The Canyons of the Ancients

If you had lived in southern Colorado during the Ice Age, chances are you’d be hunting camels for your dinner. Luckily, a lot has changed since the Pleistocene era, the epoch geological timespan when glaciers ruled North America. Ten thousand years after its first settlers dined on camels and woolly mammoths, modern-day visitors to the Canyons of the Ancients—the nation’s largest concentration of high-density archaeological sites—can walk comfortably in the footsteps of the fascinating people who lived there.

Back then, the climate was cool and moist, a far cry from the parched earth there today. The Ancients boast up to 8,300 identified archaeological sites, reflecting native American life in villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs, and sweat lodges.

Archaeologists estimate there could be up to 30,000 identifiable ruins in the Canyons. So numerous are the finds that some areas contain more than 100 sites per square mile and are so important to the preservation of Native American history that in 2000, President Bill Clinton issued a proclamation establishing the Canyons of the Ancients as a national monument. Since then, the monument has become part of the Bureau of Land Management’s National Landscape Conservation System and encompasses more than 174,000 acres of public lands.

Suffice it to say that if backcountry and dispersed camping are your thing, this is the mother lode.

There is no main entrance or designated road into the monument and no fee; the visitor’s center and adjoining museum are about 14 miles away in Dolores. There’s not even a path or singular road that guides guests, but a series of grid roads named CC, Q, and 4367. Rangers at the visitors center say the roads are marked, “Just not well.” They mean it.

The best way to reach the monument is through Cortez, along US Highway 491. Go west on Road CC, dip down to County Road 10, and then drive across the Utah border to reach Hovenweep National Monument. Or, take Road P to Road 16, then follow the gravel road until you encounter a series of unmarked turnoffs. The truth is, it’s difficult to tell where the park begins and ends.

“We have an odd boundary,” says Monument Manager Raymond O’Neil. “The boundary is like a hand with fingers into the canyons, which are all public lands. Outside of those fingers are agricultural lands, which are private.”

I rode to the Ancients on my BMW F 750 GS along with buddy Pete McHugh of Taos, New Mexico, who was testing out the army green 2022 KLR he picked up a few weeks before. The roads were a mix of dirt and loose gravel; some roads took a little extra throttle with steep and rocky areas, but there was nothing of notable difficulty in reaching a dispersed camping area.

Free sites are not hard to find throughout the entirety of this national treasure and are marked in purple on provided maps. Our site, near Sand Canyon Pueblo, was stellar. We entered the monument via Cortez on US Highway 491 by turning west onto Road P. From there, we reached Road 16, then went south to Road N. Here’s where it got tricky. It took a few back-and-forth trips to find the entrance to Road 4726, which leads to dispersed camping along a high ridge. The site had been recommended by a ranger in Dolores, and with good reason.

The rocky entrance morphed into smoother sand at the top, which opened into a series of cozy campsites along the ridge, all nestled between juniper trees for privacy and with enough distance that the few neighbors present weren’t on top of us. With a burn ban in effect, we didn’t have a fire in the provided stone pit, but we did watch a stunning sunset and a gentle moonrise over the cliffs to our east and west. In the distance, the sandstone mounds of Monument Valley rose from the earth and turned from red to purple as the sun went down. The stars in this wilderness are particularly bright and numerous, with no light pollution for miles.

The Canyons of the Ancients doesn’t offer the intact and impressive cliff dwellings of its sister park, Mesa Verde National Park, about 12 miles away, nor does it offer showers and plumbing, but it also lacks the high traffic and noise that comes with a high visitor population.

O’Neil says staff encourages visitors to roam freely along the 20 miles of hiking in Sand Canyon and to visit some of the monument’s more notable ruins. “If people choose to visit outside of these areas, they need to have an understanding of maps. We encourage folks to make their first stop at the Visitor’s Center and museum so that we can tell our story.”

Motorized traffic is limited in most areas, so expect to hike to most ruins. Otherwise, enjoy a plethora of randomly beautiful agricultural landscapes to greet your vehicle or motorcycle as you navigate between major ruins and sites. Most roads inside the monument are not paved, and the roads that are vary greatly in surface quality, so be prepared for anything.

The visitor’s center for Hovenweep, an adjoining site run by the National Park Service, is a stone’s throw from Colorado and boasts the impressive ruins of six prehistoric Puebloan-era villages spread over a 20-mile swath of mesas and canyons along the border of Utah and Colorado. The most popular remnants are found along a two-mile hike with structures nestled into hillsides and perched along canyon rims, lopsided by the passage of time and somehow still intact. Modern-day tradesmen work to preserve the structures by plastering mud into cracked remnants of multi-storied towers that have begun to weaken. Tent campers can stay at the nearby campground, where 31 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis and include tent pads, fire rings, and picnic tables. There are a few sites that can accommodate vehicles up to 36 feet long.

