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Native American Sites of the Southwest
The American Southwest is a Treasure Cove of Archeology. Many historical sites are located throughout the four-corner states (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico). History buffs will love to go on a themed road trip and the rest of us should at least include some of them in our itinerary. For a photographer like me, those places offer fantastic opportunities to create unique photos.
Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly lays in the heart of one of the largest Navajo reservations in Arizona. At the west entrance, the city of Chinle offers some lodging and dining and is your best bet for an overnight stay. The Navajo people in this reservation are very friendly and open. I was surprised to find out that even the park had no entrance fee. Since the park is on Navajo land, you will need a guide to explore the canyon floor in depth. However, you can take the White House trail to the bottom of the canyon and enjoy the many views from the top without a guide. Since we only had one day on our trip, this was enough fun, but we decided to come back with a 4x4 and explore the canyon in depth some other time. The visitor center offers a list of local tour guides ranging from an escort to jeep tours and horseback riding.
Canyon de Chelly was a very special experience. It was arguably one of the most beautiful stops on my last road trip. The rich history and ubiquitous presence of Navajo spirits combined with the serene beauty of the landscape and ruins make this park a unique experience. My first peak revealed a herd of wild horses at the bottom of the canyon and I almost felt like a time traveler. Since I knew that the winter sun would be low for most of the day, I decided to take the North Rim Drive first. Looking south, where the sun cannot reach for the better part of the winter, revealed beautiful snow covered canyon walls. I drove to each of the Ancient Ruin overlooks to be dazzled by the intensely beautiful setting of the Navajo ruins.
The other road to the right leads to Mummy Cave Overlook. It is one of the largest and most beautiful ruins. During our visit in the winter, parts of the ruin were always in the shade.
The highlight of our visit was the trail to the White House Ruin. Although the view from the rim is imposing with steep canyon walls dropping off vertically below your feet, the trail is relatively easy. The rocky slopes can be slippery when wet. At any rate, the view of the ruins is worth the effort tenfold. Crouched into an opening in the rock face, the ruins are a landmark and probably the most over photographed feature of the park.
We ended our day with an after sunset photo shoot at spider rock, another famous landmark of Canyon de Chelly.
Petrified Forest is a large park with many different features including ancient American ruins and rock art. The petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock can only be seen from a distance through binoculars (provided at side). The main road leading through the park will take you past most of the park’s unique sights, making this park one of the most accessible. Unfortunately, easy access also attracts crowds of drive-by visitors with little to no interest in the park. One of those specimens passed my car at high speed, hitting the gas in front of me and spraying my vehicle with a shower of rocks, severely damaging the paint and chipping my windshield in several places. I had to cut my visit short and drive to the next town to buy several glass repair kits, as my windshield would not have survived the cold night without cracking. On subsequent trips, I will always carry a windshield repair kit with me from now on. I can easily let the compound harden, while I am on a hike. This time, though, I missed out on a great park.
Moab, in southern Utah, is famous for its proximity to Arches National Park and to Canyonlands National Park. Even though the parks are not primarily known for their historical interest, signs of ancient civilizations can be found here, too. Many visitors miss those signs.
You will not find the False Kiva in any official guide for a good reason. The trail is treacherous and potentially dangerous, leading along the edge of a very steep drop of several hundred feet. Some parts of the trail require climbing and during wet weather can be outright dangerous. False Kiva is located in the “Islands of the Sky” part of Canyonlands National Park.
The remoteness and relatively unfamiliar location mean there is a good chance you will not encounter a soul on your hike and that you will most likely have this unique and astonishing site all to yourself. Visitors are required to be responsible and self-controlling, since the site is not protected by the National Park Service.
After our path-finding and climbing experience, the intensely beautiful location enchanted us even more. We felt like archeologists who had just unearthed a previously unknown site of historical significance. We wrote some nice words into the logbook and left the place without touching any of the archeological treasures.
Petroglyphs and Pictographs
Many of the less accessible parts of Canyonlands also have the most beautiful pictographs (rock paintings). Unfortunately, you need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach them. Petroglyphs (rock scratchings) are plenty around Moab. Newspaper rock is probably the best known.
