Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

9 Spectacular Ancient Ruins In The Four Corners Area Worth A Visit

Thousands of ancient ruins lay scattered all over the US Southwest, especially in the Four Corners area.

The high deserts of the Colorado Plateau where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona meet feature a spectacular landscape, filled with gorgeous rock formations visible for miles.And yet, the geological wonders tell only part of the story of this landscape. Home to some of the largest and most spectacular ancient ruins in the US, the Four Corners area has a rich cultural background.

The dry environment of the Colorado Plateau preserved the structures the ancient cultures built. Besides cliff dwellings and ancient pueblo structures, you’ll find potsherds thousands of years old, laying on the dry rocky surface. All you have to do is look under your feet. No need to even dig for them.

But as tempting as it may be, the right thing to do is to not even touch them.

Cultural and archaeological sites are sacred for the indigenous people of the Southwest and part of their history. By leaving things as we find them, we show respect to those who left them behind and for their descendants, and allow those who come after us to see them.

Ancient Cultures Of The Four Corners

The Four Corners region was the center of a complex civilization that flourished here for several centuries.

People who lived here were the ancestors of several modern-day Native people of the area. The largest group of the ancient cultures of the Four Corners region were the Ancestral Puebloans.

Early archaeologists didn’t know who built the ancient structures. So, for lack of a better name, they adopted the name the Diné (Navajo) called them: Anasazi, translated as “old people”, or “ancient non-Diné”.

However, as they understood the connection between the modern-day Pueblo people and those who built the spectacular ruins in the Four Corners, they changed the terminology to Ancestral Puebloans.

The name Ancestral Puebloan refers to both the ancient cultural tradition and the people who once lived here.

They were not a homogenized group of people though. The differences in architectural style, pottery, and sizes of settlements prove their cultural diversity.

Modern Connections to the Past

Today, the descendants of these ancient people still live in the area. Many of them have a strong connection to the cultural sites.

The Pueblo people still celebrate the sites and histories of the Ancestral Puebloan culture in song and prayer. They even perform some at the sites, even for visitors.

So, if you time your visit right, you might see traditional celebrations and dances when visiting the following sites.

1. Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde National Park is the most famous of the ancient ruins in the Four Corners.
Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde

Probably the most famous of the ancient ruins in the Four Corners, Mesa Verde is known all over the world for its spectacular cliff dwellings.

But those famous cliff dwellings are only a part of a huge concentration of ancient pueblo dwellings. Archaeologists recorded over 4,000 sites built between the 6th to the 12th centuries within the boundaries of Mesa Verde National Park.

Besides the cliff dwellings, they also include ancient villages built on the mesa top.

Protected since 1906, Mesa Verde was the first archaeological site designated as a National Park. It is also a UNESCO Heritage Site, designated for its outstanding universal value.

Ancient Structures at Mesa Verde

The most spectacular and best-known structure in the park, Cliff Palace, is an architectural masterpiece. Once home to over 100 people, it was built between 1190 and 1280 AD. Featuring 115 rooms and 28 kivas, it is the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

Other cliff dwellings in the park include Long House, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Step House.

Besides the cliff dwellings the park is famous for, it also features several, much older, mesa top sites. These include early pit houses, ceremonial kivas, and towers.

The Ancestral Pueblo People in Mesa Verde

The Ancestral Pueblo people lived in the communities of Mesa Verde for about 700 years.

Some of the earliest villages, built on the mesa top, date from around 775 AD. During the next hundred years, many of the Ancestral pueblos migrated to the Mesa Verde region, establishing larger communities.

At its height, by around 875, Mesa Verde housed about 12,000 people, clustered in villages. This large concentration of population lasted about two generations, after which people moved away.

By the end of the ninth century, the elaborate structures were empty.

How to Visit the Ancient Ruins at Mesa Verde

While you can visit the mesa-top sites and Step House as a self-guided tour, you need to join a ticketed tour for all other cliff dwellings.

It is also best to buy tickets ahead of time. You can do this either online onrecreation.govor by calling 877-444-6777. You can buy them 14 days in advance, and since the demand is high, I recommend to try to get them early.

However, you can still enter the park and visit the mesa top sites without them.

2. Chaco

Chaco Ruins are considered the most important of all the ancient ruins in the Four Corners.
Cliff dwelling on the sides of Montezuma Well

Chaco Canyon, home to one of the largest concentration of large-scale ruins in the Four Corners, was home to the same Ancestral Puebloans.

From an archaeological standpoint, Chaco is considered the most important of the ancient ruins in the Four Corners. The site’s monumental ceremonial and public buildings with a distinct architecture mark it as an ancient ceremonial, political, and trade center.

