Cities of Stone

Experience the Southwest's oldest cultures and landscapes.


By Anne Minard


One visit to the American Southwest is all it takes to convince you that no sky is as blue as the sky over sandstone. Few sights are as satisfying as a desert lit in muted rainbow colors, seen from high on a mountain. No skies are as dark and no stars twinkle as brightly as those seen from the rim of a secluded canyon. And no silence is as deep as the one that greets you when you’ve driven beyond the range of cities, into country where few people live, because conditions there are so extreme.

For thousands of years, several vibrant cultures—some long gone, some still thriving—have made their home in the Four Corners region, which extends outward from the juncture of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. Today, visitors to this place are rewarded with soul-moving beauty and insight into little-known societies, past and present, that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Driving a clockwise loop around the Four Corners, you can meet Navajo people, contemplate the remains of ancient homes and villages, and explore iconic red rock canyons and towering mountains with their forests either robust or startlingly charred from wildfire. In other words, you can immerse yourself in the fundamental elements of the desert Southwest, all in a few days’ time. This is a remote road trip, but that's part of its beauty. Despite breathtaking, otherworldly landscapes, you’ll never have to navigate a crowd.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona

In Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-SHAY) National Monument, three canyons channel snowmelt from the Chuska Mountains across Arizona’s eastern border with New Mexico before merging near Chinle, a small city on the Navajo reservation. Hundreds of Navajos live and work within the park’s boundaries. Some graze sheep and grow hot peppers, sweet tomatoes, and peaches; others operate or work for the 11 companies that lead driving tours into the canyon. But Navajos weren’t the first to call this place home. The region’s bottomlands—lush and fertile at the confluence of two canyons—have drawn people here for nearly 5,000 years.

Nearly every hike into Canyon de Chelly requires the service of a guide. The one exception: a quarter-mile trek to White House Ruin, a Puebloan neighborhood more than a thousand years old and cut into a natural alcove. The trail is steep but wide and well maintained. The hike offers a fair taste of the small canyon’s stunning beauty, with its vibrant cottonwood trees and smooth, undulating sandstone. Some people stop to rest at the ruins and snap photos before heading back up. Nearby, Navajo vendors sit at shaded tables and sell handmade jewelry at reasonable prices, cash only.

But there’s so much more to see, so budget extra time for a half-day or full-day guided excursion into the canyon. Most companies host tours by Jeep or truck; the visitor center keeps a well-maintained list of options. A few guides offer quieter experiences by horseback or on foot. See if a ranger at the visitor center can reach James Yazzie, a seventh-generation canyon resident who leads hikes (three hours minimum, $20 an hour) across washes, over a fence or two, past traditional round Navajo dwellings where his relatives live, and—for lunch—perhaps up into a shallow cave with spectacular views of the park.

Hovenweep National Monument, Colorado and Utah

Like most centuries-old ghost towns, the dwellings at Hovenweep National Monument reveal a history that ebbed and flowed with the availability of water. Nearly all of its buildings are linked with seepsand springs.

Hovenweep’s first trickle of people arrived around 700 A.D., when farmers in the region were beginning to grow corn and build pit houses (dug-out shelters) near their crops. Four hundred years later, a thriving population spilled out into villages around canyon heads containing water sources. The boom went bust just a few hundred years after that, when prolonged droughts drove people south into New Mexico and Arizona. Outlines of multi-room pueblos, leaning towers, tumbled piles of shaped stone, small cliff dwellings, pottery shards, and rock art remain as testaments to those bygone days.

Hovenweep is indeed an ancient ghost town—its name in the Ute/Paiute languages means “deserted valley”—and both coming and going from the park require an hour or more of driving through almost completely uninhabited desert landscapes. The park’s main unit is a peaceful place, with a 1.5-mile rim trail leading out from the visitor center through a profoundly quiet desert landscape. The modest assemblage of ruins there includes the ancient leaning towers that look a bit like lighthouses, though some of them are square. The monument also includes four prehistoric Puebloan-era villages located at canyon entrances along the Utah-Colorado border. Rent a bicycle at the Single Track shop in Flagstaff (www.singletrackbikes.com) before you start your drive, and bring it along for long, flat rides through this sparsely inhabited landscape. The place is scorching in summer but bliss in the spring and fall.

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

The ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde rest atop a “sky island,” so reaching them requires an hour-long drive up a winding mountain road after passage through the entrance gate. Wildfires in 2000 and 2002 reduced much of the forest to charred and twisted sticks, and views without the foliage are stunning, if stark. The western pine forest at the top, however, makes a great summer respite from the penetrating heat of the surrounding deserts.

