The Canyons of the Ancients: Behold the Mysteries Among the Ruins in Our Backyard

The Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is a vast network of ruins in Southwestern Colorado and Eastern Utah. Ancestral Puebloans built the ruins in the 12th century AD.  

If you are anything like me, you are thinking, 

“What?? 12th Century ruins right here in the USA?”

It’s true. You don’t have to travel to Europe to see impressive ruins. The Canyons of the Ancients showcase the impressive ruins found in the United States. 

Discovering the Canyons of the Ancients

I discovered the fascinating history behind the Canyons of the Ancients while planning a road trip from California to Southwestern Colorado to visit Mesa Verde National Park, an ancestral site right on the cusp of the Canyons. 

While planning my route, I noticed a massive area on the map spanning from Southwest Colorado into Southern Utah labeled “Canyons of the Ancients.”

My inner anthropologist quivered with excitement. Anything with such a mystical name must be extraordinary!

The canyon boundary line was near Mesa Verde, so I added it to my itinerary with absolutely no other research. Sometimes it’s more fun to find out on your own than to spend hours researching!

Not Your Typical Attraction

The Canyons of the Ancients is very different than most historical attractions. No National Park promotes iconic places with visitors’ guides, maps, and points of interest. Many sites are inaccessible by vehicle, only available for dedicated hikers willing to hike deserted-looking desert trails in hopes of glimpsing an archeological marvel. 

The canyons comprise 164 thousand acres protected by the Natual Bureau of Land Management. Most of the ruins in this vast wilderness remain buried, protecting them from the elements and careless tourists. 

Getting Started with the Ancients

Are you ready to embark on a rugged adventure through time to see the best ancient ruins in the US? 

Here’s where you should start. 

Mesa Verde

If you want to see ancient ruins in the US, Mesa Verde should be your first stop. Although it’s not technically part of the Canyons of the Ancients, it’s so close to the visitor center it’s worth exploring. 

As a National Park, the ruins are far more accessible than the rest of the canyons, which are in protected land, but not part of a National Park. 

Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park
Photo Credit: Sopotnicki via Shutterstock.com.

The park features some of the most impressive ruins in the country. Tour the remarkable cliffside dwellings and learn the history of the people that decided to live on the edge: literally. 

Let Mesa Verde start your journey into the mysteries of the ancients who once called the American southwest home, then head ten miles down the road from Mesa Verde’s visitor center to discover the Canyons of the Ancients. 

Anasazi Visitor Centor

Cortez, Colorado, features the gateway to the Canyons.  Though there’s a nominal admissions fee, it’s well worth it to prepare yourself for the journey ahead. 

The Anasazi Visitor Center welcomes travelers with a museum housing a rich collection of Native American artifacts, including pottery, tools, tapestries, and several educational hands-on displays. 

While there, I worked with an authentic flint stone tool and tried my hand at weaving using ancient technology. 

The friendly staff is happy to answer questions about the Canyons and even provide directions to the most popular and well-excavated ruins. Take them up on this. Many of the ruins are tucked away on rural highways you’d never even dream of traveling and having expert directions will help you stay on target when you think you’re lost. 

The staff pointed me toward the four most well-known and accessible archaeological sites sprinkled within the Canyons of the Ancients.

Lowry Pueblo

Lowry Pueblo, a massive sandstone pueblo tucked off a hidden gravel road, is remarkably well-preserved and even offers visitors the opportunity to peek inside. 

The area includes a Puebloan ceremonial site, known as a Kiva, and placards featuring information about daily life and rituals near the Pueblo. Anyone interested in anthropology will enjoy viewing these sacred sites where the inhabitants practiced their rituals. 

The excavated Kiva at Lowry Pueblo in the Canyons of the Ancients.
Photo Credit: M. Allen, Partners in Fire

A massive bonus to Lowry Pueblo is its accessibility. Despite the dirt road and lack of signage leading up to it, the Pubelo itself is paved and mostly flat. Persons with disabilities should be able to navigate the area with ease. There’s also a recreational area perfect for picnics and a restroom, making it an ideal stop for travelers who want to see ancient ruins while enjoying modern comforts. 

Painted Hands

Painted Hands gets its name from the cave paintings of hands visible inside. The petroglyph is initially challenging to spot, taking some squinting and enhanced brain power to make out. However, you should be able to spot them upon gazing closely for a few minutes. 

