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Anasazi Cliff Dwellings

Nearly three-quarters of a million tourists visit Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado each year to see 800 year-old Native American cliff dwellings. An ancient people known as the Anasazi thrived for 1300 years there, then suddenly disappeared. But just a few miles south, at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park . . . part of the Ute Mountain Utes Indian reservation . . . there are many more cliff dwellings that are rarely visited because of their remoteness. Virtually undisturbed for centuries, these sites offer those hardy enough to make the journey a chance to walk where few have tread since the Anasazi left seven hundred years ago. The Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde braved the trail and has this story.

Anasazi Cliff Dwellings
by Tom Verde

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Ute Mountain The drive to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park's cliff dwellings is not comfortable. Nearly 40 miles of torturous, rutted, unpaved dirt and gravel roads lie between the sites and Highway 160 in Towaoc, Colorado in the southwestern corner of the state. Random rock slides occasionally block the way, strewing ottoman-sized boulders across the roads like fistfuls of Parcheesi dice. During the rainy months of July and August, thick mud makes many of the sites inaccessible, even with a four-wheel drive.

Hayes: "This was an old trail, it was like an old hunting trail, where they would use that going up on horseback, and then back in the, probably in the twenties or thirties they kinda widened it where it was just a single dirt road, enough for a wagon to get up."

Rick Hayes is the guy to my left behind the wheel of a beat-up, old blue Chevy pickup. Hayes is a tribal park guide and member of the Weeminuche band of Utes, a tribe that once inhabited all of Colorado and parts of Utah, which takes its name from the tribe. The Utes were the first western Indians to obtain horses, or magic dogs as they called them, through trade or just plain theft from the Spanish. A proud, warlike people, they were also among the last of the western Indian tribes to be herded onto a reservation.

Hayes: "They were called the people of the shining mountains, 'cause of the Colorado Rockies and they were about the only tribe that really called that home. And they lived there for thousands of years."

According to tradition, the Utes are descended from the Anasazi, or ancient ones, who lived more than a thousand years ago throughout the four-corners region where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico converge. A sophisticated agricultural society, the Anasazi left behind many fine examples of rock paintings, pottery and basket-weaving...but their most famous legacy has to be the remarkable sandstone cliff dwellings they built between 600 and 1300 A.D in alcoves high above the canyon floors of their desert home.

Cliff Dwellings

Hayes: "We walk from here."

It's a harsh and barren yet colorful environment...a rocky, sun-scorched palette of gray cliffs and brick red buttes, studded with prickly bouquets of sagebrush, juniper and hardy ponderosa pine. No one lives here now except scorpions and rattlesnakes, coyotes and cougars.

But after a good half an hour and a thousand feet or so of scrambling up a steep cliff face, the evidence is clear that people did live here once, and lived quite well.

Hayes: "This site here is called Two-Story House. When this was built, they considered this the golden years, uh, from about 10 A.D. all the way up to the 1300s. They had corn, beans, squash, a lot of cotton. Everything was going good for them."

Guide Rick Hayes Archaeologists and anthropologists have long debated why the Anasazi migrated from the canyons and built these impressive, apartment-like complexes high in the cliffs. Some say it was a defensive strategy; others have suggested that those who lived here were members of an elite class. Park guide Rick Hayes believes such theories are too complicated and says the reasons the Anasazi moved to the cliffs are fairly obvious.

Hayes: "It kept you out of the rain, it kept you out of the snow, kept the wind out. This is a good grain storage area, plus I think they liked the view [laughs]."

Two Story Dwelling Much of the park's 125,000 acres are visible from these steep vantage points, a dry, dusty, expanse, bisected by the brown, silty waters of the Mancos River, land that was once home to as many as 50,000 Anasazi. It's estimated that there are some 20,000 ruins here, twice as many as at nearby Mesa Verde National Park. There, tourists throng every day to visit cliff dwellings that have been restored and made easily accessible by paved pathways and parking lots, not to mention the convenience of concession stands and gift shops that typically go hand in hand with major tourist attractions. But at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, there are no parking lots, no conveniences, no food, no water. The closest thing to cafeterias are the empty granaries where the Anasazi stored their corn or the fractured remains of pottery that still litter the sites, untouched perhaps since the day they were left there by a careless squaw or rambunctious child.

