This national monument is the dream of any history and archaeology buff, as well as a place of great importance for the cultural and spiritual past of the Pueblo people. Canyons of the Ancients, created in 2000 on 176,000 acres (71,200 ha) of land managed by the BLM, protects the highest known archaeological site density in the United States (approximately 30,000). Located in Colorado, in the Four Corners region, the high desert area of the monument has been inhabited for the past 10,000 years. Any visit here should start with the Canyons of the Ancients Visitor Center and Museum (Anasazi Heritage Center) in Dolores, by the McPhee Reservoir and campground. The museum is well maintained, filled with interesting artifacts and information, and a great introduction to the past and present cultures of the Four Corners region. Maps and books about the area can be purchased at the shop, and the Visitor Center will provide free maps and materials about the national monument. We arrived at Canyons of the Ancients in November, when temperatures were pleasant and the crowds of visitors much smaller. Driving from Bears Ears across the border in Utah, we spent one day exploring this national monument and learning a bit about its immense cultural, spiritual and historic heritage. After the visit at the museum we went to the Lowry Pueblo site, which is also a National Historic Landmark and the only developed site within the monument (picnic tables, toilets, interpretive flat trail). The architectural heritage of the Lowry Pueblo is well preserved and the highlight is the presence of a Great Kiva. A kiva is known as a ceremonial room according to the translation from the Hopi language. Kivas served ceremonial and social purposes and were present across the varied Pueblo cultures, while Great Kivas were used specifically for more complex ceremonial activities. One of the structures at the Lowry Pueblo is open for visitation inside, but while there it is important to otherwise stay on the trail and refrain from touching or climbing on any of the architectural remains of this ancient community. In the afternoon we continued south to reach the Sand Canyon Trailhead, and hiked a couple of miles in to see a few of the dispersed ruins. These at times can be hard to spot even when following the marked spur trails to view points. The landscape along the trail is beautiful, especially in the sunset light, surrounded by orange and white walls of sandstone (for a nice description of the 6.5 miles trail, head here). If you have more time in the area you can also add a visit to the adjacent Hovenweep National Monument, a complex of six prehistoric villages. On the way to the Sand Canyon Trailhead we drove through Cortez, the main gateway community to Canyons of the Ancients. Cortez, CO is a nice, lively small city with all the amenities a visitor might need. It’s also a great base for exploring the nearby Mesa Verde National Park and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Park if you want to get a full experience of the historic heritage preserved in this beautiful region of towering sandstone cliffs, mesas, and valleys. All these monuments and the national park are part of Colorado’s Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway. Before you start your trip you can download the very useful online BLM map and brochure, and read the Presidential Proclamation establishing the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument for a better understanding of its value. Finally, if you want to get in contact with a local organization which supports the monument and has also created a very useful online resource dedicated to it, head here.
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