The two-mile hike follows a stunning natural stone path, and I couldn’t help but wonder whose footsteps had come before me. There had been an estimated 2,500 residents there between 1200 and 1300 A.D. The ruins are numerous and appear to have been a part of a larger collective, like a castle whose rooms had been intermittently dissolved, and in fact, one ruin which was closed off due to erosion is named Cutthroat Castle.

The Sand Canyon and Rock Creek Trails are open for hiking, mountain biking, or horseback riding on designated routes only. Other ruins, such as Lowry Pueblo, don’t require a hike at all. The site offers the remnant of a great kiva on its eastern side. The main site once contained 40 rooms, eight kivas, and was home to about 100 people during the 11th century.

Today, a metal roof covers a portion of the site, which detracts from the authenticity of the area, but O’Neil says it was necessary for preservation. “We excavated a portion of Lowry to make it more understandable to visitors,” he says. “But that exposed the ruins to the elements, so the decision was made that if we’re going to leave it excavated, we needed to do something to preserve it.”

On the monument’s southern end, Sand Canyon Pueblo was once a village with more than 400 rooms. Time has reduced the site to a collection of low walls and a few stone piles, which can be viewed a short distance from the road. But hike 3.5 miles in, and the story changes. Most visitors turn around after the first site, and since there is a mile between ruins with no noteworthy sites, most don’t make it to the monument’s best ruins containing intact rooms and wall fragments beneath smooth-sided buttes.

“When we come to a place like Sand Canyon, we pray to the ancestral people,” says Ernest Vallo Sr. of Eagle Clan, Pueblo of Acoma, in a park brochure. “As Indian people, we believe the spirits are still here. We ask them for our strength and continued survival and thank them for sharing their home place. In the Acoma language, I say, ‘Good morning. I’ve brought my friends. If we approached in the wrong way, please excuse our ignorance.’”

Many modern-day Native Americans still regard the monument as their ancestral homeland. “Modern Tribal people maintain close ties to the spirits of ancestors who are buried on this landscape. Sites are visited, and blessings made on a regular basis to keep these places warm,” one brochure reads. “Centuries-old oral traditions tell stories of migration, feast, famine, conflict, and comedy on this landscape … and shrines, traditional plant gathering areas, sacred springs, and ponds of cattails are still regarded with great respect.”

“Where did the people go who used to live here? Well, for us Pueblo people, we are them. That is as certain as I am sitting here, we are them,” says Tessie Naranjo of the Santa Clara Pueblo.

Painted Hand Pueblo, near the monument’s center, offers a tower pueblo and an assortment of smaller ruins, some featuring petroglyphs and pottery shards. The hike there is relatively short, with switchbacks and ample views.

Because there is no main entrance, it’s hard to track a visitor count, but O’Neil says 80,000 people a year come to the visitor’s center and museum. “The vast majority of our 170,000 acres is open for people to visit and explore with about 17 sites that we advertise,” he says. “But there are a lot of cultural sites people can explore on their own by just doing an internet search as a guide, and we do encourage people to explore on their own.”

According to park rangers, caution should be exercised when hiking the monument. “This place isn’t a casual walk in the park. Don’t even think of wearing city shoes or wandering off without water,” warns one brochure. “The switchback portions of the trail rise 700 feet in less than half a mile. It is very rocky and steep and not a good choice for most folks.”

Outside of the monument, gas and food are not difficult to find, with several convenience stores and gas stations along Highway 491 offering sandwiches and snacks. Restaurants and hotels are easily located in nearby Cortez.

For more information or to plan your stay, visit the Canyons of the Ancients at

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Marianne Todd has been a professional photojournalist and writer since 1987. Her career began in newspapers and rapidly spread into national news magazines. Her work has been featured on the pages of Time, Life, National Geographic, Newsweek, and the Wall Street Journal, where she was nominated for Photographer of the Year International. Todd became a publisher in 2009, creating titles reflecting the music, arts, and tourism industries of the South (she still sports the accent), and her work as the official photographer for Governor Haley Barbour led her to photograph everything from Hurricane Katrina to presidential visits. Since moving to New Mexico four years ago, she has left hard news coverage to travel on her trusty BMW F 750 GS, journeying the roads of America and beyond.