From the visitor center, a six-mile driving loop showcases the full range of ancient architectural styles, from the earliest pit houses to the most recent cliff dwellings. Access is easy—sites are either beside the road or a short walk away, and there are parking areas on both sides of the street.

A quarter-mile hike starting at the visitor center leads to a famous cliff dwelling called Spruce Tree House, which appears like a chiseled architectural marvel from the trail, then unfolds into a dynamic village up close. Visitors can wander its 114 rooms and courtyards and even descend a tiny ladder to an underground ceremonial kiva. The Far View site, a short drive away, contains nearly 50 villages dating from 900 to about 1300 A.D. Boulders and cliff faces at nearly all of the sites display petroglyphs, made by Native Puebloan artists who used rocks to peck or scratch into stone the likenesses of their own people, religious icons, and spontaneous artistic ideas.

Take your time meandering along Mesa Verde’s various trails. Stop and contemplate the flora and fauna—the gambel oak, wild rose bushes, Utah juniper, ringtail cats, cottontail rabbits, and coyotes—that have long been the centerpieces of diets, medicines, rituals, and stories in so many Southwestern cultures.

Chaco Culture NationalHistorical Park, New Mexico

Temperatures at Chaco Culture dip below freezing in winter and soar above 100 degrees  in summer, but the park is open year-round. No matter which season you choose, aim to get there before anyone else does, preferably as the sun rises and with your camera in hand. To do that, you’ll have to campin the park; there are no hotels for miles. When you wake to a landscape glowing red in the morning sun, you’ll be glad you decided to rough it.

The trail to Pueblo Bonito is less than a mile round trip, but you’ll want to savor it slowly. The “great house”—one of several massive dwellings with hundreds of rooms—was once a hub for the Chacoan world, which reached into New Mexico’s San Juan Basin and portions of Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.

Signs at Pueblo Bonito read: “This is a sacred area. Enter with respect.” But if you are lucky enough to be alone, you won’t need this instruction—you’ll already know the place is sacred. Peering through the high, rough-cut sandstone windows to mesmerizing blue skies, you will imagine the people who admired those same views nearly a thousand years ago. Step gingerly around the walls; your feet will crunch gravel that might include fallen bits of the Chacoans’ careful masonry. Search your mind’s ear for the sounds of their music; archaeologists have found flageolets, or long flutes, among the ruins, and suspect people also played drums.

Less-frequented sites are also easy to access if you’re willing to hike a bit. Trails ranging from one to six miles will lead you there—simply fill out permits at self-pay stations throughout the park, and then be on your way.

Side Trip: Bluff, Utah

Bluff is an endearing little town in Utah that boasts a handful of galleries, restaurants, shops, and fairgrounds along Highway 191 under the 300-foot sandstone bluffs that give the place its name. Browse the Cow Canyon Trading Post (above), which features a cozy gallery and bookstore. While the adjoining café offers local fare like traditional Navajo lamb stew embellished with succulent garden veggies, it requires advanced reservations and only serves groups of 15 or more. But occasionally the owner is willing to squeeze in a few more diners, so it’s worth a phone call just in case: 435.672.2208.

Recapture Lodge is a restful, friendly place to spend a night and offers the only wireless Internet access you’re likely to find along the route. From Bluff, a number of companies guide river trips down the San Juan, which is regionally famous as a short but beautiful paddle. For more information, see www.bluffutah.org. Before heading out, get your caffeine fix at Comb Ridge Coffee. The java is good, the ambiance comfy, and the used books are dirt cheap.

Travel Essentials

This route starts and ends in Flagstaff, Arizona, for a total driving time of about 17 hours. Starting at Canyon de Chelly, you’ll travel north to Hovenweep National Monument in Utah, east to Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, and south to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Not counting driving time, the smaller parks could be scoped out in as little as half a day—but chances are you’ll want to linger.

Carry a detailed road map or atlas, because several of the parks are in remote areas. Convenience stores and even grocery stores are available along some parts of this route but are uncommon in others, so carry at least a gallon of water per person per day, especially in summer. Pack snacks, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, cameras, a journal, sturdy shoes, cash, and extra layers for the evenings, which can get chilly. Don’t rely on your cell phone; it won’t work in most areas.

There are a variety of lodging options in and around the parks: Thunderbird Lodge at Canyon de Chelly; camping at Hovenweep; Far View Lodge or the Morefield Campground at Mesa Verde; and camping at Chaco Culture. For more information, contact Canyon de Chelly at www.nps.gov/cach or 928.674.5500; Hovenweep at www.nps.gov/hove or 970.562.4282; Mesa Verde at www.nps.gov/meve or 970.529.4465; and Chaco Culture at www.nps.gov/chcu or 505.786.7014.

Anne Minard is a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

This article appears in the Summer 2009 issue.

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