With 6,000 archaeological sites so far identified, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument cradles the greatest density of archaeological sites in the United States. Cliff dwellings, rock towers, giant kivas, pottery shards and painted canyon walls bear passive witness to the thousands of years when humans lived here in harmony with the earth.
The monument was created by presidential proclamation in 2000. Its 164,000 acres curve around Hovenweep National Monument. Unlike the state’s other national monuments, Canyons of the Ancients is under the management of the Bureau of Land Management.
A visit to Canyons of the Ancients should begin with the Anasazi Heritage Center, which is also the monument’s visitor center, in Dolores in far southwestern Colorado. The center includes two archaeological sites from the 12th century, a research collection of more than 3 million artifacts and records of archaeological exploration in the region, a research library, permanent exhibits on local history and Native American cultures. There is also a nature trail, as well as a picnic area and shop. The center and nature trail are wheelchair accessible.
The monument itself is minimally developed. There are few roads and most are unpaved. The paved Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway circles the monument for an overview of the area. Lowry Pueblo, built in the 900s and excavated in 1928, is the most developed of the sites. It was restored in 1965 and was named a National Historic Landmark, along with being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Lowry includes a picnic area, trail and interpretive signage. Sand Canyon Pueblo also has a trail. The majority of the monument remains as humans and nature have left it.
The first human visitors were hunters who passed through more than 10,000 years ago. Research suggests that Paleo-Indians hunted the rich wildlife from the area beginning in 7,500 B.C. and continuing for 6,000 years.
Basketmakers put down roots in the area about 1,500 B.C., followed by Ancestral Northern Puebloan people, who arrived around 750 A.D. The settlers farmed the area until about 1,300 A.D. Their year-round settlements evolved into cliff dwellings and permanent structures that included great kivas, sweat lodges, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, check dams to prevent flooding, reservoirs to capture precious water and eventually multistory dwellings to house several families.
They raised corn, beans and squash and domesticated animals. Pottery evolved from simple bowls to include pitchers and jars, ladles and tableware decorated with dyes from plants found in the area. Shards from those ancient vessels still litter the ground.
As populations grew, villages spread into less and less congenial areas, where poor soil and minimal water reduced crop yields. Drought exacerbated the difficulties and the Puebloan people gradually abandoned their homes in the mid-1100s.
Nomadic bands of Ute and Navajo next visited, leaving behind brush shelters, wickiups and forked-stick hogans.
Spanish missionaries heading for California passed into the area around 1700, followed by trappers and then by miners. Settlers began arriving in the mid-1800s, forcing out the Navajo and Ute.
Interest in preserving the area dates to the late 1800s. In 1986 the area was designated the Anasazi Area of Critical Environmental Concern by the Bureau of Land Management. Still, in 2000 when it was named a national monument, 85 percent of the site was under lease by ranchers and oil and gas exploration companies.
Vandalism is a continuing problem in the immense site. Leaving the ancient sites and artifacts as they are is a matter of personal ethics as much as fear of discovery.
Wildlife in the monument includes golden eagles, the Long-nosed leopard lizard, peregrine falcons, hawks, deer, fox, muskrat, beaver and bobcat.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center
27501 Highway 184
Dolores, CO 81323