Around 1300 A.D., the Anasazi abandoned their cliffside homes and disappeared as mysteriously as they arrived in these canyons thirteen centuries earlier. Historians believe that drought may have driven them away, while the Hopis of Arizona, who also claim descent from the cliff dwellers, say that the Anasazi fulfilled a prophecy that condemned them to centuries of wandering before returning to the spirit world whence they came.

The Hopi, as well as the Utes, consider these sites, and the past they honor in song, as sacred places and for this reason no one is allowed to visit them or the park unless accompanied by a Ute guide. Yet even before there was a park, the Utes were taught to treat these ruins with reverence.

Hayes: "Cause there are spirits up here, I believe, you know up here, you just gotta respect them and they'll respect you."

Tribal Dancer Though the Utes run a gambling casino just up the road and do peddle a few postcards and T-shirts at the park's modest visitors center, the cliff dwellings here on their reservation are a refreshing island of dignity amid a sea of trading posts and truck stops, all hawking the same tired assortment of so-called authentic Indian beadwork, moccasins and pottery. While less well known than many of their neighboring tribes -- the Sioux, the Navajo, Arapahoe, and Shoshone -- the Utes, with their proud history of defending their culture, seem appropriate caretakers of these places -- the guardians, as it were, of a lost civilization.

At the Ute Mountain Utes Tribal Reservation in Tawaoc, Colorado, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler.


Savvy Resources for Anasazi Cliff Dwellings

Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Essential info: Water and food is not available in the park. Bring plenty of drinking water, lunch for the all day trips, insect repellent, sun screen, a hat, and sturdy shoes. Have a full tank of gasoline. No dogs allowed. No professional photography.

  • Full day treks (8:30 a.m.-4:00 p.m.) in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park are $30 per person (12 people or more within a group, $17 per person).
  • Less strenuous half day visits (8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.) are $17 per person.
  • Special tours to remote sections of the park are $60 per person (minimum of four people, 5.6 miles of hiking and climbing on original ancestral pueblo trails).
  • Camping (primitive facilities) available in the park: $10 per vehicle per day.
  • School discount rates available.

To make arrangements to visit the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, call or write:

Ute Mountain Tribal Park
Towaoc, CO 81334
E-mail: utepark@fone.net

SW Colorado's Ute Mountain Tribal Park info page


For more information on Anasazi culture and the Cortez area:

Cortez Cultural Center
25 North Market Street
Cortez, CO 81321
E-mail: cultural@fone.net
Web: www.cortezculturalcenter.org

Cortez/Dolores/Mesa Verde Country
Visitors Information Bureau
PO Drawer HH
Cortez, CO 81321
Web: www.swcolo.org

Cortez Visitor's Center
808 East Main
Cortez, CO 81321


For information on Mesa Verde and visiting Mesa Verde National Park:

Mesa Verde National Park
PO Box 8
Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330
Phone: 970-529-4465
TDD: 970-529-4633
Tours: 970-529-4475
Web: www.mesa.verde.national-park.com/


Tourist information for Colorado:

Colorado Tourism Board
1-800-COLORADO (800-265-6723)
Web: www.colorado.com

American Airlines serves Durango, one of the nearest airports to the Ute Mountain Tribal Park and Mesa Verde National Park, on board American Eagle. To make reservations, call American at 800-433-7300 or visit their web site at www.aa.com.


Music in this story by:

Norman Lopez (flute)
Hay-Yo Production
PO Box 116
Towaoc, CO 81334
E-mail: Menahen@excite.com

The Manning Family Dancers
(Native American song and dance)
PO Box 253
Towaoc, CO 81334


Suggested Reading:

People of the Shining Mountains
by Charles S. Marsh
Pruett Publishing Company (Boulder, CO)

A concise and readable history of the Utes of Colorado from the earliest times to the present. Available from amazon.com.


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