Treasures of the Four Corners

Discovering the Anasazi Part II
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The ruins at Hovenweep National Monument west of Cortez are remote. Located on the Utah-Colorado border, all roads into the monument are graded gravel and dirt. Since they become muddy and impassable during rainy weather, check weather conditions before venturing out.

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Make time for a hike at Hovenweep. As you tramp over the dry dusty earth, look down at your feet for "sherds", the broken remains of Anasazi clay pots, often distinctive with their black and white patterns. Hovenweep, a Ute word meaning "deserted valley" seems well-suited to this isolated land of mesas and secluded canyons north of the San Juan River . Standing on the edge of a mesa, the hot wind whipping through the junipers and pungent sage, it's not hard to imagine the bustling activity of a village nearby. Searching carefully, you can find the remains of check-dams where the people trapped precious rainwater for their crops of corn, beans, and squash.

If you're adventurous, visit Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. Off the beaten path, reach Chaco Canyon after driving about 25 miles of Road 57, a gravel and dirt road located off Highway 44 south of Aztec, New Mexico.

So perplexing and unique was the complex civilization here, that archaeologists speak of it as the "Chacoan Phenomena". The ancient ones set their planting and ceremonial calendars by observation of solar cycles, and monitored the sun from a specially designed observatory atop Fajada Butte. They built straight roads hundreds of miles long, sometimes 30 feet wide, the beds scooped down to bedrock. And, they engineered the construction of many "outlier" communities as far as 100 miles away, most all from a single, standardized design. In some cases, the Indians traveled more than 75 miles to cut trees for huge wooden support beams.

Another link between the mysteries of the ancient Anasazi and modern Indians is Canyon de Chelly (say "d'shay") National Monument in northeastern Arizona. Deep in the sheer, high-walled canyons, east of Chinle off Highway 64, Navajo Indians live and farm the land. Although the Navajo claim this ground as their ancestral territory, thousands of sites in the park prove that the Anasazi lived here for 1500 years prior to the Navajo.

Three gorges cut into the 250-million year old red sandstone, a Navajo fortress for over three centuries. Drive around the rim of the canyon or take the 2.5 mile trail to White House Ruin. Traveling down into the chasm requires the services of a guide—a Navajo or a National Park Service ranger. Tidy farms, orchards, and red-roofed hogans dot the canyon, and bands of sheep, goats, and horses graze. In the Lukachukai Mountains rise the reddest slick rock walls you'll ever see, some rising to over 1,000 feet.

Not far south of Canyon de Chelly is 160 acre Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Park at Ganado on Highway 264. Tour the grounds free, and mingle with locals while examining authentic Navajo rugs and crafts inside the 90-year-old trading post. Much of the year Indian women weave rugs on large looms in the adjacent museum.

Traveling west along State Highway 264 enter the Hopi Indian Reservation, set in the midst of the Navajo Nation, considered by the Hopi to be the center of the universe. The Hopi live in a cluster of twelve villages off the highway, eleven of them atop or near First, Second, and Third Mesas. For bed and board, tribally owned and operated Hopi Cultural Center at Second Mesa has a motel and full-service restaurant. Here you can try traditional foods, including paper-thin blue piki bread, mutton stew, Indian tacos, and hot fry bread.

You're in luck if your visit coincides with a public kachina dance, held February through August. At these colorful events, dancers adorned with masks, silver and beaded jewelry, their skin painted with crushed minerals, move rhythmically through the plazas chanting, singing, and moving hypnotically. These dances are religious services, so be considerate in your dress and actions. The Hopi do not allow photography in any village—even photographs taken from the road are prohibited. Always ask for permission before taking pictures of Hopis or Navajos, and realize that a tip is often expected.

To continue your visit in the world of contemporary Native Americans, venture into magnificent Monument Valley. The entrance is in Arizona, just across the Utah line off Highway 163 north of Kayenta in the Navajo Tribal Park.There's a raw beauty here, miles of open roads tempered by earthen hogans topped with TV antennas, children wearing Nikes, and elderly women sitting along the roadside dressed in traditional velveteen blouses and long skirts selling cedar bead necklaces. Hundreds of movies and TV commercials filmed here, including How the West Was Won (1942), the Legend of the Lone Ranger (1980), and Back to the Future III (1988). From sunrise to sunset, the massive sandstone buttes, fantastically eroded bluffs, and delicate arches strike an impressive scene of constantly changing color and character.

If you're interested in getting involved firsthand, Crow Canyon Archaeological Center offers week-long programs for adults and high school students to participate in an archaeological excavation. At the Anasazi Heritage Center, volunteer to help unpack and label fragile artifacts. Volunteers contribute thousands of hours each year. Every bit of work is a step toward solving the mysteries surrounding the Anasazi, and assuring that the irreplaceable resources left behind by them are protected.

No doubt the scenery in the Four Corners will leave a lasting impression, but if you take the time and effort, breaking through to the heart of the native people is worth the reward. As tenacious as the windswept countryside, the people endure with a subtle sense of humor and a pride as big as the land they live on.

Carolyn Z. Shelton is a freelance writer based in Sultan, WA.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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