Painted Hand Pueblo: Canyons of the Ancients

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.

Underneath the rocky overhang is the faint, painted outline of a hand that gave this ruin its name.

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.)

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

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Castles in the Desert: Hovenweep National Monument

A castle-like tower as seen from the hike through Little Ruin Canyon in Hovenweep

Hovenweep National Monument‘s lovely visitor’s center straddles the Colorado/Utah border. (The park is located northwest of Cortez, Colo.)

Ken and I spent about three hours in this small park, although next time I’d love to camp for one or two nights so there’s more time to explore this beautiful area, best known for its ruins.

The enchanting 2-mile trail through Hovenweep’s Little Ruin Canyon is to be savored. Filled with square, round and even a spiral towers—along with an assortment of other buildings, storerooms and a “castle” complex — this narrow canyon must have been a 13th-century southwestern Manhattan.

Like most of the Ancestral Puebloans’ impressive architecture, Hovenweep’s dwellings were abandoned just one or two generations after they were built. Drought and deforestation probably factored into the people’s departure, and they moved south where resources were more plentiful.

Hovenweep features twin towers among its architectural wonders.

The hike through Little Ruin canyon is self-guided, but there’s a descriptive brochure that identifies all the prehistoric buildings. (Temperatures during October’s Indian Summer were about 80 at noon.) At the end of the hike, we stopped and rested on a bench, soaking up the warmth like the collared lizards of the area. Overlooking the canyon under brilliant blue skies—with the late afternoon sun golden on the stone and twisted pines—was magical.

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

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

Hovenweep National Monument's visitor center

Mesa Verde: An Archaeological Pilgrimage

Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado (near Four Corners) ranked Number 1 on my destination list after I first visited its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings at age five. I credit my fascination with archaeology to this park. A love for all things ancient has become one of my lifelong passions.

My childhood sense of adventure was kindled by climbing log ladders to reach Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings—built by the Anasazi people, as they were called when I was a kid. (Today they’re called Ancestral Pueblo people because they were the forebears of the Pueblo tribes that now live in Arizona and New Mexico.) Hearing stories about Anasazi ceremonial, underground, circular rooms, called kivas, sparked my imagination.

Four decades later, Mesa Verde continues to enchant me. I’ve take archaeological pilgrimages there four times since my parents first brought me. Over the years, I’ve never tired of hiking southwest Colorado’s desert landscape or pondering the archaeological remnants of the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area’s canyons and high plateaus from about 600 to 1300 A.D.

Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings—the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Cliff Palace is the most visited, and it’s exciting because you can see it from a distance before you hike down to explore it.

Ranger Interpretation Adds Dimension

Park ranger Tim McNeil describes how life might have been for the cliff-dwelling inhabitants of Balcony House.

Most of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are open only when you’re guided by a ranger. You need to buy a $3 reserved ticket in advance at the Far View Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, but it’s well worth the extra cost. The rangers who led my husband and I through the beautiful dwellings were fountains of knowledge—and they helped bring the ruins to life.

You don’t need to know that little windowed niches tucked under the cliffs were for storing corn and beans to appreciate the sandy geometry of the architecture or the permanence of stone. Still, it’s nice to know the function of towers, “middens” or garbage dumps, or about the spiritual significance of the sipapu, a small hole in the floor of the circular kiva. (The sipapu is the symbol of the Place of Emergence, where humans entered through the earth world from the spirit world.)

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde.

Balcony House

To visit the Balcony House, you climb log ladders up a cliff, scramble through Balcony House’s narrow passageway just as the ancients who lived here a millennia ago did. Four decades after I first visited, Balcony House’s tunnel is a tight squeeze for me—yet Mesa Verde continues to charm me. Ranger Tim McNeil described the Ancestral Puebloan diet, which relied heavily on piñon nuts and “The Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, which are not only staples, but grow symbiotically.

Looking at thousand-year-old beams and rooms gives me a different perspective—of how short a time we have to live, and how many wonderful antiquities there are to explore.

For details on Mesa Verde, see Visit Mesa Verde.  For information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

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A reconstructed ceremonial kiva at Mesa Verde.

Canyons of the Ancients: Lowry Pueblo

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.

Ken explores some of the passages at the ruin of Lowry Pueblo.

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.

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

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor