Trail of the Ancients

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Hovenweep National Monument’s six ancient village sites were once home to 2,500 people.

article and photos by Alan Rider
September 5, 2013
Filed under Destinations, Feature Story, Travel

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This National Scenic Byway in Utah and Colorado offers new mysteries of a vanished civilization at every turn

In an age where scientists have been able to explain the workings of everything from the smallest subatomic particles to the movements of distant galaxies, I’m happy to report there’s a place where age-old mysteries still linger like the intoxicating scent of purple sage after an afternoon thunderstorm.
TL-scenic-route-logoBetter still is the fact that getting here is as simple — and enjoyable — as following the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway as it meanders its way across southeast Utah and south-western Colorado. From the forces that created its uniquely whimsical rock formations to the unexplained disappearance of the prehistoric people who are its namesake, you might think of this byway as a thread connecting a long string of unanswered questions.
That said, there is one thing of which I am certain. Namely that the Trail of the Ancients is a must-do for any RVer looking to discover the innumerable, and oftentimes surprising, pleasures that await along The Scenic Route.  

More Than Scenery

One of the reasons my family and I hit the road last summer for this Trailer Life series (see our last installment on Louisiana’s Great River Road in February’s issue) celebrating the 20th anniversary of the National Scenic Byways program was to seek out stretches of asphalt that have their own unique character.
In the case of the 480-mile Trail of the Ancients, that distinctive quality is defined in part by its remoteness. As a local store clerk I met told me, “This part of the Four Corners region may not be the middle of nowhere, but on a clear day you can see it from here.”

(Right) The Sun’s Eye is one of Monument Valley’s many unique rock formations that are only accessible by four-wheel-drive tours.

(Right) The Sun’s Eye is one of Monument Valley’s many unique rock formations that are only accessible by four-wheel-drive tours.

Adding to this byway’s appeal is the mystery of the Anasazi — a name taken from a Navajo word that’s often translated as the “ancient ones” — who once called these rugged canyons and wind-swept plateaus home. Despite the abundant archaeological evidence of their presence here, theirs is a culture that we know precious little about beyond the educated guesses put forth by scientists over the past century.
Just to keep things interesting, seemingly everywhere you turn here you’ll find jaw-dropping views of multihued pinnacles, buttes and arches, often backdropped by snowcapped 14,000-foot peaks, and always set against impossibly brilliant-blue skies. Even so, the Trail of the Ancients’ appeal goes well beyond the scenery of what the local Navajos’ creation stories call this Glittering World.  

Into the Valley

We began our latest adventure along The Scenic Route by turning northeast on U.S. 163 out of Kayenta, Arizona. As we left this last remnant of modern life behind, we passed weathered roadside stands where many local Navajos sell their jewelry and crafts, and headed into wide-open country bordered by steep cliffs and dotted with rugged buttes that hint at the grandeur to come.
As if on cue, as soon as we crossed the Utah state line we caught our first glimpse of Monument Valley, a landscape that immediately looked familiar despite the fact that this was our first visit. The cause of this dèjá vu moment wasn’t a mystery, however, given the fact that this area has been used as a backdrop for countless Hollywood films, from director John Ford’s epic 1938 Western Stagecoach to Forrest Gump.
 

Our Navajo tour guide Darren, who grew up in Monument Valley, shows us his backyard.

Our Navajo tour guide Darren, who grew up in Monument Valley, shows us his backyard.

While it’s certainly possible to get a look at Monument Valley from the road, we opted to pay the modest entry fee for the Navajo Tribal Park. At the modern visitors center, spacious outdoor patios afforded us an ever-changing panoramic view of formations like Sentinel Mesa and the aptly named East and West mittens. Inside, a small but well-done museum chronicling the tribe’s history gave us an excuse to linger awhile in the air conditioning.
Heading back out into the midday heat, it was time to get a look at this dramatic landscape up close. Unfortunately, because we had our 37-foot trailer in tow, taking the self-guided driving tour along the park’s 17 miles of dirt road was out of the question.  
Undeterred, we headed straight for the small booths across the parking lot from the visitors center where we booked a four-wheel-drive tour. While springing for this guided tour got us access to parts of the valley that many visitors never get to see, what made the outlay truly worth it was the chance to spend time with our young Navajo guide Darren Oliver who, in addition to the standard tour spiel, gave us some memorable insights into what it’s like to grow up here with all this for a playground.  

 

One of many Anasazi petroglyphs in Monument Valley.

One of many Anasazi petroglyphs in Monument Valley.

Bridges to Nowhere

After dropping the trailer at the modern campground run by the nice folks at Goulding’s Lodge, we continued northeast through Mexican Hat heading for Natural Bridges National Monument. Feeling adventurous, we took our Navajo guide’s recommendation for a scenic shortcut to the park by way of the Moki Dugway, 3 miles of gravel road carved into the sheer face of a 1,100-foot cliff.  
Whether it was the steep 10 percent grade, the numerous switchbacks, or the complete lack of guardrails I can’t say, but the trip caused my normally intrepid wife and son more than a few white-knuckle moments. As far as I was concerned, the spectacular views made it a much more interesting alternative to the longer route over paved roads, but suffice it to say this drive is not for the faint of heart (or anyone towing a trailer).
When we arrived at Natural Bridges we drove the loop road, stopping to take several short hikes to get a look at the three remarkable sandstone spans that give the park its name. The monument also has the distinction of being the world’s first International Dark Sky Park because its lack of light pollution makes for outstanding stargazing. It’s something to keep in mind if you can manage to time your visit to coincide with the park’s regularly scheduled astronomy programs.

