Finding Adventure (Without the Crowds) in Utah

Avoid the masses but not the epic adventures at these breathtaking under-the-radar desert landscapes around Moab

From Jurassic-era dunes and prehistoric petroglyphs to amber-tinted cliffs and spires, Moab is an adventure traveler’s dream. Located in the heart of the Colorado Plateau, this small city in southeast Utah is one of North America’s greatest outdoor recreation hubs and a gateway to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  

Millions of years of erosion by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown dunes shaped this region’s 2,400 square miles of sandstone arches, picturesque mountain peaks, Martian-like rock formations, and colorful mesas and canyons. 

Along the Colorado River near Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountain bikers, hikers, campers, climbers, paddlers, and off-road drivers arrive in droves to explore this red rock playground in jaw-dropping numbers—more than 3 million visitors annually.

With increasing use come big problems! Overcrowding and overuse of trails, campgrounds, and recreation facilities led Arches to institute a timed entry reservation system between April and October. Other popular national parks have implemented similar measures encouraging people to come during off-peak times or explore other nearby recreation areas. 

But here’s the good news: The National Park Service (NPS) manages other parks, monuments, recreation areas, and historic areas within a day’s drive from Moab including Aztec Ruins National MonumentGlen Canyon National Recreation AreaHovenweep National MonumentMesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. About 94 percent of the land surrounding Moab is public meaning there are also plenty of lesser-visited state parks and federal recreation areas extending into the Greater Moab region to discover. 

For adventurers and nature lovers who want to see more of the great outdoors—and less of each other—here are five tips to beat the crowds and explore the elements in Moab this spring.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Get crafty about campsites

Many of the private RV parks, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and state and federally owned campgrounds demand ample planning time. Campgrounds closer to U.S. Route 191 and Utah Routes 128 and 279 along the Colorado River (The Riverway) usually fill up by mid-morning. 

Getting one of the 51 campsites at Devils Garden Campground—the only developed campsite in Arches—can be challenging without some pre-trip planning. During the high season (March 1-October 31), sites are reservable up to six months in advance. But from November 1 to February 28 when temperatures are cooler, the campground is first-come, first-served.

For fewer crowds, venture to Canyon Rims Recreation Area, an hour’s drive south of Moab on Route 191. It has two campgrounds to stage your hiking, biking, and driving adventures—Hatch Point in the north and Windwhistle in the south which rarely fills up and don’t require reservations. Be sure to stop at one of the park’s visitor centers and ranger stations to get the scoop on current park conditions and for other trail and campground suggestions.  

Camping at Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Explore public lands south of Moab

Parks closer to downtown Moab (just five miles from Arches National Park) are usually slammed with eager outdoor enthusiasts, especially during summer months. While spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October) still have crowds, they are some of the best times to score prime campsites and experience uncrowded trails, climbing routes, and iconic arches around the city.

During the busy seasons, visiting Moab can be kind of overwhelming but the public lands around Moab offer remarkable remote experiences.

With breathtaking views into Canyonlands National Park and the Colorado River 2,000 feet below, Dead Horse Point State Park, a 40-minute drive south of Moab is a highlight for hikers and photographers exploring canyon country. The park, named for an era when cowboys corralled wild mustang herds on the high mesa is also a terrific first outing for bikers new to the area. The 16-mile Intrepid Trail System offers a variety of single-track loops and slickrock (Moab’s weathered sandstone) sections that allow all ages and abilities to experience incomparable cliff-top and canyon vistas. 

Drive further south to Canyon Rims, a 100,000-acre BLM-maintained land between Moab and Monticello to peer over one of three spectacular overlooks—Anticline, Minor, and Needles. Each offers unique views of Canyonlands’ Islands in the Sky and Needles Districts and Bears Ears National Monument’s Indian Creek and Lockhart Basin sections. These sites are comparable to those seen from the rim of the Grand Canyon but without the shoulder-to-shoulder visitor experience.   

