Anasazi Heritage, Spruce Tree House

Cortez, Mesa Verde and Canyons of the Ancients

The detour to Canon de Chelly delayed our arrival at Cortez by half a day but we had NO regrets. Canyon de Chelly was inspiring and we learned so much about the ancient people of America and appreciated the mysticism associated with the desolate setting of the Navajo land and its people.

Our next destination was to visit the Canyon of the Ancients near Cortez. We drove north from Canyon de Chelly via Indian route 64 and then US 49. US 191-N then 160-E would have been a more direct and quicker route, but what was the hurry?

Inching closer towards Cortez, we noted the changing colours of the rocks, desert and cliffs; from the ‘Red Rock Country’ in and around Kanab and Monument Valley to the limestone and green colours of the shrubs in Colorado. Once again, the vast, rugged and diverse beauty of the region known as the Colorado Plateau captivated us. It was a delight to observe the changing colours and landscape mile by mile as we approached our destination.

We pre-arranged to make Cortez our base for 3 nights and visit the territory where Ancient Puebloans lived for hundreds of years. Nearby sites at the Canyons of the Ancients, mainly Lowry Pueblo Ruins, Hovenweep National Monument and Mesa Verde were going to be the feature of the last two major stops of our American Southwest road trip.

That evening, for dinner there were notably more restaurants to choose from compared to Bluff. We were after all in the most populous municipality of Montezuma County. The meal we had at Destination Grill was a delicious surprise. The quail pleased my husband’s palate and the entire atmosphere was relaxed even at its busiest.

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

delicious quail for dinner at Cortez

Canyon of the Ancients in southwestern Colorado is home to numerous archaeological sites within the 170,000 acres administered and protected by the Bureau of Land Management’s National Conservation System. Collectively, the numerous archaeological finds represent the largest in the USA and are mostly those of Ancestral Puebloans’ ruins. The ancient people inhabited and established communities here around AD750 to 1100.

It is important to note that most of the roads around the sites are not sealed and the attractions are what they call ’outdoor museums’. Because of the vastness of the area and the fact that some places are best explored on foot, to visit the Lowry Pueblo Ruins and Hovenweep National Monument one must obtain information and maps from the Anasazi Heritage Center, 10 miles north of Cortez. The ‘must stop’ at the Anasazi Heritage Center is important because there is also a museum in the visitor centre that provides rich information about the life of the Ancestral Puebloans as well as a very interesting interactive exhibit that offer insights on ancient dwellers’ way of life. This first point of contact is highly recommended.

We began our exploration at the 1000 year old Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, located 28 miles northwest of Cortez, off Highway 491 at Pleasant View on County Road CC.

Archaeological relics and ruins suggest that Lowry Pueblo began as a small village when it was first built around 1060 AD. The ancients who inhabited Lowry Pueblo started with a few rooms and kivas (the traditional pit house dwellings of the Anasazi or the Ancient Puebloans and ceremonial underground rooms). Among the notable discoveries were a Great House, a multi-story structure with a pre-planned, rectangular layout with large rooms and a Great Kiva.

We spent a good part of the day at Lowry Pueblo ruins before we drove to Hovenweep National Monument located 40-45 miles from Cortez and only 24.5 miles southwest of Lowry Pueblo Ruins, via road 10. As always, we suggest that it is best to get the lay of the land and follow instructions from the rangers at the Visitor center.

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

ruins at Canyon of the Ancients

Lowry Pueblo ruins

Lowry Pueblo ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

wildlife at the Lowry Pueblo Ruins

Hovenweep was a very interesting stop because of the castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims. Clearly these are indications of how the early dwellers were skilled with masonry. They also showed the Ancient people’s determination to build a community in the rugged southwest corner of Colorado. From other discoveries of tools and varying remnants of plants, these proof suggest that the people were hunters and farmers. They cultivated corn, beans, squash and even cotton.

Hovenweep

Hovenweep

We began our exploration of Hovenweep on foot at Square Tower Group in Little Ruin Canyon near the Visitor Center. Then we went around the Rim Trail Loop, which took approximately a couple of hours as we lingered a fair bit to see the towers up close. By this time, we had our fill of history and suitably impressed with the fierce determination of the ancient people in the way they lived and survived the harsh environment. We then drove back to Cortez for a fabulous dinner at Farm Bistro on Main Street.

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

castles and towers at Hovenweep Ruins

ruins at Hovenweep

ruins at Hovenweep

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

castle and tall towers perched right on the canyon rims

Mesa Verde was a highly anticipated visit, our last national park for this American road trip. Dubbed as the ‘first national park set aside to preserve the works of humankind’ Mesa Verde is a UNESCO designated World Cultural Heritage Park and one of the ‘must see places’ for our road trip. The phrase mesa verde is Spanish for green table. Mesas are flat-topped mountains or hills and from 600 to 1300 AD, the Ancestral Pueblo people made the cliffs of these flat-topped limestone and sandstone mountains their home for over 700 years. Like previous visits to different parks, we began our exploration of Mesa Verde at the Visitor Center, located just off Highway 160 near the park entrance. For us it’s a pre-requisite to get our bearings and to map out what we really needed to explore as we only had a full day allotted for this all-important stop. After paying our entrance fee and obtaining the information we needed, we were directed to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum, just 22 miles from the Visitor Center for a more in depth orientation on the park and trail conditions; but more importantly, to have a better understanding of the Ancestral Puebloans and their lives at the cliff dwellings. The museum provides a 25-minute video every half hour for visitors as well as a store with books and gifts. I loved browsing at this particular store and bought a few books. Seeing that the entire Mesa Verde park was made up of a several sub-mesas and archaeological sites that were closed off to visitors we decided to focus our time and energy around the scenic Chapin Mesa area. Which in fact had the famous Spruce House and Petroglyph trail.

Although there are ranger-guided tours for visitors but we decided to explore the hiking trails on our own. From the museum we set off to trek to Spruce Tree House, the third largest and best-preserved cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, estimated to have been constructed between 1200-1278 AD. We were treated to glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community made up of several kivas (8 in total) , 120 rooms, 10 ledge rooms and 2 towers. The alcove is 66 meters long and 27 meters deep. It was just so fascinating!

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

Spruce Tree House, the third largest cliff dwelling constructed by the Ancient Puebloans

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

glimpses of how the Ancient Puebloans lived in their community , Spruce Tree House Mesa Verde

Then we decided to take up the task of going through the Petroglyph Trail which was a 3 mile round trip loop trail that afforded views of the scenic pullouts, canyons, an introduction to the fauna and foliage in this part of Colorado and the highpoint being the Indian petroglyphs. The rangers warned of the very steep climb (and I mean almost 90 degrees climb on some of the points. Warning: wear sturdy walking shoes, take bottled water and be very fit. This trail is not for the faint hearted)

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

The steep walk and climb Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

on our way to explore the difficult and steep climb to Petroglyph Trail, Mesa Verde

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

petroglyphs, Mesa Verde, Colorado

It took us approximately 3 hours to complete the loop and though challenging indeed, the views and the sites were worth it.

Santa Fe in New Mexico was the intended next stop from Cortez. From there, we were going to make the final stop at Flagstaff to visit the West entrance Grand Canyon and surrounds. Early next morning, we took off…