Northeast of Moab, off I-75, we found another site featuring petroglyphs and pictographs from many periods, but many petroglyphs were vandalized. The pictographs are better preserved but somewhat faded. The site is still worth a visit, especially since it is very easy to access and provides samples from many time periods.
Take exit 187 and drive north towards Thompson Springs. Once you have passed the city, keep going for another 3.5 miles until you are at the Sego Canyon Pictographs and Petroglyphs.
Mesa Verde National Park is the number one tourist attraction in Southern Colorado, getting more than 700,000 visitors yearly. The Mesa Top loop road will lead the visitor to most viewpoints, from which the cliff dwellings and pueblo houses are visible. Many of the settlements were built underneath giant alcoves, filling the entire available space.
The main sites and the museum are located about 20 minutes from the park entrance. During our visit a few years ago, the nearby Spruce Tree House was the only site accessible to visitors that day. It is only a short hike away from the museum and is one of the easiest accessible ruins. Visitors were allowed inside the Kivas and in the ruins under supervision. The guides were knowledgeable but quite frankly somewhat long-winded and boring with jokes not updated since they took the job 30 years ago. Cameras ready, most of us were less interested in local bushes than in ruins. The guide seemed to have a different idea though, making it an educational guessing game tour.
Cliff Palace is without a doubt the most impressive of the ruins, as it is the largest and probably best-preserved site.
The museum is full of interesting facts. History can also be soaked in around the main loop drive where information is posted in many places.
Around Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bandelier National Monument lies about 2 hours northwest of Santa Fe in Frijoles Canyon. The park is easily accessible, but can be very crowded during summer. About 70 miles of trails lead through the park.
Pueblo people settled in the park between the 12th and 16th centuries. Early occupants carved the rocks to make caves or enhance natural caves, and later occupants built pueblos from rock debris. The soft volcanic rock that eased the carvings is now weathering away.
I loved the park. The cave dwellings were very unusual; the rock face looked like honeycombs. The park service provides ladders so visitors can enter the caves and see how the ancient people lived. Presumably, the dwellings were very luxurious by ancient standards but leave a claustrophobic aftertaste by today’s standards. Most of the ruins are just minutes away from the visitor center via an easy hike on a paved trail. It does not get much easier than this if you want to touch and feel history.
The park service had closed several trails during our winter visit, although we did not find much ice. It seemed as if the park was under-staffed or under-motivated.
Pecos NM is a small but very interesting park. Previously in private hands but generously donated, the park is a treasure cove of discovery. The ruins of a pueblo, once housing around 2000 people, and standing several stories high are almost vanished. You can enter the reconstructed kivas when you walk the 1.5-mile trail. It takes about 1 hour if you stop and explore the ruins thoroughly. At the end of the trail the remains of a huge church, built by Franciscan monks, is the only erect building left. Surrounded by the convent and garden as well as an Indian kiva, the site is a strange mix of Indian and Spanish culture.
Petroglyph NM, Albuquerque
Here you can find almost 2000 petroglyphs. Several hundred of them on the Boca Negra Canyon trails, the most visited area of the park. Ancient people created the petroglyphs by scraping the dark top rock layer from the volcanic stones, revealing the lighter colored stone beneath. The trails are easy to walk and take between 5 to 30 minutes (round trip). Please do not vandalize the petroglyphs!
Ice-cold winter winds gave us a taste of what it must have been like to live here.
Respectful of the ancients we left, still wondering what all the drawings meant and what messages they carved into the stone such a long time ago. Will anything of me survive that long or be forgotten just a few years from now.
We barely only scratched the surface of historical sites in the Southwest. We did not have the time to visit all the places and some were even closed or not accessible without a 4x4 car. The Southwest is big enough to spend years tracing the footsteps of long ago civilizations. The impact of such a tour is long lasting.
All of the great civilizations have vanished at some point or were unable to adapt to a changing environment. Living in harmony with nature and taking only what they needed, many of them were able to survive for centuries.
We decided to come back with a 4x4 vehicle and see what wondrous sights we missed.
The article was written by Andre Gunther.
Visit his website for more photos of the southwest .
Fact Sheets provided by Dani: Trip Galleries