Canyon of the Ancients National Monument

In Adventure, Colorado, Guides, National Monuments, RV, Travel, Utah
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Canyon of the Ancients national monument

Located right along side of Hovenweep National Monument is Canyon of the Ancients.  Currently the monument is listed as having the largest concentration of archeological sites in the United States.  And unlike Hovenweep which has well marked locations to visit, Canyon of the Ancients has very few marked locations on any map. With thousands of archeological sites the marked locations account for less than one percent of what there is to see.  According to the BLM’s own site:

Auto routes through the Monument are few; most roads are unpaved and rough. Most of the archaeological sites in this “outdoor museum” are not apparent to the untrained eye, and precise locations are not publicized. This is a place to explore on your own.

How long could you spend wandering the canyons in this area?  Probably more time then you planned for.  But that’s okay.  The marked sites offer some amazing ruins, and if you’re ready to hike you can explore until your heart is content.

The most well know sites in Canyon of the Ancients are Lowry Pueblo, Painted Hand, and Sand Canyon.  You can even find directions to each on Google Maps.  And if you’re headed into Hovenweep from Cortez Colorado you’ll most likely be driving right by the Painted Hand location.

The Great Kiva at Lowry

Lowry pueblo

This amazing location is located 27 miles northwest of Cortez.  It takes you further away from Hovenweep and the rest of the locations in Canyon of the Ancients.  When I first visited the location I made a day trip out of it, visited Lowry first, and then made my way south to Painted Hand.

The main building is still intact, however in order to preserve the site a roof has been constructed over the main building.  This does not make for the greatest photo opportunities, but with a little creativity you can come away with some compelling images all the same.

In addition to the “Great House,” there is also a Great Kiva located at the Lowry site.  In the case of this Great Kiva, it is much larger than others in the surrounding area.

According to the BLM and archeologists who have done extensive research in the area, the Great House and Great Kiva’s masonry are similar to that of Chaco Canyon’s, over 100 miles to the south in New Mexico.

Painted Hand

If you’re heading to Hovenweep from Cortez and you take the route from BB road, Painted Hand can be a stop on your way into the Hovenweep National Monument.  It located off of the main road to Hovenweep on a small double track dirt road.  The road is rough, but we’ve seen plenty of 2 wheel drive vehicles over the years heading in and out.  Still, if you have a 4WD high clearance vehicle it would be best to use it to access the site.

Painted Hand Tower
Painted Hand Tower

The Painted Hand Tower is a remarkable site to see.  A short walk from the parking area will allow visitors an initial view of the tower, and in under 10 minutes you can be at the ruin location.  Sadly, the reason for its name has faded over time.  Under the tower itself there was once a very visible painted hand.  In 2006 I had the opportunity to visit the tower and see the painted hand underneath.  In 2013 on a return trip I found the hand to be almost invisible!

Walking around the site and following a well marked path visitors will see many washes.  And in the washes you can often find pottery pieces.  With each visit we’ve identified many pottery shards in the washes.  And anything you see and find needs to remain at the site.  It is a crime to carry away anything from all of the locations you visit here, even if the items you find are being washed away over time!

The first image on this article is of the Painted Hand Tower.

Sand Canyon

Finally, another well marked ruin location is located in Sand Canyon.  This location is actually the shortest drive from Cortez Colorado, but it does not lead to Hovenweep or the other ruins in Canyon of the Ancients.  Visitors can set off from the south of Sand Canyon on a multi-mile hike, or you can access the main ruin site coming in from the north.  If you’re short on time, or short on breath with the higher altitude we’d recommend coming in from the north (Road P to Road N).

Sand Canyon makes for a wonderful day hike.
Sand Canyon makes for a wonderful day hike.

Sand Canyon Pueblo was one of the largest settlements in the area.  But today you wouldn’t know that at all.  Hiking in from the north parking lot you quickly arrive at a trail going around each side of the ruins.  Today you will find the masonry bricks lying in heaps.  There are informational signs as you walk through the ruins telling you about the kivas and dwellings that were once there.  But today the area is over grown and you will not see full structures at the location.  It’s still a worthwhile visit though, as the canyon itself is something to see, and the informational signs fill you in on the history of the region.

Explore on your own

Finally, there is always the option of exploring Canyon of the Ancients on your own.  Pull offs are abundant as you travel through the National Monument, and canyons are all around you.  If you choose to venture out in search of unmarked ruins, please keep your personal safety in mind.  We would recommend a GPS at minimum when hiking out, plenty of water, and a map of the area as well (you can acquire maps at the Anasazi Heritage Museum located outside Dolores Colorado).

When we venture out into the unknown was always carry a GPS, small medical kit, a satellite messenger in case we have an emergency, and a HAM radio.  Maybe we’re overly cautious, but I think adventures should be fun, and if things get difficult you should be prepared!

Camping Options

  • Hovenweep National Monument: There is a small campground near the Ranger Station. There are several RV sites, and several tent sites as well. This is “dry camping” and the park lists “generator” hours if you travel with a generator. $10.00 per night

    Cortez Colorado Camping

  • LaMesa RV Park: Located in Cortez Colorado, LaMesa is a 45 mile drive to the main park. They offer nightly, weekly, and monthly rates.
  • Sundance RV Park: Located in Cortez Colorado, Sundance is a 43 mile drive to the main park. They offer nightly, weekly, and monthly rates.
  • KOA Cortez: Located in Cortez Colorado, KOA is a 47 mile drive to the main park. They offer nightly, weekly, and monthly rates.

    Dolores Colorado Camping

  • McPhee Campground, San Juan National Forest: Located outside Dolores Colorado, McPhee is right on a reservoir and offers amazing views. Max RV length is 35 ft.

Blanding / Bluff Utah Area Camping

  • Blue Mountain RV Park: Located in Blanding UT. 44 sites, Big Rig Friendly, pull thrus. 45.1 miles to Hovenweep.
  • Kampark Campground: Located in Blanding UT. 52 sites, Big Rig Friendly, pull thrus. 46 miles to Hovenweep.
  • Sand Island Campground – BLM: Located in Bluff Utah, 27 sites, Big Rig friendly, pull thrus. 45 miles to Hovenweep. $10 per night.
  • Cottonwood RV Park: Located in Bluff Utah, 39 sites, Big Rig Friendly, 15 pull thrus. 44 miles to Hovenweep.
  • Cadillac Ranch RV Park: Located in Bluff Utah, 14 sites, Big Rig Friendly, and offers nightly, weekly, and monthly rates. 42.1 miles to Hovenweep.

*There are other camping opportunities. For this particular monument we’re listing places to stay within 50 miles.  There are dispersed campsites within the monument as well.  But as they are not signed specifically BLM and there are private ranchers in the area we are leaving those off as there is a degree of uncertainty that these are “legal” sites.

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