But people lived in Chaco Canyon long before it became this remarkable center. The canyon is home to over 4,000 archaeological sites, both historic and prehistoric, representing over 10,000 years of human history.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park preserves these ruins and allows visitors to enjoy them and learn about them. Besides being a US National Park, the archaeological site is also a designated UNESO Heritage site since 1987, recognized for its universal value.

Major Structures in Chaco Canyon

Chaco’s unique structures are its Great Houses, several of them standing in the Canyon. Their architectural design allowed for some of the grandest structures in the Four Corners, and all the Southwest.

Featuring hundreds of multi-story interlocking rooms, several kivas, and smaller structures, they were often aligned to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. They are unique to Chaco Canyon, and several other sites influenced by it, sites archaeologists call Chacoan outliers.

The largest and most impressive of these Great Houses is Pueblo Bonito. Built in stages between 850 and 1150, it features over 650 rooms and 35 kivas. This makes it by far the largest one and marks it as the center not only of Chaco Canyon, but all the Southwest.

Chetro Ketl, the second largest, features a unique elevated kiva, while the smaller Hungo Pavi comprises about 100 rooms.

Besides the Great Houses, Chaco is home to the largest kiva in the Southwest in Casa Rinconada.

Petroglyphs fill the walls of the canyon between Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl.

The Ancestral Puebloans in Chaco Canyon

Archaeological evidence suggests that Chaco Canyon was home to thousands of people, from as far back as 900 BC and probably before. They built pit houses around 200 AD, but wasn’t until the 700s when they started building larger structures, including the Great Houses.

Between 850 – 1150, Chaco Canyon was a major cultural, political, and astronomical center of the Ancestral Pueblo culture. It served as a hub for ceremonies, trade, and administration in the Four Corners area.

This was the time they constructed their monumental buildings with distinctive architectural features; This was the time they became known for their achievements in arts and astronomy.

The Ancestral Puebloans stopped building Great Houses in Chaco Canyon in 1150 and started migrating to other areas of the US Southwest.

They eventually settled and became the modern Pueblo nations. Many of these modern Pueblo people, the Hopi among them, maintain strong connections with Chaco even today.

How To Visit the Ruins in Chaco Canyon

You can only reach Chaco Culture National Park through dirt roads. The easiest way to get there is from Hwy 57 (or Hwy 14). The turnoff is on Highway 9, 13 miles east of Highway 371.

You know you reached the park when you drive on pavement again. The first stop in the park is the Visitor Center, also housing a museum and an observatory. A trail from here leads to the smallest of the Great Houses, the unexcavated Una Vida.

Past the Visitor Center area, follow the 9-mile one-way loop road through the sites. You’ll reach Hungo Pavi, then Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Bonito on the way in. Stop at each, and also try to take the Petroglyph Trail. At the far side of the loop, you can stop and hike to Klin Kletso, and up to the mesa top for a great view of the valley.

On the way out, on the other side of the loop, you’ll find Casa Rinconada with the largest kiva at the site.

Though each structure is worth a stop, the one you can’t miss is Pueblo Bonito; make sure you spend some time exploring it.

However, keep in mind that past the Visitor Center, you won’t find food, water, or bathrooms. You won’t find shade either, so wear a hat, carry water and use sunscreen.

3. Aztec Ruins

Aztec Ruins, New Mexico, US Southwest

Part of the same UNESCO Heritage site as Chaco, Aztec Ruins started out as an outlier of the larger Chaco.

Eventually, though, it became the largest Ancestral Pueblo Community in the Animas River Valley. The community here was its largest around the time people were leaving Chaco, between 1100 and 1300.

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey, a stop of about 200 years. During that time, they built a Great House similar to those in Chaco.

Protected as part of Aztec Ruins National Park, the ancient structures offer a glimpse into the lives of the Ancient Pueblo people. A self-guided trail leads through the site, and through the Great House you can enter and walk through its rooms.

The structure unique to Aztec Ruins is the reconstructed Great Kiva. The work of Earl Morris and his crew, the covered ceremonial kiva is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind. It looks as close to the original as the renowned archaeologist imagined it.

For a full experience, the Park System set it up with native drums playing as you enter (at the push of a button).

The interpretive guide of the half-mile trail through the structures combines the archaeological findings and the traditional Native perspectives.

4. Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock: Great Kiva and Great House with the rock pillars.
Chimney Rock, kiva and Great House with the rock pillars.

Another Chacoan outlier, Chimney Rock archaeological site, lies on the southern edge of the San Juan Mountains, in Colorado.

