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The Best of Mesa Verde Country Colorado

Southwest Colorado, in the Montezuma Valley, is an enchanting high desert region with diverse and breath-taking landscapes. The area was home to the Ancestral Puebloans and is rich in history, from fascinating Native American archaeological sites and ruins, to Spanish trails and old west heritage. The Montezuma Valley offers visitors a unique destination with amazing cultural, outdoor and urban attractions.

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The Ancestral Puebloans or Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as "the ancient foreigners," lived in Colorado's southwest from about AD 550 to 1285. They initially lived in what is called a pithouse that was built underground to stay cool in summer and warm in winter, not to mention the specific entrance design was also defensible.

For about the last 100-years that the Ancestral Puebloans lived in the region, they moved from the valley and built amazing, elaborate stone communities in the canyon walls or cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde. After 700-years of living and flourishing in the region, the Ancestral Puebloans moved away. Archeologists believe the reason for their mass migration from the region may have been a culmination of drought and the influx of other tribes; it is still a bit of a mystery. Today, many of the Ancient Puebloan artifacts, pithouses, kivas, pueblos and cliff dwellings have been excavated by archeologists and preserved. These incredible dwellings and artifacts provide a rich historic view into an ancient culture and are fascinating to view.

Anasazi Heritage Center

To begin a tour of the Ancestral Puebloan sites and ruins in Mesa Verde Country, an excellent place to begin is the Anasazi Heritage Center, located just 10-miles North of Cortez. The Heritage Center, a Bureau of Land Management Museum, was initially built to house the 1.5 million artifacts discovered on the Dolores Archaeological Project during the construction of McPhee Dam and Reservoir in the '80s. With the enormous amount of artifacts today, about 3.8-million and archeological information, the center features a wealth of intriguing exhibits and a timeline of the Ancestral Puebloans. There is a recreation of a pithouse, hands-on exhibits, numerous display cases filled with artifacts, computer stations and a host of experiential early archeology exhibits and much more.

In addition, visitors will find the Dominguez Pueblo, located in front of the center. The four-room structure is visible and dates back to about 1123. The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition of 1776 set out from New Mexico to find a safe route to California. Many Spanish explorers were seeking alternative routes to avoid the Mohave Desert and consequently found many Native American sites along their journeys.

Escalante Pueblo

To reach the Escalante Pueblo and see stellar views of the reservoir and San Juan National Forest, take the paved, quarter-mile path up the hill to the left of the center. As you ascend, there are also great views of the Sleeping Ute Mountain. The Escalante Pueblo was originally built in about AD 1129 and is much larger the Dominguez site. Visitors are able to walk around the ancient outlier village to see the kiva (a round meeting space) and individual rooms. It is interesting to see the smooth and almost perfectly shaped stones that make up the structure of the kiva and rooms, as the Ancestral Puebloans had to take sharper stones and basically chip the stones used for the pueblo rooms by hand. They also used wood poles in between the stones, as builders would use rebar in construction today.

Lowery Pueblo

The 1,000-year-old Lowery Pueblo, located in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is especially riveting due to the village's size, 40 rooms, Kivas and the construction of the Great Kiva where many tribes would meet. If you look down Inside of the Great Kiva, two large stone figures lay adjacent to each other; unusual for most kivas. When visitors explore the central rooms at Lowery, they have to duck, as the entrances were built to accommodate people that were only as tall as 5'1" for females and 5'3" for males. Once inside, it is astonishing to see the construction of the rooms with no two alike and wonder what it must have been like to live in these energy efficient stone spaces. In several of the kivas with murals, you can still see the painted plaster. Further, Lowey Pueblo is a scenic drive from Cortez or the Anasazi Heritage Center and is a wonderful place to bring a lunch with picnic tables located in several areas.

Hovenweep National Monument

The Towers of Hovenweep National Monument, also located in the Canyons of the Ancients, are magnificent in their design and construction. From Cortez, it is about 43-miles; however, for some spectacular diverse scenery, an old abandoned trading post and the excellent Guy Drew Winery, take County Road G, McElmo Canyon. Once at Hovenweep, visitors will find a wonderful Visitor's Center that provides information on the monument and a nice little gift shop.

From the VC, there is a paved path (wheel-chair accessible for a part of the path) that loops around the rim and leads to the amazing view points for the dwellings, such as Twin Towers and Hovenweep Castle. Along the path to the viewpoints, the rim is bracketed with eye-catching pinion juniper forest, pointera plants and sagebrush living on cryptogrammic crust (organic biological soil and fragile) that makes for great desert walk and scenic photography.

The pueblos range from tower shaped to a square configuration and they seem precariously perched in some cases on and under the sandstone bluffs. It is astonishing to see the aesthetic design the Ancestral Puebloans incorporated into these robust structures. They are amazing to view in their symmetry and to contemplate what it must have been like to live in these pueblos, as well as gain entrance. In many cases, access to these pueblos were by hand-and-toe holds chipped into the rock.

If you plan on visiting Hovenweep, plan on a few hours; if you're in an RV or want to camp, the park provides primitive campsites that are fee-based. It is worth it to camp at the monument, as the night sky is magically illuminated with brilliant stars and no light pollution as far as the eye can see. Hovenweep National Monument.

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is famous for its Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. The park includes over 4,500 archeological sites, yet only 600 are cliff Dwellings. The Ancestral Puebloans only lived on the cliffs and farmed on the Mesa for about the last 100-years before they disappeared from Southwestern Colorado. These cliff dwellings, especially the Cliff Palace pueblo is the most intact of the visible sites provides a glimpse of the ancient culture and how they lived. If you go, make sure to contact the visitor's center for guided tours and tickets. Hiking, backpacking and biking are permitted in the park but no camping; however, the Morefield Campground located close by.

Mesa Verde Country

Mesa Verde Country is rich in Ancestral Puebloan monuments and sites. With the Anasazi Heritage Center, Lowery Pueblo, Hovenweep National Monument and the famous Mesa Verde National Park, it is a good idea to make a planned tour of the sites to make the most of your visit. Mesa Verde Country created a fantastic free downloadable Ancient Voices podcast for visitors that is a digital audio tour of Southwestern Colorado's antiquities. It was made to listen to while you drive providing directions and valuable information on the sites; the tour is available in two segments. For information on Mesa Verde Country, Ancestral Puebloan monuments, heritage sites and the Ancient Voices Podcast, visit Mesa Verde Country.

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Patrice RapleePatrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular correspondent for travel radio shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her articles and photographs have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure. Visit her website Travel-Excursion for more information. put bio here

October 31, 2017

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