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bike away from the crowds

With its seven new non-motorized trails, updated signage, and fresh markings on existing trails plus stunning views of the Salt Valley and Arches National Park, Klondike Bluffs should be on every biker’s list. Just a 30-minute drive north of Moab, this 58-mile single-track trail on dirt and slickrock includes 26 named paths from beginner to advanced which can be combined into loops of any length. It’s the first trail that visitors pass on the way to Moab from I-70 in the north making it the most accessible for cyclists coming from Denver or Salt Lake City. 

Further into the park is the Dinosaur Stomping Grounds hiking trail which features several dinosaur trackways and individual dinosaur prints. Paleontologists believe Utah was part of an island landmass called Laramidia where a wide range of dinosaur species roamed more than 75 million years ago. 

Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan a desert road trip

Recreation areas south of Moab such as Canyon Rims and Bear Ears National Monument are usually less crowded due to fewer developed trail systems. Take a scenic drive through Utah’s vibrant vermillion canyons, over plateaus of mesas and buttes, and around the region’s open plains of grass and shrubland.

In Canyon Rims, travelers may spot pronghorn antelope near Hatch Point and can cruise to remote overlooks with breathtaking views of Canyonlands and the Colorado River.

Rather than endure the hours-long wait to see Delicate Arch in Arches, drive an hour south of Moab to reach Bear Ears’ Indian Creek Scenic Byway. This 40-mile-long route takes travelers through flat-top buttes and colossal sandstone towers. Along the way, make a pitstop at Newspaper Rock, one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the world.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike in solitude

A hike around Moab’s natural spaces reveals deep red canyons, buttes, and pinnacles. Summer brings high temperatures and midday crowds around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. To get around that, experienced adventurers plan their hikes and bike rides in the morning and evening, bringing the best sunlight for photography. To help photographers, the NPS has created a table of the park’s notable landscape features and the best time to photograph them. 

For a quieter trek outside the national parks head three miles from the Hatch Point campground in Canyon Rims to Trough Springs Canyon trail a relatively easy five-mile roundtrip hike. It starts at the top of the plateau and descends 2.5 miles into the canyon where a creek flows year-round. The path continues through the waterway’s riparian zone, riddled with tamarisk, cottonwoods, and willow. Follow the stream into the larger Kane Creek Canyon where a popular but difficult 4×4 off-road trail of the same name invites adventurers to explore. 

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Downstream, where Kane Creek approaches the Colorado River, travelers find several ancient rock art sites, including Moonflower Canyon Panel, Elephant Panel, and False Kiva. The drawings resembling bighorn sheep and hunters with spears along with crescent moons, lightning bolts, and snakes tell the story of the nomadic Puebloans (formerly called Anasazi) who briefly farmed and built dwellings and granaries—used to store squash, maize, and beans—around the region.

Even today, potsherds (or pottery fragments) can be found poking out of the sand near surviving granaries but visitors should be careful to leave these artifacts untouched.

Worth Pondering…

…the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.

—Edward Abbey, American author and former ranger at Arches National Park, on Canyonlands

Mesa Verde: A Home in the Cliffs

Some of the most remarkable structures in the U.S. are a millennium old

Imagine living in a home built into the side of a cliff. This dream-like place really does exist. Built way back in the 12th century there is a vast dwelling made up of almost 200 angular and circle-shaped rooms like something straight out of a Game of Thrones episode.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The largest of all the cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace, has about 150 rooms and more than twenty circular rooms. Due to its location it was well protected from the elements. The buildings ranged from one to four stories and some hit the natural stone ceiling. To build these structures people used stone and mud mortar along with wooden beams adapted to the natural clefts in the cliff face.