Centered around two natural stone pillars, this site has a special connection to the moon cycle. Specifically, during the winter solstice of each Major Lunar Standstill, from the site the moon is seen as rising between the two pillars.

The Major Lunar Standstill, or MLS, happens every 18.6 years, and it means that for three consecutive years the moon rises in the same spot.

The Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco built their village at this high elevation to be able to see this phenomenon.

The site preserves 200 ancient homes and ceremonial buildings, a Chaco-style Great House, a Great Kiva, multi-family dwellings, and pit houses.

Laying at the highest elevation of all the Chacoan sites, and of all the ancient ruins in the Four Corners, Chimney Rock is at about 7,000 feet above sea level. From up here, the people of Chimney Rock could communicate with Chaco through fire signals, using another outlier site as the interim.

You’ll find two separate sites when you visit; the more elaborate one is on the higher ground, closest to the rock pillars, with a direct view of them. This was the ceremonial site, and home to people higher in hierarchy. Lower on the mountain, you’ll walk through a village, with several pit houses.

Archaeoastronomers helped establish the age of the structures in the Chimney Rock Great House, with the added evidence of MLS dates. Some wood samples date from 1076, a year MLS was visible. Others date from 1093-1094, another MLS date, when they possibly added more elaborate structures.

5. Hovenweep

The Hovenweep Castle
The Hovenweep Castle

The Ancestral Puebloans who built Hovenweep were closely associated with the people of Mesa Verde. Hovenweep National Monument preserves six of the prehistoric villages built between 1200 and 1300, spread over twenty miles on mesa tops and canyons.

The easiest ancient village to visit is the Square Tower Group, near the Hovenweep Visitor Center.

The other sites are off dirt roads, sometimes impassable, often closed. If you plan on visiting them, you need to ask the rangers for a map and directions, since you can’t rely on GPS in the area.

However, the site near the Visitor Center has the most spectacular structures of the site.

The Square Tower Group is the largest of the villages, with the most structures at Hovenweep. Once home to about 500 people, it features nearly thirty kivas, several towers and other structures in and around Little Ruins Canyon.

The two-mile long Square Tower Loop Trail is a perfect way to explore these structures. You’ll walk by the Hovenweep Castle, the largest structure on the rim of the canyon, and several others.

You’ll also see the three-story Square Tower for which the group is named, at the head of the canyon. Its unique location and shape, different from all other structures, led archaeologists to believe it was a ceremonial structure.

6. Lowry Pueblo in Canyons of the Ancients

Lowry Pueblo Big House
The Lowry Pueblo Big House

A Chacoan outlier, Lowry Pueblo features a Great House with about 40 rooms and eight kivas.

Built in about 1060, the village is famous for the four painted kivas found inside the Great House. Though no longer clear, the design on the walls of these kivas featured elements found on the pottery and petroglyphs in the area.

The Great House, covered by a protective metal sheet, is open to walk through. Though you can’t enter the Painted Kivas, you can still see them from the adjacent rooms.

Besides this extensive structure, the ancient pueblo also features a Great Kiva, one of the largest in the Four Corners.

Lowry Pueblo is the largest site in Canyons of the Ancients, an important archaeological area in the Four Corners.

Archaeologists estimate the number of sites in Canyons of the Ancients to be around 30,000, of which they recorded 6.000. These include remnants of villages, cliff dwellings, kivas, great houses, and petroglyphs.

7. Edge of the Cedars

Edge of the Cedars structure
Edge of the Cedars

Housing the largest collection of Ancestral Puebloan pottery on display, Edge of the Cedars State Park in Utah showcases an ancient Pueblo agricultural village.

The archaeological site is small compared to the others mentioned above; however, the artifacts displayed in the museum make up for the brief visit to the site.

Home to the Ancestral Puebloan people between AD 825 and 1225, the pueblo features the remains of several buildings, and a covered kiva.

Their most unique artifact is a macaw feather sash, dating from AD 1150. Made from scarlet macaw feathers, native to Mexico, it proves the theory that the Ancestral Puebloans had contact with the Aztecs from Mexico, thousands of miles south of their home.

You’ll find the ancient village and museum in Blanding, Utah. A short, paved interpretive trail leads through the ancient structures behind the museum housing the artifacts.

Its name doesn’t reflect its importance though, and despite what it suggests, you won’t find cedars nearby. However, it is on the edge of a forested area – filled with Utah junipers – near a barren section of the desert.

8. Betatakin and Keet Seel

View of the ruins of Betatakin
View of Betatakin from the Rim Trail

Some of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the Four Corners area are hard to reach. Betatakin, Keet Seel, and Inscription House require you to join a guided tour to visit them.

