Anasazi is the Navajo word for “Ancient Ones” or “Ancient Enemy.” This culture, more correctly referred to as the Ancient Pueblo Peoples, probably emerged as long ago as the twelfth century BCE. They left behind thousands of rich archaeological sites throughout the Colorado Plateau that preserve the heritage of these ancestors of today’s modern Pueblo peoples, which include the Hopi, Zuni, Keres, Tano, and Jemez. The term “Anasazi” is subject to some controversy, as it is a Navajo word, and the Navajo were bitter enemies of the Ancient Puebloans. Some, however, use Anasazi because “pueblo” is a term given to the indigenous people and their settlements by Europeans, who were much more brutal than the Navajo.

Anasazi Art
Anasazi Art

The Colorado Plateau covers the central part of the Four Corners, where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona meet. The territory of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples stretched even into Texas and what is now northern Mexico. The Hohokam and Mogollon groups occupied the southern portions of this territory, and the group widely known as the Anasazi was concentrated around the Four Corners area. The remains of this great and mysterious civilization constitute some of the most important and extensive pre-Columbian monuments in the United States. Two of these ancient sites, known as Anasazi Ruins, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Chaco Canyon sites and the Pueblo de Taos. While the Taos pueblo, which dates to about 1,000 years ago, is not of the Anasazi culture, it is a remarkable settlement, and it is occupied by the Taos people who migrated here not long after the Anasazi disappeared. Thus, it provides a link between the ancient and modern cultures.

Chaco Canyon

Anasazi Pottery
Anasazi Pottery

The ancient Chaco Culture of this canyon, located between Albuquerque and Farmington in New Mexico, is one of the more significant World Heritage Sites in the western US. Here is the most extensive ensemble of ancient ruins north of Mexico, comprising the most important pre-Columbian areas in all of the United States, with a very dense concentration of pueblos. This was an urban center for commerce and administration of the San Juan Basin and Four Corners area that flourished from about 850 to 1250 AD. Remarkable public architecture includes grand ceremonial structures and kivas, monumental multi-storied buildings (the largest with as many as 600 rooms), landscaped plazas, and an extensive network of roads. The museum that contains the Chaco Collection houses 1 million artifacts, including ceramics and pottery, matting and sandals, tools and arrowheads, and jewelry and other ornaments. You can drive to Chaco Canyon and visit most of the main sites on a loop road in your vehicle. However, if you’d rather get out of the car, this is a good road for cycling, and there are a number of hiking trails. The closest hotels and motels are found in Farmington, about 60 miles away, and there is one campground within the park.

Mesa Verde

Anasazi Ruins
Anasazi Ruins

The other UNESCO World Heritage Site in this region is Mesa Verde (Spanish for “Green Table”). This area in southwestern Colorado contains a significant concentration of ancient pueblo dwellings, built between the sixth and twelfth centuries at an altitude of more than 8,500 feet. There are villages on top of the mesa, but the most impressive and spectacular ruins are those built into the cliffs. Multi-story structures, some with as many as 100 rooms, can be viewed from lookout points along the road between Durango and Cortez and the road from Cortez to Shiprock in New Mexico. You can purchase tickets for guided tours of Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House at the park Visitor Center. There are a number of designated hiking trails that will also reveal a rich collection of petroglyphs. If you want to explore the area in detail, there is a park campground and a lodge; otherwise your best lodging options will probably be in Durango.

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep is located not far from Mesa Verde. Here are the ruins of six Puebloan villages spread along the mesa tops and canyons that line the Colorado and Utah border. These prehistoric sites date as far back as 10,000 years ago. The Square Tower group comprises the most extensive of the ruins.

Aztec Ruins National Monument

Northeast of Farmington in New Mexico and quite near the town of Aztec, Aztec Ruins National Monument has nothing to do with the ancient Aztec civilization of Mexico—it is simply named for the nearby town. Most significant is the Pueblo great house, with more than 500 rooms with original timbers supporting the roof, and a reconstructed great kiva.

Canyon de Chelly

Set within the sprawling Navajo Reservation, Canyon de Chelly is located in northeastern Arizona to the east of the Grand Canyon and near the border with New Mexico. It consists of three large canyons, and it is a unique national monument because none of the land is federally owned—it is all Navajo tribal land. There are numerous Anasazi ruins in the three canyons that are part of the National Monument. After the disappearance of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples, this became home to the Navajo, and the spectacularly beautiful landscapes represent one of the longest continuously inhabited areas in North America.

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