This building technique was a shift from earlier structures in the Mesa Verde area which prior to 1000 A.D. had been made primarily of adobe (bricks made of clay, sand, and straw or sticks). These stone and mortar buildings along with the decorative elements and objects found inside them provide important insights into the lives of the Ancestral Puebloan people during the thirteenth century.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can in fact visit Cliff Palace by climbing a ladder in the very same way its original inhabitants did. It’s not known for sure why those farmers—the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the area from 500 to 1300 A.D. made their home high up above this land. What is known is that they put an extraordinary amount of time and effort into constructing these stone and mortar buildings—often with their bare hands. Those who travel from around the world to see this archaeological wonder with their own eyes are able to spot handprints and fingerprints preserved in the walls.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Found in southwestern Colorado’s Mesa Verde, a national park famous for its flat-topped mountains, Cliff Palace forms part of a collection of 600 cliff dwellings built by these ancient peoples. Not all Ancestral Puebloans chose to live this way, though. Only an estimated 100 people inhabited Cliff Palace, the largest of several high-up structures, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cliff Palace Overlook is the first stop on the 6-mile Cliff Palace Loop Road. Recent studies reveal that Cliff Palace contained 150 rooms and 23 kivas and had a population of approximately 100 people. Out of the nearly 600 cliff dwellings concentrated within the boundaries of the park, 75 percent contain only 1-5 rooms each and many are single room storage units. If you visit the Cliff Palace you will view an exceptionally large dwelling which had special significance to the original occupants. It is thought that Cliff Palace was a social, administrative site with high ceremonial usage.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Open 8:00 a.m. to sunset, the Cliff Palace Loop Road takes you past Cliff Palace and Balcony House and overlooks to other cliff dwellings. You may enter Balcony House or Cliff Palace by ranger-guided tour only.

They cleverly employed wooden beams wedged into the sandstone rock to help support the buildings each with between one to four stories. Families lived in a collection of rooms formed around ingeniously designed, circular rooms called kivas which extend down below ground.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typical features of a kiva included a fire pit or hearth, a ventilation shaft, a deflector (low wall designed to prevent air drawn from the ventilation shaft from reaching the fire directly), and a sipapu (a small hole in the floor that is ceremonial in purpose). They developed from the pithouse, also a circular, subterranean room used as a living space.

Kivas continue to be used for ceremonies today by Puebloan peoples though not those within Mesa Verde National Park. In the past, these circular spaces were likely both ceremonial and residential. If you visit Cliff Palace today, you will see the kivas without their roofs but in the past they would have been covered. The space around them would have functioned as a small plaza.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The builders of these structures plastered and painted murals although what remains today is fairly fragmentary. Some murals display geometric designs while other murals represent animals and plants.

The creators of the murals used paint produced from clay, organic materials, and minerals. For instance, the red color came from hematite, a red ocher. Blue pigment could be turquoise or azurite while black was often derived from charcoal. Along with the complex architecture and mural painting, the Ancestral Puebloan peoples produced black-on-white ceramics and turquoise and shell jewelry. Goods were imported from afar including shell and other types of pottery. Many of these high-quality objects and their materials demonstrate the close relationship these people had to the landscape. 

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another interesting insight that can be gleaned from this spectacular historic site is the stature of the Ancestral Puebloans some 750 years ago.

The size of the doorways confirms that the average man stood from 5 feet 4 inches to 5 feet 5 inches tall while an average woman was 5 feet to 5 feet 1 inch tall—similar to Europeans of the same period.

Although earlier Ancestral Puebloan villages were built in the open these people began to build cliff dwellings about 1150 perhaps as a defense against invading groups of ancestral Navajo and Apache. 

In addition to the natural protection provided by a cliff, the absence of doors and windows to the rooms on the ground floor left a solid outer stone wall that could be surmounted only by climbing a ladder which could be whipped away in the event of an attack

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why were the cliffs abandoned?

As the 13th century ended, the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde for other sites. After all the time and effort it took to build these beautiful dwellings, why did people leave the area? Cliff Palace was built in the twelfth century. Why was it abandoned less than a hundred years later?

