Up to now we have been marveling over the natural beauty of the parks in Arizona and Southern Utah. Next on the list are several sites that have to do with the original people that inhabited this area and who are the ancestors of the indigenous tribes that were here when the first European settlers arrived. We had heard a lot about Mesa Verde and the collection of cliff dwellings there, but as we were traveling through Utah, we began to learn about some other National Monuments that were also preserving remnants of the indigenous culture. These are Canyon of the Ancients, Hovenweep, and Bears Ears National Monuments.
There are antiquities spread all over SE Utah, SW Colorado, and New Mexico, which were originally inhabited by the pueblo culture sometimes known as the Anasazi (a Navaho word for "ancient foreigner), but now described more accurately as the Ancestral Pueblo People. They arrived here from the west, replacing the original hunter gatherers who left as the climate changed and their way of life required moving to a new location. The Ancestral Pueblo People inhabited this area from 4-500 AD until 1300 AD. The original people lived in Pit Houses dug into the ground and covered with wood and adobe walls and roofs, designed to help them tolerate the climate.
As the culture continued they developed more sophisticated communities with pueblos built of stone and adobe, with multiple levels and many round Kivas or ceremonial spaces.
The later people developed the elaborate cliff dwellings seen in Mesa Verde, Canyon De Chelley, and Chaco Canyon.
It is unclear why this evolution occurred, maybe cultural or defensive, and also why they left them to move south down to the Rio Grande area, possibly related to climate change, or conflict. They are considered the ancestors of the Navaho, Hopi, and Zuni people who inhabit the area today.
We were interested to see as much as we could, although many places were limited or closed due to the covid pandemic. We drove down from Canyonlands, heading towards Canyon of the Ancients not really knowing what to expect. We found the Visitor's Center closed, but they had kindly left info about the monument out for people to collect. We spent the day seeing the Lowry Pueblo and the sites at the Painted Hand Pueblo. It seems that there are many sites in the area and at Bears Ears that are being protected, but have not been excavated or fully archeologically explored. The sites at Lowry and Painted Hand have been restored a bit and some attempts at preservation have been done. It was a joy to see them and imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived there.
We had also heard about Hovenweep National Monument, one that I had never heard of before this trip. Even though we were not aware of it, it has been around awhile, established in the 1920's. We knew there was a campground there, and we found it to be very nice with plenty of spaces available. The monument itself is around a canyon with many dwellings and towers built on the rim and canyon walls. They were constructed round 1200 AD and are considered to be some of the finest examples of pueblo construction. Hovenweep is a Ute/Paiute word for "deserted valley", and accurately describes this place. Walking around the rim now is very peaceful and quiet, but one can imagine the voices of the people living and working and the children playing when it was inhabited.
We were off to Mesa Verde the next day with a lot of anticipation. We found the campground closed and the ranger led visits to the cliff dwellings as well as the road to Wetherill Mesa and the Longhouse and Stephouse where all shut down due to the covid pandemic. We were able to find a boondocking spot on BLM land for a free camping site so that worked out really well. We also were able to get to Chapin Mesa which has a lot of the cliff dwelling sites as well as mesa top pueblos which are available to view.
The mesa top sites are scattered around and are built over ancestral sites, so it is possible to see evidence of much earlier dwellings at the same locations as the later pueblos. Several of these sites and the cliff sites have been excavated, archeologically investigated and restored and the process is ongoing even to this day. It seems as the culture evolved the population moved from the mesa tops to the cliffs. Most of the cliff sites were built where there are natural water sources from weeps in the cliffs or springs, and are relatively inaccessible without intimate local knowledge. They seem easily defensible, leading to the conjecture that they were built because of hostility with other groups. Then they were all abandoned abruptly, and the population moved further south to the Rio Grande area. Again, conjecture leads one to assume hostility or environmental reasons for the move, but no one knows for sure. One thing for sure is that they left us a grand site to see, with intricate architecture and design. Even though we didn't get to physically visit the sites, it was a pleasure to see them from afar and imagine the people making a life for themselves in this harsh environment.
We headed back east to North Carolina to check the property without the leaves on the trees and walk it with the designer. We were excited by the potential and have decided to move forward with a home design and will see where it all goes. We did a little hiking and had a nice Thanksgiving steak dinner by the fire in the campground.
Somewhat reluctantly we headed home after one of our best adventures. For anybody who's stumbled onto this blog and is interested in a similar trip, I would heartily recommend it. I had a senior pass which is highly useful as it gets you into the parks at no charge and half price at the campgrounds. If you are not over 65 you can get an annual pass which will still save a bundle. Doing the trip in the fall was great, and we had wonderful weather. We found some parks crowded (Zion was the worst) and some relatively empty, although this year may have been atypical due to the crowds trying to get outside and enjoy safe activity. Remember that this is high desert and the elevation makes things cooler that you might expect. Our routine was to spend several days camping and then hit a motel. The longest we spent between motels was about 10 days, but it was usually more like 5 days. Camping on BLM land was new for me, but is very common out west. It's free, but with no amenities. We enjoyed it very much. There are apps available (campendium is one) that can help find suitable sites. Most of these areas have been camped in over and over so there are sites already there. The Forest Service and BLM asks that when you use this land that you try to use existing sites and pack out all trash, i.e."leave no trace". Look for more pictures in the gallery.