Until Canyon of the Ancients was entered as a National Monument in June of 2004 by President Clinton, this vast expanse of archeology and nature was little known beyond the locals of the Four Corners area. Tucked in McElmo Canyon, 164,000 acres spread out in the colors of sandstone and juniper pine, whispering of history.
In some places through the Canyon of the Ancients, there are as many as 40 archeological sites per square mile. Left-behind remnants of the Anasazi who made this canyon home more than 9500 years ago, the centuries have seen both the Ute and Navajo tribes move in and out. Dotted with villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges, the Canyon of the Ancients marks the most dense archeology site in the United States.
Located just 10 miles from Cortez and about 20 miles from Mesa Verde National Park, this almost-forgotten legacy in the four corners is the perfect trip for adventure-seekers, nature-buffs, and anyone interested in the history of our country.
Pulling into the canyon is definitely an experience all on its own. Untouched by the mark of modern man, there is no paved parking lot, no entrance toll-booths, nothing but rolling sandstone broken by pinon and scrub brush. Directly to the north is a towering face of more sandstone, creating a gate that can only be gained by walking around the face and through the trees. If you pay attention, you might catch glimpse of the Mesa Verde nightsnake, an animal whose survival depends on the preservation of this area, or feast your eyes on the flight of beautiful hunting peregrine falcons, golden eagles, and red tail hawks.
Directly around the sandstone façade is your first glimpse of ancient people: a crumbling, carefully-crafted tower of hand-carved rocks.
Venturing deeper into the canyon, you will stumble across one delight after another. The number of archaeological sites here hasn’t ever really been documented – they have been the cautious exploring ground of local residents, ancient and modern, for centuries.
McElmo Dome is located deeper within the canyon, one of the most naturally beautiful areas of the park. Created by sheer sandstone cliffs, mesa tops rimmed by cap rock and punctuated by more canyons, the colors of this spot are something you aren’t likely to see anywhere else outside of paintings.
Archeology sites are fragile. In the case of the Canyon of the Ancients, you won’t have a tour guide following behind to remind you not to touch, not to move things, etc. There are no ropes or chains blocking you out. It’s important to remember these vital things when you make your trip into the canyon:
1. Do not touch the rock art. Touching the art will transfer oils from your hands and the art will fade away much more quickly than nature intended.
2. Do not dig. It is illegal to remove artifacts (even shaped stones) from the sites – in fact, it is a federal felony to do so.
3. Stay on the trails at all times. Much of the wildlife in this area depends on the fragile desert environment for survival, and by traipsing around in the middle of it, you hurt the chance of that survival.
4. Pay attention to signs. Motorized or mechanized vehicles are prohibited on only a few trails, but there are some spots.
5. Climbing on the archeology structure is strictly prohibited, for your safety as much as the safety of the ancient buildings.
Unlike most parks, there are no fees to visit the Canyon of the Ancients. Make sure to pack plenty of water and food, though, because you are headed to a secluded spot without any modern amenities. Also, dress in layers. The mountain desert area is a funny place, with brisk mornings that heat up into very dry, hot days. If you dress in layers, you can shed the extra clothing as the day heats up but have them ready in the chance of unexpected weather (which this area is famous for).
Places to Stay Near the Canyon
Some of the best places to stay near the Canyon of the Ancients are only open part of the year. Really, if you stick to the guidelines of when these places are open, you’ll be able to plan a trip to the canyon that is comfortable – while it is desert in nature, the canyon will fill up with several feet of snow throughout the winter, making hiking unfeasible.
Canyon Trails Ranch – Open from May 1st through November 1st, Canyon Trails Ranch offers half or full day trail rides on horseback through the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, including full lunch. Private camping is available for extended stays. Rates for camping are $20 a night for two people, but the rates for the trail ride vary depending on the season and what amenities you choose so they recommend that you call 970-565-1499 for the most current information.
Inn at McElmo Canyon – Bordering the Canyon of the Ancients and the Ute Tribal Nation, the Inn at McElmo Canyon is in the heart of Anasazi country. Small and intimate with only 5 rooms, you will have the privacy you want and all the amenities. The owners of the Inn are among the most friendly you could ever hope to meet, and will provide full gourmet breakfast and a constant supply of goodies like cookies and cake. Rates for the Inn start at $109 per night on-season, or $610 per week. Off-season rates are lower, but you will want to contact them at 970-564-0240 to learn more.
Kelly Place B&B – Marc and Jerene, owners of Kelly Place, have created an adobe-style getaway with 7 guest suites containing private baths, a library, and several cabins with kitchenettes and fireplaces to sleep up to 6 people. The 38 secluded acres of red-rock canyon, over 25 Anasazi sites, and an apple orchard wrap around this Bed and Breakfast with serenity. Offered on-site are private weaving classes with a local Navajo Indian teacher, and pottery instruction is also available. Private guided tours can even be arranged through the bed and breakfast, lead by a professional archaeologist. Rates start at $75 per night on-season, or $473 per week. Off-season rates are lower, so give them a call toll-free at 800-745-4885 to learn more.
Getting to the Canyon
Finding the Canyon couldn’t be more simple. From Cortez, travel south on State Highway 145 until you reach State Highway 184, marked by a truck stop and huge traffic lights (believe me, you’ll see the difference in this remote area). From there, simply take the winding canyon road down about 10 miles. The Canyon of the Ancients is marked by a large wooden sign and a sudden expanse of red rock breaking through the greenery.
Also, grab a copy of the map of Canyon of the Ancients National Monument located here ( http://www.coloradodirectory.com/nationalparks/images/canyon.pdf ) – drawn up by the U.S. National Park Service, it lists everything you could need to know about getting there and where to go once you’re in the canyon.