cliff dwellings of anasazi, picture of the cliff dwellings of anasazi in colorado

In the Footsteps of the Anasazi: Travelling the Cliff Dwellings

The Anasazi were an ancient people who had a well-developed communal culture that spread over much of the modern-day American southwest. Their famous cliff dwellings, mud brick, stone, and wooden structures that were designed for protection and communal living, are still standing throughout Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Called cliff dwellings because of the way they were built within the protection of the natural sandstone cliffs, these remarkable structures are still in good condition. The Anasazi were viewed as sacred ancestors by the Navajo, and the remains of their dwellings have been cherished and protected.  They can be visited and explored today with a tour of several national parks and monuments.

Archeologists and anthropologists have been discussing (some might say arguing) for years over the fate of the Anasazi, who appeared to have left their beautiful cities abandoned. The evidence suggests they all left within a short time, and theories abound about their fate and ultimate destination. The consensus of academic opinion at this point is that the Anasazi moved south, to the current day pueblos, and down to the Rio Grande river valley in New Mexico. The Pueblo Indians, Zuni, Hopi, Acoma, and Taos, are living in those tribal lands today. Academics have changed their name to Ancestral Puebloans, from Anasazi, but the Navajo that protect their ancient homes call them the Old Ones.

Mesa Verde National Park, in Southern Colorado near present day Cortez, is one of the most famous and best-preserved parks with about 600 cliff dwellings, and over 5,000 archeological sites. The most famous sites, Balcony House, Cliff Palace, and Long House, can be visited with interpretive tours by the Rangers. In addition to the cliff dwellings, there are a number of other interesting archeological digs and many petroglyphs along the walking trails.

"Mesa Verde, Colorado, United States - June 12, 2012. Park Ranger guiding tourists through Long House Ruins in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. The Anasazi inhabited the area between 600 to 1300 and the ruins left behind draw many tourists every year."

The Visitor’s Center has an excellent orientation, as well as films, maps, and tour information and tickets. The park is open year round, but some of the more remote sites are impassable during the winter. The roads leading into the park are also narrow, steep mountain roads. They are often effected by the weather during the winter, but the NPS website gives excellent up to date information about road closures, and maps can be downloaded from their website.

The Morefield Campground, located four miles from the entrance to Mesa Verde, has RV and tent sites, and full camping services from April through October. Primitive comfort stations are available during the winter. Trailers and large RVs cannot safely navigate the park’s mountain roads, so if not camping at Morefield, there is an RV parking lot near the entrance to the park.

Moving from Cortez down into the Navajo Nation, stop at the Navajo National Monument, a wonderful small park and campground. With walking paths that look out over the beautiful Tsegi Canyon, some of the best southwestern landscape photography can be had at Navajo National Monument. Keet Seel and Betatakin are two of the most famous intact cliff dwellings. Visitors can hike to Keet Seel, a mile round trip. Reservations are required, because only twenty visitors a day are allowed to visit the dwellings. Navajo rangers take tours to Betatakin.

On your way from Navajo National Monument to Canyon de Chelly, you’ll travel through the Navajo Nation from Kayenta to Chinle. Outside of Kayenta, stop at the Anasazi Inn at Tsegi Canyon for authentic Navajo diner food, like mutton stew, fry bread, and Navajo tacos. They usually have a pie-of-the-day as well.

Canyon de Chelly, (pronounced canyon de-shay) is another Navajo-managed national park, home of several ancient sites that are sacred to the Navajo, as well as a number of cliff dwellings. This beautiful park features Spider Rock, home of legendary Spider Woman, who taught the Navajo to weave. White House ruins can be visited independently; several of the more inaccessible sites can be visited by contracting with a Navajo tour guide.

The monument encompasses three canyons- Canyon de Chelly, Canyon del Muerto, and Monument Canyon. The rivers in the bottom of these canyons held ancient peach orchards; when Kit Carson was charged with defeating the Navajo and forcing them onto a reservation, he closed off either end of the canyon, trapping the Navajo inside, and then destroyed their ancient orchards. They were forced to the Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. From 1863 to 1868, the Navajo and the Mescalero Apache were held in confinement on this land, which could not support them. Called The Long Walk by the Navajo, this effort ended when some of their lands were returned to them by treaty. The Navajo Nation has remained a sovereign nation within American borders since that time. The story of their lost peach orchards from Canyon de Chelly is still remembered, and peaches hold a bittersweet place in their history.

From Canyon de Chelly, a tour of the great Anasazi sites moves next into New Mexico, to Chaco Canyon. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is one of the jewels in the crown of America’s parks, but its remote location means that the unspoiled park is delightfully uncrowded. Roads are bladed, and can be impassable during the winter; the NPS website updates the road conditions regularly.

From the Visitor Center, there is a nine-mile loop road that visits the major Chacoan sites, with short, self-guided tours from the loop. Rangers lead hikes to Pueblo Bonito. Backcountry hiking trails lead to the more remote sites and require a permit. Ranger programs are offered for interpretation and history throughout the year. Of special interest, Chaco Culture is a Dark Sky Park, and night sky viewing with telescopes is offered several times a week.

Gallo Campground is located near the park entrance and has tent camping available with potable water and flush toilets except during the winter. The campground has no hookups, and can’t take trailers and larger RVs. There are several alternative camping sites near Chaco Canyon.

To visit a modern-day pueblo, consider traveling from Chaco Canyon up to Taos, New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo has been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years, and after visiting cliff dwellings at the National Parks, you’ll recognize the similar structure and building methods of this modern day cliff dwelling. The Taos are a Tiwa-speaking Puebloan tribe that are believed to be descendants of the Ansazi, along with the Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma. The Taos Indians will provide tours of their land, and opportunities to see native artists and craftsmen at work. It is a living community, with schools, churches, and extended families living and working on site.

While in Taos, enjoy the rich cultural heritage of the old city, with a melding of Spanish, Native, and Anglo cultures. The city is built in the Spanish model, in the northern Sangre de Cristo mountains. Famous around the world as a center for the arts, the landscape, and architecture of the old adobe churches and homes is unique in America. The Saint Francis de Asis Mission church was built in the 1700s and is still in use as a Catholic church today. The parishioners and community members gather annually to replaster the adobe in an event called The Enjarre.

The Rio Grande flows through deep canyons in Taos, and the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge is a marvel of architecture and scenic beauty. A new area near Taos, the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, has recently been named as protected land. Ute Mountain, and the Wild Rivers National Recreation Area make this new national monument an outdoor paradise unlike anything in the world.

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