CORTEZ – Like the ancient cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde, Native Americans once lived in pueblos around the base of the Castle Rock butte in McElmo Canyon.
Though not nearly so well known as their Mesa Verde brethren, the history of these pueblo people is becoming better known since Castle Rock and the contiguous Sand Canyon Trail were declared part of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument about 10 years ago.
There’s so much foot traffic now that visitors are asked to stay off ruins that were accessible to the public less than two years ago.
Still, Canyons of the Ancients receives only a fraction of the visitors compared to Mesa Verde National Park – about 20,000 annually for Sand Canyon compared with 700,0000-plus for Mesa Verde – but it’s also a very different experience.
To compare it with skiing, Mesa Verde is like taking a lift to the top of a commercial slope, whereas Canyons of the Ancients is more like trekking uphill in the backcountry.
The Sand Canyon Trail might be home to thousands of archaeological sites, but there are no interpretative signs, restrooms or pavement. Visitors are asked to leave the area as they found it.
Victoria Atkins, supervisor for interpretation at Canyons of the Ancients, thinks less is more, especially for the imagination.
“I think it’s a little bit easier to time-travel, to close my eyes and think about what this place might have looked like 800 years ago,” Atkins said. “To me, that’s easier to do with fewer people. I like the subtle, the less-visited and the opportunity to use my imagination a little bit.”
This is not a knock against Mesa Verde, which is a World Heritage site after all. Visitors there can see preserved palace-style structures against the breathtaking backdrop of cliffs.
“I think everybody should have Mesa Verde on their bucket list,” Atkins said. “It’s one of those incredible places.”
But people should be aware there are trade-offs.
At Mesa Verde, “you don’t have to worry about peeing in the woods, but you do have to worry about standing in line,” she said.
‘They were us’
A hundred or so Native Americans are estimated to have lived on both sides of Castle Rock from 1100 to 1300, when the cliff dwellers lived at Mesa Verde.
Like ancient Puebloans throughout the region, Castle Rock inhabitants gathered and performed religious rites in kivas, the round and heated living rooms of the pueblos. Archaeologists have counted at least 16 kivas at the site.
Today, the remnants of this ancient pueblo near Cortez is across County Road G from Sutcliffe Vineyard, known for its merlots, but these pueblo people enjoyed their produce, too, likely cultivating the “Three Sisters” of squash, beans and corn that fueled their civilization. Ancient structures found on isolated stretches of canyon alcoves have been given names such as “Corn Cob House” for their kitchen litter.
To get a reference point, Mesa Verde National Park might be good to visit first before venturing off to the Sand Canyon, where the archaeological treasures are not as obvious to the untrained eye.
The visible remnants of the Castle Rock pueblo, for example, are scattered stones at the base of the butte. The outline of the walls are evident beneath the surface, but archaeologists don’t want to disturb the site if they don’t have to, explained Vince Macmillan, archaeologist for the Anasazi Heritage Center and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.
In the early 1990s, archaeologists from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center excavated less than 10 percent of the site, but it was enough to answer most of their questions. They were able to date the occupation from tree-ring samples they found, Macmillan said.
For the less astute, the Anasazi Heritage Center and Monument Headquarters in Dolores can explain more about what their life was like.
There, visitors can see a timeline of Native American history, showing the transition from the hunter-and-gatherer periods, when they hunted big game such as woolly mammoths, to the agricultural rise of the pueblo people.
There are artifacts from the Sand Canyon pueblo, such as mugs, most likely for drinking water or broth. They did not have coffee then, Atkins said.
Visitors also can see a re-creation of the inside of a kiva and understand how the ventilation system worked.
Displays of turkey-feathered robes show how the pueblo people stayed warm during the winter. They preserved their feet by weaving sandals from yucca leaves. Wild yuccas decorate trails at Sand Canyon
Interpretative signs at the center convey a human connection to the pueblo people. Much like families do today, they expanded their pueblos to make room for a baby or an aging parent.
“They weren’t them,” Atkins said. “They were us.”
Native Americans believe their ancestors’ spirits still inhabit the area. Films at the heritage center urge visitors to treat the artifacts with respect.
When you go
From the Heritage Center, the Sand Canyon Trail is about 20 miles away. Some visitors parktheir cars at the north and south trailheads of the Sand Canyon Trail because it’s about 6½ miles long, a 13-mile round trip.
Because parking is limited, visitors are advised to avoid busy times such as weekends, if possible. Sand Canyon also is very popular with mountain bikers and hikers out to enjoy the scenery.
For the geologically inclined, the same pressures and water sources responsible for sculpting Arches National Park in nearby Moab, Utah, also formed the alcoves at Sand Canyon.
“It’s the exact same rock that’s up in Arches, and it was all laid down the same time geologically,” Macmillan said.
For many visitors to Sand Canyon, the archaeology is “the frosting on the cake,” Atkins said.
It’s thrilling to stumble upon a ruin nestled in a natural alcove. Yet visitors used to going up and standing behind a wall now are asked to enjoy it from a distance. Visitors, for instance, are asked not to touch the Saddlehorn Pueblo, believed to be the remnants of a kiva and storage room, which was accessible to the public as recent as June 2010 when the guidelines of the management plan changed.
Officials recognize that it’s frustrating for visitors to be told not to do something they are used to doing, but they worry about ancient walls collapsing under so much attention.
Macmillan said the strain on the ruins was quickly becoming evident.
Because officials don’t have the manpower to protect every site, visitors are trusted to stick to the trail. Volunteers check in on archaeological sites, but officials say have to worry more about managing the landscape than particular sites.
Besides visitors, the area also must accommodate cattle grazing and energy interests.
McElmo Canyon is a big depository of carbon-dioxide gas, Macmillan said. The gas is useful for extracting petroleum. Three wellheads will mine the area for carbon dioxide at a pit about eight miles from Castle Rock.
Still, Atkins said, human visitors are causing the most stress on the archaeology of Sand Canyon.
“The trick is to find that balance so we as a group don’t love it to death,” Atkins said.