Fall is a season of transition in the National Park System, from long, hot days with crowded roads and trails, to cooler, crisper weather that beckons you to make a few more trips before winter sets in. Here is the first of four suggestions to jump on now, or to add to your to-do list.
The Road to Ruins
The American Southwest has long been the scene of ancient civilization, cultural conflicts, and their remnants. To get a taste of what life for native inhabitants was like millennia ago, take a tour of the ancestral Pueblo ruins near the Four Corners region where Colorado, Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico meet. These stone dwellings were inhabited until around AD 1300 by the ancestors of the Zuni, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblos of modern Arizona and New Mexico. Cortez and Durango are ideal gateway communities in Colorado to start your tour.
Just 15 miles east of Cortez (36 miles west of Durango), with their full-service tourism economies, the road into Mesa Verde National Park switchbacks up past the Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center to the top of a huge, gently sloping plateau. The view from the top is phenomenal, towards the Dolores River that feeds into the Colorado, and the Blue and LaSal Mountains of Utah to the north and west, and south to Navajo Nation.
Four miles ahead you'll have to leave your trailer at the Morefield Campground. The roads to the ruins are winding, steep, and narrow. The concessionaire- run camp might at first seem overpriced at $30, but amenities do include complimentary Wi-Fi, showers, and laundry, and it is the only campground within the park. Or you may opt to stay at the aptly-named Far View lodge with its private balconies. Here, watch the sun set behind Sleeping Ute Mountain and the ominous, dark volcanic butte of Shiprock while dining on regional foods in the Metate Room, or have a cold one on the top patio of the lounge after a day on the trails.
The ancient cliff dwellings here, of course, are the main show, tucked away under seemingly inaccessible alcoves. Mesa Verde, designated a park in 1906 by Theodore Roosevelt, boasts more than 5,000 known archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These dwellings were built over existing pit houses in the 13th century, and abandoned mostly by AD 1300. These ancestral Puebloans raised turkeys and grew corn, beans, and squash on the mesa tops, but drought, depletion of both large animals and wood, and pressures from other tribes likely made them move on, according to park Ranger Gretschen Johnson.
You're not going to see all of the ruins (most are in the backcountry and off-limits), so drive out the 12-mile day-use road to the Wetherill Mesa and walk the self-guided mile-long tour of Step House ruins. A six-mile shuttle loop will access views of other ruins, but you'll need tickets for the Long House tour, available from the Visitor Center or Morefield ranger station. Interpretive park Ranger Deb Nelson might show you photographs of the artwork that adorned the circular kiva walls, or the evidence of burned and ravaged parts of Long House itself.
The main park road along Soda Canyon to the east provides access to the park museum (with its stunning dioramas constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s) as well as the signature ruins at Cliff Palace (the largest ruin with 21 kivas) and Balcony House (at 600 feet above the canyon floor, its 32-foot ladder and tight tunnel are a thrill worthy of the $4 ticket). These, and many others, are visible from the rim pullouts: bring your binoculars.
After spending a few days, or a lifetime, at Mesa Verde, head east to Durango, and then follow the yellow-cottonwood- lined Animas River towards the New Mexico town of Aztec. Misnamed by early pioneers (the Aztec culture never made it so far north), Aztec Ruins National Monument is a stunning place. Once covered in sand and brush, the West Ruin, or Great House, has 500 connected rooms, its back wall aligned to the rising of the summer solstice's sun.
The reconstructed Great Kiva has painted plaster interior walls, is nearly 50 feet in diameter, and boasts four large pillars supporting its high roof. A banquette bench rings the wall for seating, a perfect spot for cooling off on the hottest days. Sit there for a few moments and visualize a past when dozens participated in the ceremonies central to their lives, and remember that their descendants still consider all of these sites as the holy places of their ancestors.
After an afternoon in reflection, you can travel to another sort of prehistoric settlement: Hovenweep National Monument 100 miles to the northwest. Taking Highway 64 you'll enter the Navajo lands, with the escarpment of Mesa Verde to the north, and the wind-blown desert ahead of you. The black volcanic plug of Shiprock rises from the desert floor, and the cliff studded Carizzo Mountains are on the horizon.
And, for a quirky and fun rest stop, pull in to the Four Corners Monument just off of Highway 160. On Navajo land, there's a $5 per person entry fee, but you'll stand in four states at once, look over some fine silver and turquoise jewelry in the small sales booths, and even lunch on some Indian fry bread. In busy times, there's actually a waiting line to take photographs.
Then cross the lazy San Juan River, with its corridor of golden trees, and drive another 45 miles north along good paved roads towards one of the most remote outposts of the tour: Hovenweep National Monument. Designated in 1923, Hovenweep is a unique collection of towers and ruins built on the edge of a small arroyo, with views in all directions: Mesa Verde and the San Juan Mountains to the east, Sleeping Ute Mountain to the south, and the Blue Mountains to the west. The sagecovered Cajon Mesa has a fine campground, and there are many hiking trails to near and distant ruins.
Take an hour and walk the 1.5-mile Little Ruin Trail, which is lined with unique monuments to the missing civilization. Tower Point at the head of the canyon is a great place for contemplation of the Twin Towers just downstream, some of the most carefully constructed ancestral Puebloan structures ever found. These 16-room towers, one oval and one horseshoe-shaped, mimic the curved walls that they are built upon. Just below them are the remains of Boulder House, where you can visualize what it might be like to live in a hollowed-out rock.