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:

Sleep in a Sustainable Hotel in Mesa Verde National Park

From our balcony at the Far View Lodge inside Mesa Verde National Park, Ken and I watched wild horses graze around the clusters of rooms at sunset. It made for a memorable ending to a day of exploring the park’s unparalleled Ancestral Puebloan ruins.

Far View Lodge was eco-renovated to be energy- and water-efficient and to reduce waste—and its modest but comfy rooms offer glorious views of the park. In true National Park style, there are no nightclubs or in-room TVs, and outdoor lights are kept to a minimum. I’m happy to report that during our stay, we inhaled cool night air spiced by the scent of sagebrush and gazed at the vast universe of stars while serenaded by a coyote chorus in the distance.

The lobby at the Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde National Park

Aramark, the concession company that operates Far View Lodge and Mesa Verde’s infrastructure in general (tours, hospitality services, waste disposal, restrooms, and non-Park Service staff), has a fairly comprehensive enviro-plan (called PlanetEVERgreen), which is necessary to deal with the many housands of visitors who visit the park annually.

Among Aramark’s initiatives are:

  • recycling program (paper, glass, plastic, metals)
  • waste reduction
  • water and energy conservation
  • ecofriendly cleaning supplies
  • landscape-conscious construction (to reduce damage to the fragile ecosystems, to blend into the natural view, and to minimize light and noise pollution)
  • bi-fuel trucks and electric carts
  • integrated pest management (IPM) with a nontoxic approach to dealing with insects and rodents
  • sustainable and organic foods, including shade-grown Fair Trade-certified coffee.

Metate Room Restaurant

The Far View Lodge has a wonderful, though slightly pricey, restaurant on premises. Ancient meets contemporary in the Metate Room’s menu. The chef has created dishes that blend regional, sustainable, and organic fare with Ancestral Puebloan traditions. The result was a sumptuous dinner that started with a crisp and tangy house salad topped with black beans and corn and a chopotle-maple vinaigrette. My husband sampled the Corn-and-Nut-Crusted Rocky Mountain Trout served with Anasazi beans and sautéed veggies from a local farm. I opted for the Elk Tenderloin with local chokecherry demi-glace.

Fine, Native American-inspired dining is available at the Metate Room in Mesa Verde National Park.

The Metate Room offers a lovely atmosphere decorated with Navajo weaving, pottery and baskets. Native flute music played softly in the background. I know it’s kind of clichéd, but the wooden flute just sounds right in a place like Mesa Verde where you know you’re looking out the window at the same vistas that the Ancestral Puebloans beheld.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

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

Stories from Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The beautiful mesas and canyons of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park in southwest Colorado have many secrets to tell.

The red rocks and blue skies in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park are spectacular.

The red rocks, blue skies and yellow rabbitbrush in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park are spectacular.

There’s the ancient epic of primordial oceans creating the flat sedimentary stone that makes up this gorgeous country. (You can still find fossilized shells and bones of sea creatures here in this now-dry country.)

There’s the story of burnished-gold chamisa (also called rabbitbrush) shining in the Indian-summer light of early October. And the sagebrush, cacti, yucca and cottonwoods (and invasive, nonnative tamarisks) growing along the Mancos River. And the cry of a hawk or crow echoing through the canyon.

There’s the mystery of Ancestral Puebloan pottery sherds, petroglyphs and cliff dwellings found abundantly throughout the park, which is on the Ute Mountain Reservation.

And there are the stories that our Ute guide, Marshall Deer, told about the distant and recent past.

Tourism That Supports Utes

Before I get to that, though, there’s also the tourism tale. A visit to Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park is a great example of sustainable tourism.

Why sustainable? When tourism dollars go into the pockets of outsiders, foreign investors or far-away corporate owners, the money doesn’t help the local economy. The best types of “ecotourism” aren’t just environmentally friendly, they’re beneficial to locals or indigenous people.

Marshall Deer explains the meaning in a prehistoric petroglyph.

Marshall Deer explains the possible meaning of the symbols in this prehistoric petroglyph.

To experience the cliff dwelling ruins, ancient rock art and gorgeous scenery at Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park, you sign onto a half-day or full-day tour led by a tribal member. The proceeds help support the Utes, and leading tours through this inspiring country seems a far better way to make a living than working at the casino in the nearby town of Towaoc.

How the West Was Lost

While driving and hiking through the Ute Tribal Park, I listened carefully to Marshall’s stories. He grew up on the Rez, attended college in Gunnison, Colorado, and worked on regional archaeological digs. He had many insights to share, ranging from an explanation of how to “read” a wall of ancient petroglyphs depicting the origin of the world to stories of the Wetherills, the family of ranchers who explored the ruins in the Mesa Verde National Park area a century ago.

(John Wetherill was known as the “human plumb-bob” because he dangled on a rope as his brothers lowered him over the side of cliffs to access the 700-year-old ruins.)

The Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Tribal Park are more than 700 years old.

The Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Tribal Park are about 700 years old.

There were sadder sagas too: how the U.S. Army forced the Utes out of the mountains (where they lived in summer) and into the desert mesas (their winter homes). And the tragic tale of how the Utes hid their children in the cliff dwellings from U.S. soldiers who came to forcibly remove children from their parents to take them to boarding school. There, they’d cut the children’s hair, make them wear European clothes, forbid them to speak their language, and separate them from their spiritual and cultural heritage.

(Normally, the Utes avoided Ancestral Puebloan (or “Anasazi”) sites because the Utes aren’t the descendents of those prehistoric people, who lived in the region until the mid-1200s. Modern Puebloan tribes include the Hopis and Zunis.)

I learned about the Ghost Dance, a tribal ritual performed to wash away the evil in a place. It was most done in hope of ridding the land of European oppressors. I also witnessed protest art that the Utes painted on rocks during the 1960s and 1970s.

Language and Freedom

Marshall also said something that I’ve been mulling for weeks. I asked whether young people on the Rez still speak Ute, and he said many did. He also mentioned that less than half the Ute language is written down; it’s mostly passed along orally. He made the case that if language isn’t written, then outsiders can’t use it against its speakers.

This is one reason, he said, that some Native Americans are people of few words, at least in the company of non-Natives. Marshall explained that by withholding knowledge—even by withholding their words—the Utes feel they protect themselves against cultural “invasion.”

Pottery sherds are everywhere. You're allowed to look but not to remove them from the place you found them..

Pottery sherds are everywhere. You’re allowed to look but not to remove them from the place you found them.

“They can take away our hair, our traditions, but if we withhold our language, it can’t be taken away from us,” Marshall said.

As a woman of words, I’m sad that whole cultures are so threatened that they must to hide their words in the name of self-preservation, yet that is the case in many places around the world.

Part of me is happy, however, that some people realize that language is power, that it’s identity, that it’s the marrow of our Selves.

I’m also profoundly grateful that the Utes revere and preserve their Tribal Park land and that they’re willing to share it—and their stories, or at least bits of them—with us outsiders.

If you’d like, leave a comment about how language affects who you are or how it shapes your identity. Do you have a secret language all your own? And how does keeping it private help you?

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

In the Ute Tribal Park, you climb ladders and hike to prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.

In the Ute Tribal Park, you climb ladders and hike to prehistoric Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. It’s customary to thank the ancestors for your visit.