Discover Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Underneath the rocky overhang of Painted Hand Pueblo is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[May 2017 update: The Trump administration has placed Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger the monument’s irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites.]

If you’re driving through Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado, don’t miss a sweet little ruin down a mile of dirt road off Road 10. (It’s not too far outside of Hovenweep National Monument, another enchanting site for prehistoric ruins in the Four Corners area.

My husband, Ken, and I bumped down the road (it can be a little rough) until we found the Painted Hand Pueblo trail leading to a lovely 13th-century Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) tower gracefully perched over the canyon.

We parked and then took the short ¼-mile hike. The beginning is easy, leading through piñon and juniper forest. Scrambling down the banded sandstone to reach the tower’s base was more challenging (I was glad to have sturdy hiking boots!). However, the view of the stacked-brick tower beckoned.

As we explored and enjoyed the tower, it was Ken who found and pointed out the faint shape of three white hands painted on rock—the reason for the ruins’ name. The lonely call of a hawk overhead got me wondering about the long-ago artist who left handprints handprint on this peaceful valley.

What’s There: Painted Hand has interpretive signs and brochures at its trailhead. There’s no water or toilets—and the road is rough. (We made it in our Toyota Camry, but if the roads are muddy, you might need a four-wheel drive.)

About Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeological important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(originally published October 2008)

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Explore a Ruined Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo. © Laurel Kallenbach

[May 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger the monument’s irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites.]

Along Colorado Highway 491, pinto and Anasazi bean fields line the road—as do spectacular sunflowers. (Dried Anasazi beans, sold as local souvenirs, are an heirloom variety grown from seeds found in ancient pottery.)

At the hamlet of Pleasant View, Ken and I followed Road CC nine miles (on asphalt and gravel) to Lowry Pueblo, just one of Canyons of the Ancients’ multitude of archaeological sites, most of which are unexplored.

This settlement was home to about 40 people in the late 1100s, and the stabilized masonry walls mark small rooms.

Lowry has one of the region’s largest kivas—47 feet in diameter—with floor stones laid in a decorative pattern. The signs tell about the various interpretations of the patterns, which supposedly tell a story.

There’s no gas or food in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, so pack food and lots of water. And be sure to have a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirt and pants, and plenty of sunscreen to shield you from the intense sun. Sturdy footwear and good socks will protect you from rocks and cactus.

What’s There: Lowry Pueblo is a small site with reconstructed ruins to explore. There are interpretive signs, brochures, a picnic table and pit toilets—but no water.

About Canyons of the Ancients National Monument

Declared a National Monument in 2000, Canyons of the Ancients contains some of the most scenic and archaeologically important land in the American Southwest. This unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

(Originally published on October 18, 2008)

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

The Anasazi Treasures of Canyons of the Ancients

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[April 26, 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites. The Bureau of Land Management still allows for grazing and oil and gas development on parts of the monument, just as it did before President Clinton designated the federal protection of this land in  June of 2000.]

Ten miles from Cortez, Colorado, is the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitor’s center and museum for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This first-rate museum should be the first stop for every visitor who wants to understand the archaeological treasures of the Anasazi. (The Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloans because these ancient people were the ancestors of current Pueblo tribes.)

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

First, some background on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Declared a National Monument in 2000, this unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

I’m a museum buff, and this one lets you see the best of the artifacts—which you won’t see in the field. I learned about kivas (ceremonial, subterranean, circular rooms) and how corn was ground by hand with stones. I even eye-balled some pottery sherds under a microscope. And I marveled at beautifully preserved examples of 900-year-old pottery and tools.

I also loved the philosophy of education and cross-cultural understanding here. There’s a children’s discovery center where you can touch a dog-hair weaving and grind corn between rocks as the Ancestral Puebloans did.

“In archaeology, a rock’s not just a rock,” says Victoria Atkins, the Heritage Center’s interpretive specialist. “It tells a story about what people in the past ate, how they lived, how they spent their time. We try to add a human touch to understanding the past.”

A 10-minute film, “Visit with Respect,” does just that. It outlines rules for preserving ancient sites: Don’t climb on or eat near the ruins, never disturb or remove bits of pottery or rock that you find, and stay on paths. It also illustrates how the ruined villages are sacred to today’s Pueblo tribes—Hopi, Acoma, Laguna—who believe the ruins are home to their ancestors’ spirits. These people ask the spirits’ permission before entering sacred spaces—and offer thanks when they leave.

My husband and I got our first chance to greet the spirits of the ancestors at Escalante Pueblo, located just up the hill from the Anasazi Heritage Center. From this height, we surveyed McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde.

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also admired the rocky profile of Sleeping Ute Mountain, a range of peaks resembling a fallen warrior with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a different blanket each season: white in winter, green in spring and summer, and gold in fall. The legend says the warrior will someday rise again.

One note for visitors to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: there’s no fee to visit, but no water is available, and there are no campgrounds (primitive roadside camping is allowed).

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published October 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Washington’s Cherry Blossoms Symbolize International Friendship

America’s greatest springtime festival is without a doubt the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. There’s a parade, a kite festival, a humdinger of an opening ceremony (featuring musicians from around the globe), numerous arts performances, special exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, and even merchandise like posters, lapel pins, T-shirts, and more. Tourism surges as people visit from all over the world to greet the pink blossoms that herald the arrival of spring.

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Behind all the hoopla are the cherry trees themselves, and they represent the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan. Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,020 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington D.C. In March of that year, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, together planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. (Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees, so she helped facilitate the gift from Japan.)

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trees were just the first of the many gifts that have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States reciprocated by shipping flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S.–Japanese friendship was strained, but after WWII, the nations again reached out in peace. A 17th-century granite pagoda statue arrived from the mayor of Yokohama, Japan, in 1957 to commemorate the original Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and America, which was signed in Yokohama in 1854. The Pagoda statue was also erected along the Tidal Basin (near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial), and it’s appropriately surrounded by the cherry trees.

Say It with Flowers

The Tidal Basin is one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms, especially in the context of patriotic monuments. By strolling along the banks of the Tidal Basin, tens of thousands of people every year are rewarded with gorgeous views of national memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I walked about three-quarters of the entire loop trail to admire the blossoms and to listen to some of the small ensembles from the Boulder Philharmonic who were playing near several of the monuments. (The orchestra, which Ken plays in, was one of four invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the SHIFT Festival for American Orchestras.)

There were crowds of people out on sunny, but windy, day, including numerous visitors from Japan. It was delightful seeing people, whose country gave us these trees, snapping selfies in front of the monuments.

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

As Ken and I walked, we paused at the monuments to read the inspiring words of the great men of our nation who are commemorated along the Tidal Basin. At the beautiful FDR Memorial, which comprises bronze artwork and waterfalls, two quotes by our 32nd president stood out for me.

The first was “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization” (January 9, 1940). The second Roosevelt quote that struck me was, “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men” (January 24, 1935).

(You can read some of the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my post about that monument).

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

And of course, at the Thomas Jefferson Monument, our third president’s words from the Declaration of Independence rang loud and true, although at the time he wrote them, the “created equal” part applied only to white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

All my life I’ve been hearing about the wonders of the Cherry Blossom Festival, but the beauty of the trees, their flowers, the water, the wide sky, and the patriotic monuments really must be seen to be believed. Not only is the festival a tribute to history and nature, it celebrates the very concept of international harmony. What could be more inspiring and uplifting?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach