Canyons of the Ancients Monument
We have made a stop at the Colorado Welcome Center in Cortez, CO, obtaining maps and information regarding the Canyons of the Ancients Monument and Hovenweep National Monument. Planning to put in a full day on Bureau of Land Management back roads, we stop at the local grocery to stock up. It is hard to eat well on a road trip, but we do our best to buy vegetables and fruits to stash in the cooler.
Canyons of the Ancients Monument is 176,000 acres of BLM property said to have the highest known density of archeological sites in the United States. There are an estimated 30,000 in this area, including great kivas, shrines, cliff dwellings, sweat lodges, petroglyphs, and more. Our road trip thus far has been immensely rich in history and archeology.
Our destination this morning is Lowry Pueblo. It is easy to find when you have excellent maps and guidance from the staff at the Colorado Welcome Center. Make sure you stop at the Welcome Center in Cortez! The Lowry Pueblo was constructed around 1000 AD and housed anywhere from 40 to 100 people for over a century. It is a short walk around the grounds where you are able to explore the excavated rooms. This site does provide picnic tables and pit toilets.
Hovenweep National Monument
After covering the grounds of Lowry Pueblo, we make the short drive to Hovenweep National Monument. This site was home to over 2,500 Ancestral Pueblo People in the late 1200s. Hovenweep is a fascinating place. This settlement, while not so dramatic as Mesa Verde, contains intriguing ruins. Buildings a myriad of sizes and shapes adorn the cliffsides of an understated canyonland. In the distance, snow-covered mountain tops emerge. They tower above the seemingly pancake-flat Great Sage Plain of Cajon Mesa where this culture skillfully farmed for many years.
The people that lived here practiced agricultural techniques such as using terraces, water-collection basins, and check dams for erosion prevention. Of the many buildings constructed many were granaries for the storage of squash, corn, and beans. Like the people of Mesa Verde, they were skilled potters. However, the people of Hovenweep excelled in masonry. Many of the buildings exhibiting unique shapes, such as circular, square, and D-shaped towers are still standing today because of the skill in which they were constructed.
For unexplained reasons, the Ancestral Puebloans left this area and migrated southward. The present-day Hopi, Zuni, and Pueblo people are the descendants of this culture. The word "Hovenweep" was adopted by European settlers and is the Ute word meaning "deserted valley."
Hovenweep National Monument contains 5 pre-historic village sites along a 16-mile length. Stop at the visitor center for an orientation. There is a campground designed for tents; although, some sites will accommodate 36-foot RVs. We step outside the visitor center onto the Rim Trail. This hike is a simple 1.5-mile loop around a little canyon that allows close views of these intriguing ruins.
This group along Little Ruin Canyon contains what is referred to as the Square Tower Group. The most impressive of these are Square Tower, Hovenweep Castle, and Tower Point. Tower Point is at the head of the canyon and has a captivating view of all the structures at the site.
Hovenweep Castle consists of two D-shaped towers possibly used as a dwelling for the farmers that once lived here. Square Tower is composed of two stories and sits down in the canyon, unlike Tower Point and Hovenweep Castle which are on the canyon rim. Because of its close proximity to a kiva, it is thought that Square Tower may have had a spiritual function. A seep lies nearby and was essential for the permanent settlement.
The Twin Towers are perhaps the most interesting to those with a keen eye for architecture. This 16-room structure was meticulously constructed with small and large blocks of sandstone. The original wooden lintels are still in place on one of the buildings. Hovenweep National Monument also contains other opportunities for hiking, including the Cutthroat Castle Group, Horseshoe and Hackberry Groups, Holly Group, and the Cajon Group.
Valley of the Gods
After a captivating afternoon touring the ruins of Canyon of the Ancients, we pass into Utah. Impulsively, we decide to visit a region formerly part of Bear Ears National Monument called the Valley of the Gods. This is a 17-mile scenic drive through a wonderfully colorful and inspiring landscape in southeastern Utah. There were few people on the back road that day, and we enjoyed a lunch under the bright, sandstone spires of the valley. Dispersed camping is allowed in well-used sites here. This area is protected by the Bureau of Land Management, and hiking and backpacking are permitted; although, there are no established trails. Campfires are prohibited.
Goosenecks State Park
The brief drive through Valley of the Gods has been a pleasant experience, but we are about to be amazed. A short distance from the Valley is an unassuming state park. Right now it is just a red dot on our atlas: Goosenecks State Park. Unpremeditated we stop at the entrance station, which is empty. We are confronted with a dirt patch interspersed with rickety picnic tables. Well, this is underwhelming. But this park is not for hiking, it is for observing.
We drive along the dirt road for a few minutes, looking for hiking trails and camp spots. To our right, there seems to be a drop-off. We park, get out, and approach. We find ourselves on a great precipice. The view is incredible. Far below, is a deep meander of the San Juan River. It glints in the sunlight. We sit and enjoy the amazing sight, which is millions of years in the making.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
It is still too early to stop for the evening. And although Goosenecks has the best views, the campsites are exposed and out-of-view of the meander. We decide to drive onward to our next destination Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. This park is seen from a 17-mile dirt road auto tour and includes many impressive pinnacles and monoliths. The entrance fee is $20. These incredible monuments stand as giants against the flat Colorado plateau. If you are interested in hiking, you must pay to go with a Navajo guide.
We enter the park close to sunset. As the sun begins its descent, we travel along the crowded and neglected auto-tour offroad. The road is often packed with cars, creating a tourist traffic jam. At certain points along the tour, ramshackle shops pile up to create a clutter that completely detracts from the beauty of this park.
The light of the disappearing sun paints the rocks with pinks and other colors that are made and unmade in an instant. We find ourselves at Artist's Point as the sun drops behind the monoliths, transforming the sky into a fuzzy, soft twilight. There is no doubt that the landscape here is fantastic and inspiring if you are able to blot out the crowds and touristy atmosphere.
For great road trip ideas, click here.
Road Trip Tips:
- The Cortez Welcome Center is an excellent place for information and advice. Take advantage of it.
- Make sure to bring plenty of supplies with you when you are traveling in this area, especially if you are touring areas with back roads. Amenities are scare. Carry gas, water, food, and anything else you think prudent.
- The vistas at Goosenecks State Park are incredible. Do not miss it.
- Visit the visitor center at Hovenweep and learn about the Ancestral Pueblo People and the structures they built. It makes the hike intriguing.