Lynne Belle Lewis/Special to the Herald
It was a journey into the past, complete with a chuckwagon, sassy cook and campfire ring.
Last May, seven hardy horseback riders ventured on a guided trip on the Ute Tribal Park. It wasn’t quite how the Wetherills experienced the area 100-plus years ago, but it was close.
Eight hundred years ago, the ancestral Puebloans built rock “castles” in the cliffs of Southwest Colorado. They often chose south-facing alcoves where natural springs were located to construct their multifamily dwellings, and they had to climb either up to the top of the cliff or down to the canyon floor using hand and foot holds chiseled into the slick rock face.
The Ute Indians knew about these ancient buildings, but they stayed away from them out of respect. However, white explorers were fascinated with them. The 1878 publication of the Hayden surveys into Southwest Colorado included photographs of cliff dwellings by William Henry Jackson.
B.K. Wetherill arrived in Mancos in 1880 and, with his sons, built the Alamo Ranch south of town. When they were constructing an irrigation system for their farming operation, they uncovered old ruins and became interested in researching the ancient history of the area. The Wetherills befriended the Utes and arranged for the right to graze their cattle on Indian land along the Mancos River.
In 1882, Richard Wetherill, B.K.’s son, visited his first cliff dwelling, now known as Sandal House because of the discovery in the dwelling of many sandals made from yucca plants. By 1885, the Wetherills were guiding adventurers into Mancos Canyon to see the cliff dwellings. They traveled by wagon and horseback and had to camp out because of the remoteness of the sites.
President Theodore Roosevelt set aside a portion of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation in 1906 to establish Mesa Verde National Park to preserve the cliff dwellings of the ancestral Puebloans. However, outside the boundaries of the national park there are also many ruins in the Ute Tribal Park. Each ruin has been given a unique name for identity.
The seven of us ventured into Mancos Canyon on the Ute Tribal Park for a four-day rustic camping trip to visit some of these fascinating cliff houses.
Gary McMahan (cowboy singer, yodeler and story-teller extraordinaire) accompanied us, and entertained everyone with cowboy tales as we rode along the river and enjoyed the scenery. We followed the same route that the Wetherills took, and we stopped for lunch just below Sandal House. Climbing up to the site, we had a great view of the Mancos River, and we found pottery pieces and soot marks from ancient fires. During the ride to camp that first day, we saw wild horses and cattle that eyed us suspiciously but kept their distance.
Camp was on the Mancos River just below Soda Point and consisted of wall tents with cots, a chuckwagon and cook tent complete with sassy cook, campfire ring and a corral for the horses.
After supper, Gary McMahan wooed us with his guitar at the campfire. There’s nothing like a cowboy’s yodel bouncing off the canyon walls.
The second day we rode to a trailhead, left the horses with the wrangler and hiked up to Two-Story House with our Indian guide, Ricky Hays. It was a strenuous hike up a steep incline with breathtaking views and pottery shards littering the trail. We had to use the hand and toe holds to climb into the dwelling area, and the view was incredible. Camp below looked like an ant colony, and we were almost eye-level with Soda Point. This was the first cliff dwelling that William Henry Jackson photographed back in 1874 during the Hayden Survey Party. It was awesome standing in the same place he made the photo 118 years ago, not to mention the same place the ancestral Puebloans stood 800 years ago. After the hike down, we mounted our horses and rode up Soda Canyon to see Ute rock paintings, Nordenskiöld House (named for Swedish photographer and excavator, Gustaf Nordenskiöld) and Hemenway House (named for Mary Hemenway, an early proponent of preserving the cliff dwellings).
Back at camp, we ventured down to the Mancos River to splash around and rinse off some dust. That evening, McMahan did his cowboy entertaining again. He had us alternately engrossed, charmed and laughing at his real-life songs and stories. We couldn’t have had a better ending to a better day.
The next morning in camp, as I photographed the warm glow of the sun moving down the canyon walls on Soda Point and Two-Story House, I caught movement coming from behind the horse corral. I saw a gorgeous wild paint horse stop and eye me. He had come to check out our horses but lost interest when he saw there were no mares. I turned my camera on him and got a great shot. He continued snorting at me even after he was out of sight.
After breakfast, Hays showed us petroglyphs (ancient etchings on rock faces), which included a migration story and a spiral that is bisected by the shadow of a rock on the winter solstice. Then he took us to Lion Canyon, which is full of ruins. We visited Tree House, which has an amazing round tower and grooves where the ancient ones sharpened their stone tools. Potsherds and tiny corncobs were lying around. There also were inscriptions from Al and John Wetherill, dated 1888 and 1890, respectively.
At the end of the trail, we saw Eagle’s Nest perched up on a ledge – a silent sentinel nestled under an overhanging cliff. We climbed a 32-foot ladder to get up on the narrow ledge that led around to the ruin. While we were in Eagle’s Nest ruin, Hays sang a song in Ute language. It reverberated off the walls and in the canyon and left us all speechless.
We were all pretty quiet on the way back to camp, absorbing what we had experienced in this canyon. We turned in early that night and slept well after three days of riding, hiking and partaking of the history and energy of the canyon.
The morning of the fourth day, we saddled up and rode back up the river to “civilization.” Our escapade felt like a trip to another time and another world.
Lynne Belle Lewis is co-owner of Rimrock Outfitters with her husband, Perry Lewis.