This incredible site features a tower atop a small enclave where the petroglyph rests. As you tilt your head, attempting to make out the image, remember that this work of art survived in the elements for centuries, so it will be a little raw. The “aha” moment when you finally make out the hands is indescribable. You have to see it for yourself. 

A stylized photo of the rock beneath the tower at painted hands. You can faintly see the outline of a hand in this shot.
Photo Credit: M. Allen Partners in Fire

Unfortunately, Painted Hands is tough to reach. The site itself is down a rough stretch of dirt road. Although you can see the tower from the makeshift parking lot, you must hike a bit to get near the tower and observe the paintings hidden underneath. 

The trail is steep and inaccessible to wheelchairs, but it’s not long and not too far off the beaten path, making it a perfect location for those who want to stretch their legs a little. 

Cutthroat Ruins

Those looking for a more rugged adventure into the wild to observe ancient ruins should continue down the savage dirt road hosting painted hands to cutthroat ruins, an apt moniker for the tough-to-reach site. 

The hike is brutal

Cutthroat ruins rest about a mile into the wilderness. Weary travelers must traverse hilly and scorching high desert terrains to lay eyes upon the impressive towers nestled in the canyons. 

If you’re attempting to visit cutthroat ruins, bring plenty of water! You will need it!

The remains of two towers at cutthroat ruins in the Canyons of the Ancients nestled among the desert brush with a blue sky.
Photo Credit: M. Allen Partners in Fire

The reward is well worth the effort. Cutthroat ruins consist of numerous towers, some of which are in excellent condition relative to their age. These towers have stood empty for centuries, yet they still stand, a feat made even more impressive when you remember that preservation efforts didn’t begin until the 19th century. 

Cutthroat ruins survived harsh desert winds for centuries with no human intervention. The towers are spectacular to behold, and their remote location off the beaten path allows motivated hikers to enjoy the site in quiet solitude. 

Hovenweep

If you only have time for one stop on the Canyons of Ancients tour, it should be Hovenweep National Monument. Hovenweep, located on the Utah side of the forest, is the most well-known and popular site in the Canyons. The area features a visitor center, bathroom, ample parking, and picnic areas. 

Hovenweep offers three hiking tiers for visitors of all skill levels.  Casual visitors and those with mobility issues will prefer the leisurely tower overview hike.  The short walk over a paved path leads to an overlook of the towers from across the canyon.

Tower ruins at Hovenweep National Monument in the Canyons of the Ancients.
Photo Credit: Zack Frank via Shutterstock.com.

The second tier is a tower walk, a short half-circle around the canyon. The easy walk curves close to the towers, giving visitors a close-up view of the impressive architecture. However, easy is in the eye of the beholder. There are no elevation changes, but it’s not accessible for those with limited mobility. 

Those looking for a challenge can opt to hike all the way around the canyon. This third tier is far more strenuous than the half-canyon trek, so bring plenty of water if you want to attempt it. 

The Mysteries of the Ancients

The four sights I visited on my journey through the Canyons of the Ancients are just the beginning. The Bureau of Land Management protects numerous sites under the canyon’s umbrella. 

Finding each site takes a lot of work. Some require vigorous hiking, while others need insider knowledge, as the locations aren’t apparent on a map. Many of these are closed to the public to protect the historic structures buried within. 

The four sites listed here are easily accessible and close enough together to visit in a single day. If you have more time, you should hike deeper into the canyons to uncover more mysteries.

Journalist at | + posts

Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life. 

3 thoughts on “The Canyons of the Ancients: Behold the Mysteries Among the Ruins in Our Backyard”

  1. This place looks awesome! We will have to go. That is something we have been focusing on…travel in America. There is so much to see HERE. We get so caught up on traveling abroad and believe me it is my passion, but we also have good options here too!!!

    • My passion is traveling abroad too, but when I have less time I like to explore whatever’s nearby, and thats how I found this place! It’s spectacular! Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Cool post! I’ve got a trip to a bunch of ancient sites on my bucket list; I’ll add these to the itinerary. 🙂

    “What?? 12th Century ruins right here in the USA?”. I know, I was surprised too!”
    Right? XD It’s easy to forget that North America has as much history as anywhere else, it just wasn’t recorded as well.

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