The Trail of the Ancients in Colorado and Utah takes you back to a time long before the United States existed, long before Spaniards came north from what is today Central America. Amazingly, some regions of the Colorado Plateau remain today much as they must have been in the 13th and 14th centuries. Arid and mostly uninhabited, the terrain along the byway conceals secrets of bygone populations, vibrant people who came and went like snow in warm spring sunshine or tumbleweeds at the front of a desert storm. The byway travels through some of our country's most beautiful yet austere country, and it lends itself to contemplation and rejuvenation as well as recreational adventures.
Though desolate now, people have lived around the Trail of the Ancients from at least 10,000 BC. They sustained themselves by hunting game and gathering food plants. The Ancestral Puebloans entered the scene later and occupied the Four Corners area from around AD 1300. Their life revolved around settled communities and horticulture. At numerous stops along the circuitous byway today, ruins and other cultural elements -- tools, pottery shards, petroglyphs, and pictographs -- serve as rich reminders of these ancient peoples.
There are over 4,000 known archaeological sites in Mesa Verde National Park alone, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. Mesa Verde tells the story of a civilization's dynamic growth over 700 years. Hundreds of homes and villages within the park's boundaries are over eight centuries old. Preserved and protected by overhanging cliff ledges, their beauty and complexity speak eloquently of the ancient people who built them. They lend an almost haunting feeling of isolation to your visit, while encouraging you to imagine burgeoning communities, bustling with people and activity. Walk into Long House or climb ladders into Balcony House and hear the wind whispering through the shadowed rooms. Villages and farming areas once dotted the mesas of the park. Cliff dwellings were built in the canyons long after underground pit houses first appeared on the mesa tops. The mesa's entire human history is captured in these park sites.
At the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, Colorado, you'll be invited to interact with history. The Center takes the experience of the Four Corners into the personal realm with interactive exhibits. Discover the Ancestral Puebloan history through a pit house replica, films, and interactive experiences. See traditional dances with the Hopi or Zuni people, grind corn on a metate stone with a mano (another stone), weave on a traditional loom, or experience virtual archaeology using computer programs designed for all ages. With diverse activities to satisfy and educate for days, the Center highlights the Pueblo, Ute, and Navajo life ways, both past and present.
The Trail of the Ancients has more to offer than archaeology. Take a day to float down the San Juan River. At Natural Bridges National Monument you can take pictures of three huge sandstone bridges. Backpack or ride horseback into the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, or stand in four states at once (Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona) at the Four Corners Monument.
The native people knew how to choose a neighborhood. Their "backyard" is diverse and breathtaking. Monument Valley in Utah was John Ford and John Wayne's favorite movie location. As John Wayne said, "This is where God put the West." Monument Valley is the West at its finest, with huge vistas, marvelous sunsets, bright red and orange sandstone of any shade Georgia O'Keefe or Henry Matisse could ever desire. The individual is dwarfed in the shadow of such natural grandeur. It is here that Native Americans have survived and thrived in centuries past, where it rains just a handful of inches a year, where the ecosystem is fragile and fierce.
Seasons and people, flora and fauna come and go, human cultures shifting and ecosystems adapting. The nature of a desert preserves the past and blends familiar whispers of the area's ancient inhabitants with today's sandy winds. After the Ancestral Puebloans, both Ute and Navajo Indians settled in the area, enriching the cultural traces that can be found by today's tourist along the entire byway. With this spectacular backdrop, the Trail of the Ancients offers a vacation and an education.
- Public domain. Courtesy of Utah's Canyon Country Visitor Services
- Public domain. Courtesy of National Park Service, Natural Bridges National Monument
- Public domain. Photo by Sally Pearce
- Public domain. Courtesy of the plaza at the Anasazi Heritage Center
- Copyright © April 2005 Terry Mathews.
- Public domain.
- Public domain. Photo by Branson Reynolds