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:

Castles in the Utah Desert: Hovenweep National Monument

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

Hovenweep National Monument has a lovely visitor’s center, and the monument and archaeological site straddles the Colorado/Utah border. (The park is located northwest of Cortez, Colorado.)

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 that we’d have more time to explore this beautiful area, best known for its ruins.

The enchanting two-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 and editor

Originally posted October 20, 2008

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

Hovenweep National Monument’s visitor center

Digging into the Past at Crow Canyon

If, like me, you dream of being a real-life Indiana Jones, grab your fedora and trowel and head to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center just outside Cortez. This research and educational organization gives you hands-on experience—for a day or week—with real archaeologists at actual dig sites. Crow Canyon is one of the only scientific groups currently excavating in the Mesa Verde region.

Archaeologists use a screen and toothbrush to wash dirt from artifacts they find while digging.

I loved going into the archaeology lab to see how artifacts are washed, categorized and finally numbered. It’s exacting work—but it seems so important in helping piece together time.

Ken and I also got to visit a current Crow Canyon archaeological site. Archaeologists excavate trenches (2 feet wide by 10 or 15 feet long) and once they’ve recorded their finds, they refill the trench with the dirt they removed.

Crow Canyon offers several experiential programs:

  • Day Tours: You’ll visit an excavation site and go behind the scenes at Crow Canyon’s archaeological lab where you’ll see ancient artifacts and visit an ongoing archaeological excavation. Day tours (8:30 to 4:30) are held on Wednesdays and Thursdays from May through September. Lunch is included. Adults: $55; children (ages 10 to 17): $30.

    Archaeologist Grant Coffey points out layers in a trench excavation.

  • Adult Archaeology Research Week: Join a professional archaeological team and help uncover the past. You’ll learn to dig for and identify artifacts you find. In the lab, you’ll wash and catalog pottery and stone tools. All meals, lodging and transportation to dig sites included: $1,475 per person.
  • Family Archaeology Week: Plan your next family vacation around an Ancestral Pueblo archaeology adventure. Adults: $1,520; children (ages 10 to 17): $1,125.

For dates and information on Crow Canyon, contact 800-422-8975.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

One of the buildings at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center