hiking Sand Canyon Trail
If you crave more adventure, you can undertake the 12-mile (round-trip) Sand Canyon Trail. It’s perhaps the best way to discover the striking geological formations and desert landscape. Mountain bikes do well here, but remember, the terrain can be rocky, steep, and remote.
You’ll first come to Castle Rock Pueblo. Dating from the mid-1200s, it had 40 rooms and 16 kivas. Only a few walls remain. Farther along, Saddlehorn Pueblo had a spire of rock above an alcove. Near the alcove is a kiva that had likely burned.
Both sites and others in this area, are closed to public access. Do not enter them, climb on walls, move artifacts, or touch rock art. That’s how you contribute to preservation for future generations.
However you decide to see Canyons of the Ancients — on foot, bike, or horse — you’ll immerse yourself in the rich heritage and culture of our now-distant ancestors. Besides studying the human artifacts, you’ll be able to appreciate the orange, yellow, brown, and white geological formations — outcroppings of smooth, weathered sandstone laid down as sand dunes 150 million years ago.
Be sure to check the monument’s website before you visit to see if you’ll be lucky enough to enjoy a star party or other special event. If you enjoy stargazing, you can learn more here.
Both people and place are ancient. It’s why you’ll long for H.G. Wells’ time machine.