By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Approximately 2,000 years ago, nomadic people began settling down, building structures, and cultivating crops in what is now called the “Four Corners” region of the western United States. Some of the ancient structures still stand, more or less. It is a place of incredible beauty, and an area where you can visit several ancient villages in a few days. It’s easy to find on a map “” just look for where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.
1. Four Corners Marker, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah
Four Corners Monument in the Navajo Indian Reservation is the only place in the United States where you can lie down, stretch your arms and legs out, and be in four states at the same time. Originally a cement pad marked the spot, but the marker today is made of granite and brass. The visitors center (open year-round) features a demonstration center with Navajo artisans. There you can purchase handmade jewelry, Navajo art, and traditional foods. Picnic tables and rest rooms are available, but bring your own water.
2. Aztec Ruins National Monument, New Mexico
The ruins at this location weren’t built by Aztec Indians, but by ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. Nine centuries of windblown dirt had nearly covered the structures, but now many of the artifacts found at the archaeological site are displayed in the museum. The multi-story ruin has several round rooms similar to the kivas used by Pueblo people today. The display could have been larger, but some chambers were excavated, documented, and then back-filled in order to preserve them for future generations.
3. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona
Canyon de Chelly, also located on Navajo land, is one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America. The Navajos who live there today play a major role in preserving its integrity. Canyon de Chelly is unique among national park units in that it is on Navajo Tribal Trust Land that’s still in use by descendents of the original inhabitants.
4. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
As Utah’s largest park, Canyonlands provides a broad range of formations. The Colorado River and its tributaries had plenty of time to erode the rock into canyons, needles, and mesas. The park is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, Needles, Maze, and the rivers themselves. It’s easy to understand why it’s impossible to see the entire park in one visit, given its size and the fact that so few roads exist. We’ve hiked in Canyonlands and loved it, but you also can take a scenic flight or a river trip.
5. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico
Chaco was the center of Puebloan culture from A.D. 850 to 1250. After viewing the buildings, roads, ramps, dams, and mounds, you’ll be amazed at the amount of designing, organizing, and building that was done eight centuries ago. The Chacoan cultural sites that remain are still sacred to the Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo tribes. Chaco Culture National Historical Park is pretty isolated and offers few amenities, so come prepared.
6. Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, Colorado
Located in the San Juan National Forest, this site was established 1,000 years ago. Through the centuries Pueblo ancestors built 200-plus homes and ceremonial buildings high above the valley floor. Not all the ruins have been excavated, and some that were have been examined and then covered over to protect them. The visitors center, open May 15 through September 30, is located 1/2-mile in from the park entrance off State Route 151. You’ll find tour information, picnic tables, rest rooms, and bottled water, but no running water. Four guided tours are conducted daily, each lasting 2 to 2-1/2 hours.
7. Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Colorado
The train line between Durango and Silverton was constructed more than a century ago to haul gold and silver ore down from mines in the San Juan Mountains. From the very beginning, however, it also was promoted as a scenic ride for passengers. The locomotives used today are of 1923-25 vintage, and maintained in original condition. The open gondola cars provide a spectacular view. Concessions, snacks, and beverages are available, as are rest rooms.
8. Hovenweep National Monument, Utah and Colorado
Hovenweep contains six units of ruins that once were Pueblo farming villages. Humans began living in the area nearly 10,000 years ago, hunting and gathering food in the Cajon Mesa. Around A.D. 900 they began using stone for building and settled in the area, planting and harvesting crops. Some of the towers and pueblos seen today are D-shaped or round; others are four stories high. The six major Hovenweep site groups are located within a 20-mile drive of one another. The park is open year-round.
9. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Arizona
You can feel the old wooden floor give a little and hear it squeak as you enter the oldest continuously operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site takes you back nearly 125 years, when John Hubbell purchased the trading post a decade after the Navajos returned to their homeland from exile in New Mexico. During their four-year banishment, the natives had heard of many new items, which John Hubbell was ready to supply when they returned home. The family continued doing so until the trading post was sold to the National Park Service. The post is still active today. Visitors can see the original 160-acre homestead, the trading post, the Hubbell family home, and an interpretive center.
10. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, Colorado
Designated a national monument only five years ago, the Canyons of the Ancients contains more than 5,000 archaeological sites representing several ancestral native cultures. Visitors planning to explore it should make their first stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colorado. It’s an archaeological museum that also interprets local history and American Indian cultures.
11. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Mesa Verde is the most visited of the ancient parks and monuments in Four Corners, and for very good reasons. It’s an incredible place. Entire stone villages, or “cliff dwellings,” are tucked beneath the arches of red rock cliffs. These homes served the Anasazi for more than 200 years and remain some of the best preserved Indian sites in the nation. Twenty-four American Indian tribes living in the Southwest today have ancestral ties to Mesa Verde.
12. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Three huge natural rock bridges lie within a few miles of each other, part of the monument’s 2,740 acres. The smallest bridge, named Owachomo, is probably the oldest, with a span of 180 feet that rises 106 feet above the small stream below. Three miles away is Kachina, which climbs 210 feet above its streambed. Several miles beyond it is Sipapu, the largest of the three. It has a span of 268 feet, is 31 feet wide, and rises 220 feet above the streambed. The latter’s elegance is enhanced by a particularly beautiful setting. While you’re there, note the cliff dwellings tucked into the canyon walls. Natural Bridges is approximately 35 miles west of Blanding, Utah.
13. Navajo National Monument, Arizona
Here on the Shonto Plateau near Kayenta, you’ll find some of the best preserved of all the cliff dwellings in the Navajo Nation. The monument has a visitors center, two short self-guided mesa-top trails, two campgrounds, and a picnic area. A ranger-guided 5-mile hike and tour of the Betatakin cliff dwellings is available, as is an unguided 17-mile hike to the Keet Seel dwellings.