However, you can still see Betatakin from the overlook on the Rim Trail starting near the Visitor Center.

Protected as part of the Navajo National Monument, these cliff dwellings are architectural masterpieces of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Betatakin, built between 1260 – 1270 in a huge alcove with its own fresh-water spring. had 120 rooms. We can still see 80, even from the Rim Trail overlook.

You can reach the park from a turnoff of US-160 E, 29 miles from Kayenta, and 63 miles from Tuba City, both towns on the Navajo Nation, in Arizona. The closest city off the Navajo Nation is Flagstaff, Arizona, 139 miles away.

9. Ancient Ruins in Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly. White House Ruins
Ancient Ruins in Canyon de Chelly.

Canyon de Chellyis also home to many cliff dwellings. Protected as part of the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, they adorn the canyon walls and bottom in several areas.

The best-known and easiest to access, White House Ruin, lays in an alcove on the bottom of the canyon. At the end of a trail near the Visitor Center, it was the only one accessible without a guide (until recently).

The name White House comes from the white plaster still visible on the back wall of the upper part of the cliff dwelling. Scholars believe it was home to about 100 people between 1060 and 1275.

Note: The White House Ruins Trail is closed until further notice.

Several other cliff dwellings are visible from different overlook. You’ll see the largest if these, Mummy Cave, from the overlook in Canyon del Muerto. Featuring about 70 rooms and three kivas, the site was once home to about 60-75 people, between 600 AD to 1275.

Antelope House Ruins lays inside a crevice on the side of Canyon del Muerto as well, visible from a different overlook.

Though you can see these ruins from the overlooks, you can get closer to them by joining a guided tour, or hiring a local guide. They offer either hiking or driving tours to the sites.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, and you can reach it via I-40.

Tips on Visiting the Ancient Ruins in the Four Corners Area

When visiting any of the ancient ruins in the Four Corners, keep in mind that the people who built them are ancestors of the present-day Native people of the Southwest. Please be respectful of this.

For those of us with no connections to them, these places and their stories may be an interesting piece of history.

However, for the descendants of people who built them they are part of their cultural inheritance. By learning about their history and protecting and respecting these sites, we also learn about the Native people of the area, and are richer for the experience.

Always follow Leave No Trace practices when you visit the parks. Treat the sites with respect, and don’t touch the structures, since oils from our skin can damage them.

For your own safety practices, remember that when visiting the ruins of the Four Corners, you are in the high desert of the Color Plateau. This means low humidity and little or non-existent shade, and high temperatures in the summer.

The best times to visit most of these sites are the shoulder seasons, spring and fall, since winters can be cold, and summers extremely hot. Avoid the midday sun in the summer, and no matter when you go, carry plenty of water and wear sun protection.

FAQ: About Ancient Ruins In The Four Corners

  1. What type of ancient ruins can you find in the Four Corners?

    The archaeological sites and ancient ruins in the Four Corners region are famous for their cliff dwellings. However, they are not the only structures you can find here. The area is also known for the Chacoan Great Houses, multi-story buildings featuring interconnected rooms, and several kivas. Besides these, you’ll also find towers, pueblo-style structures, and ancient pit houses in the area.

  2. When were the ancient ruins in the Four Corners built?

    The best-known, most spectacular ancient structures in the Four Corners date from between about 850 and 1250. However, some remnants of structures in the area date from as early as 350 BC.

  3. Who built the ancient ruins in the Four Corners?

    Most of the ancient ruins in the Four Corners were built by the Ancestral Pueblo people, ancestors of several of today’s modern Pueblo people.

Ancient Ruins in Four Corners
Ancient Ruins in the Four Corners area of the US
Ancient Ruins in the Four Corners area

Bibliography:

Besides learning about these sites when visiting them, some of the background information I used in the article is the result of years of reading about the archaeology of the US Southwest.

The following are several of the books I used over the years:

  • Thomas, David Hurst, Exploring Native North America, Oxford University Press, 2001
  • Lamb, Susan, Mesa Verde. Life/Earth/Sky, Sierra Press, Mariposa, CA, 2001
  • Neitzel, Jill E.editor, Pueblo Bonito, Center of the Chacoan World, Smithsonian Institute, 2003
  • Strutin, Michal, Chaco. A Cultural Legacy, Western National Parks Association, Tucson, Arizona, 1994.
  • Crown, Patricia L., Judge, James W.,editors, Chaco & Hohokam. Prehistoric Regional Systems in the American Southwest, School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1991.
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