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These questions have not been answered conclusively though it is likely that the migration from this area was due to either drought, lack of resources, violence, or some combination of these factors. We know for instance that droughts occurred from 1276 to 1299. Often referred to as the Great Drought this climatic event probably occasioned crop failures and shortages of drinking water creating difficulties in provisioning the concentrated population living in the cliff dwellings.

The cliff dwellings remain though as compelling examples of how the Ancestral Puebloans literally carved their existence into the rocky landscape of today’s southwestern United States.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visiting a Cliff Dwelling

To enter all cliff dwellings you must be on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The 2023 tour season runs from May 14 through October 21.
Tour tickets can be purchased on recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. Tickets are available 14 days in advance 8:00 am MST on a rolling daily window. For example, tickets for May 14 will be available starting April 30 at 8:00 am MDT. Demand for tour tickets is high. The park recommends reserving tickets as soon as they become available.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

>> DIG DEEPER

Worth Pondering…

The falling snowflakes sprinkling the piñons gave it a special kind of solemnity. It was more like sculpture than anything else … preserved … like a fly in amber.

—Novelist Willa Cather, describing the rediscovery of Cliff Palace

Winter Solstice 2022: What it Is, Why it Occurs, and How it is Observed

The Northern Hemisphere experiences its shortest day and longest night of the year today as the sun reaches its most southerly point in the sky

Good morning and welcome to winter. Not to get all dark at the beginning of the article but it is the shortest day of the year, meaning if you began watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy just before sunrise, it will be dark again by the end of the third movie.

Let us beat a hasty retreat. Jump into a hole, down to a cozy warren, deep below the surface.

Winter is as much about going deep, as it is about finding our way back out the other side.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The astronomical metaphor to keep in mind during these dark and chilling times is that starting the day after the winter solstice each day gets a bit longer. It’s only by two or three minutes—too incremental to notice—and yet brightness is accumulating every day as the season progresses.

Norwegians—among the happiest people on earth despite living in such extended periods of darkness—have a word that snugly wraps up this winter philosophy: “koselig” (pronounced “koosh-lee”). It’s a combination of coziness and a connection to nature and others.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For the past six months, the days have grown shorter and the nights have grown longer in the Northern Hemisphere. But that’s about to reverse itself.

Winter solstice 2022, the shortest day of year and the official first day of winter, is on Wednesday, December 21. How it all works has fascinated people for thousands of years.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Camping

First we’ll look at the science and precise timing behind the solstice. Then we’ll explore some ancient traditions and celebrations around the world.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Solstices happen every June and December, though the exact dates vary by a day or two each year.

The word solstice comes from the Latin words sol, meaning sun, and sistere, meaning to stop—which reflects our host star’s seemingly brief pause in the sky on the solstice before reversing direction. 

The winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun appears at its most southerly position, directly overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The situation is the reverse in the Southern Hemisphere. There, the December solstice marks the longest day of the year—and the beginning of summer in places such as Australia, Chile, and South Africa.

The solstice usually—but not always—takes place on December 21. The time that the solstice occurs shifts every year because the solar year (the time it takes for the sun to reappear in the same spot as seen from Earth) doesn’t exactly match up to our calendar year.

If you want to be super-precise in your observations, the exact time of the 2022 winter solstice will be 16:48 Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) on Tuesday, according to EarthSky.org and Farmers’ Almanac.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Daylight decreases dramatically the closer you are to the North Pole. Residents of Nome, Alaska, will be sunlight deprived with just three hours, 54 minutes, and 31 seconds of very weak daylight on Tuesday. But that’s downright generous compared with Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. It sits inside the Arctic Circle and won’t see a single ray of sunshine.

The equinoxes, both spring and fall, occur when the sun’s rays are directly over the equator. On those two days, everyone has an equal length of day and night. The summer solstice is when the sun’s rays are farthest north over the Tropic of Cancer giving us our longest day and the official start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no surprise many cultures and religions celebrate a holiday—whether it be Christmas, Hanukkah, or pagan festivals—that coincides with the return of longer days.