Ruination Galore

Having completed our whirlwind tour of the Utah portion of Trail of the Ancients, it was time to head east to Colorado to explore a very different section of the byway.
Once we’d set up camp at the KOA in the small ranching town of Cortez, we headed out to explore nearby Mesa Verde National Park. The fact that this one park alone contains more than 4,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, puts the scope of the Anasazi’s civilization into perspective.  
Our first order of business was to take one of the ranger-led tours of the massive Cliff Palace ruin. Hiking at the park’s 8,400-foot altitude was a bit of a challenge, but we managed to huff and puff our way down to the site, which is set into a deeply recessed natural alcove.
Though it had suffered from centuries of neglect by the time it was discovered in 1888, this architectural achievement has been restored to something close to what it must have looked like at the height of the Anasazi’s civilization around A.D. 1260. With 150 rooms and 24 ceremonial kivas, archaeologists believe Cliff Palace was once home to around 100 people, surprising stats considering that the vast majority of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde consist of less than five rooms.
From Cliff Palace, we pressed on to the park’s Badger House Community. Here we found a well-preserved pit-house, circa A.D. 650, built atop the mesa near where its inhabitants tended their fields of corn, squash and beans. Which brought up yet another of the byway’s mysteries, namely what happened to cause the Anasazi to abandon these simple early homes in favor of the more secure but less practical cliff dwellings.

 

Located just north of the Arizona-Utah state line, Monument Valley has been used as a backdrop for dozens of movies from John Ford’s Stagecoach to Forrest Gump.

Located just north of the Arizona-Utah state line, Monument Valley has been used as a backdrop for dozens of movies from John Ford’s Stagecoach to Forrest Gump.

A Towering Mystery

While we could have spent weeks visiting the dozens of accessible ruins in this area, our next destination was Hovenweep National Monument.
Located roughly 40 miles from Cortez, just across the Utah state line, the park’s name is derived from a Ute word that means “deserted valley.” And deserted it is, at least these days, though researchers speculate its many sophisticated structures were once home to more than 2,500 people during the Anasazi’s heyday.
Soon after we set off on the easy trail that begins at the visitors center, we laid eyes on the first of these remarkably well-preserved 700-year-old ruins that sit perched at the head of one of the many canyons that cut through Cajon Mesa. While the construction of buildings in this complex, known as the Square Tower Group, is just as impressive as those in Mesa Verde, their design is quite different.
Along with several unusual D-shaped dwellings, including one curiously built atop a large boulder, these people also built tall stone towers that served some unknown purpose. Ultimately, we decided the lack of a good explanation for these unusual structures was just one more of the Trail of The Ancients’ many mysteries.

Questions Remain  

As someone who is curious to a fault, I admit that I would have liked to come away with more definitive answers about the Anasazi people. Even months later, I find myself mulling over the biggest mystery, why they chose to abandon their sturdy homes and well-tended fields en masse by A.D. 1300, never to return.  
That said, I also know these mysteries are a big part of what drew us here in the first place. Which makes me think that, when it comes to our stops along The Scenic Route, maybe some questions are best left unanswered.

IF YOU GO

Cliff House is just one of thousands of archaeological sites preserved in Mesa Verde National Park’s 80-plus square miles. Ranger-led tours of Mesa Verde’s well-known cliff dwellings can be both strenuous and fascinating.

Cliff House is just one of thousands of archaeological sites preserved in Mesa Verde National Park’s 80-plus square miles. Ranger-led tours of Mesa Verde’s well-known cliff dwellings can be both strenuous and fascinating.

The same things that make the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway so appealing also make it a place you don’t want to be caught unprepared. With a little forethought and planning, however, you’ll find your travels along these lonely roads to be memorable for all the right reasons.Obviously, the most important thing to keep in mind is that, along most of the byway, you’re going to be a good distance from what most of us would consider civilization. With that in mind, make sure fuel and propane are topped off and your pantry and fridge are well stocked before you leave the last good-sized town along your route. While you’ll find gas stations, grocery stores and the like in both Kayenta, Arizona, and Cortez, Colorado, the latter definitely has a wider variety of stores and restaurants than anywhere else along the byway.Also, this is high-desert country with altitudes ranging from more than a mile-high in Monument Valley to more than 8,000 feet in Mesa Verde National Park. In practical terms, that means you’ll want to avoid strenuous activity until you know how the thin air will affect you. Likewise, you’ll want to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and help stave off altitude sickness. Finally, you should consider a hat and sunscreen mandatory, and a warm jacket is usually a good idea as temperatures can drop quickly after the sun goes down even in the summer.There are a number of RV parks scattered along the route, including some in tiny towns that seem like little more than wide places in the road. Here are three we can recommend based on personal experience:

National Scenic Byways Program | www.byways.org
Cadillac Ranch RV Park
Bluff, Utah | 800-538-6195 | www.cadillacranchrv.com
www.cadillacranchrv.com | 970-565-9301 | www.koa.com/campgrounds/cortez
Goulding’s Lodge and Campground
,
               Monument Valley, Utah
| 435-727-3231 | www.gouldings.com/campground

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