Since long before recorded history, the winter solstice and the subsequent “return” of the sun have inspired celebrations and rituals in various societies around the world.

Related article: Winter Listicle: Experience Winter Wonderlands in National Parks

Ancient peoples whose survival depended on a precise knowledge of seasonal cycles marked this first day of winter with elaborate ceremonies and celebrations. Spiritually, these celebrations symbolize the opportunity for renewal, a shedding of bad habits and negative feelings and an embracing of hope amid darkness as the days once again begin to grow longer.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the ancient symbolsand ceremonies of the winter solstice live on today or have been incorporated into newer traditions.

For the Zuni, one of the Native American Pueblo peoples in western New Mexico, the winter solstice signifies the beginning of the year and is marked with a ceremonial dance called Shalako. After fasting, prayer, and observing the rising and setting of the sun for several days before the solstice, the Pekwin, or “Sun Priest” traditionally announces the exact moment of itiwanna, the rebirth of the sun, with a long, mournful call.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With that signal, the rejoicing and dancing begin, as 12 kachina clowns in elaborate masks dance along with the Shalako themselves—12-foot-high effigies with bird heads, seen as messengers from the gods. After four days of dancing, new dancers are chosen for the following year and the yearly cycle begins again.

Like the Zuni, the Hopi of northern Arizona are believed to be among the descendants of the Anasazi people, ancient Native Americans who flourished beginning in 200 B.C. As the Anasazi left no written records, we can only speculate about their winter solstice rites but the placement of stones and structures in their ruins such as New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon and Aztec Ruins indicate they took a keen interest in the sun’s movement. In the Hopi solstice celebration of Soyal, the Sun Chief takes on the duties of the Zuni Pekwin, announcing the setting of the sun on the solstice.

Welcome to the first day of winter © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-night ceremony then begins including kindling fires, dancing, and sometimes gift-giving. Traditionally, the Hopi sun-watcher was not only important to the winter solstice tradition as his observation of the sun also governed the planting of crops and the observance of Hopi ceremonies and rituals all year long.

Related article: Winter RV Camping: What You Need to Know

The UK’s most famous site for solstice celebrations is Stonehenge. On the winter solstice, visitors traditionally have had opportunity to enter the towering, mysterious stone circle for a sunrise ceremony run by local pagan and druid groups.

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

8 Native American Heritage Sites to Visit This Fall

Dive into the incredible sacred stories behind your favorite parks and sites

How many Native American tribes do you think are there were in all 50 states?

574. Yes, there are that many federally recognized tribes in the United States today with the number increasing as years goes on.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And, in Canada, there are over 630 First Nation communities (a title used by Canada to describe the various societies of the indigenous peoples) speaking more than 50 languages, divided into six cultural divisions in eight geographical locations.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That being said, the lands all around us in both the United States and Canada are the traditional homelands to indigenous peoples. Some of them have been designated as Native American heritage sites which I’ve been privileged throughout the years to visit and hear stories about—from the brave Crazy Horse warrior to sacred refuges in the Grand Canyon, and even the original Native American tales of giant monsters in Monument Valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With Native American Heritage Month in November, fall is a fantastic time to visit and hear the first stories behind many of America’s greatest parks and monuments. A few favorites are listed here by their original Indigenous names.

Related: Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A kind reminder when visiting tribal lands: It’s always good practice to ask before entering someone’s space and especially before taking their photo. Please respect privacy, remember that all tribes are different, and note our tradition of listening when elders speak (which is sometimes not in English).

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mesa Verde National Park

Ancestral Pueblo, Colorado

After living atop the mesas for 600 years, the Ancestral Pueblo people moved their homes to the mesa walls and became cliff dwellers. They kept their crops and fields atop the mesa but lowered their harvest down to food storage rooms.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There they dwelled for another hundred years before beginning their migration further south. Descendants of these people teach their children that their ancestors only inhabited such areas for a time before journeying on as their deity bid.

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Mesa Verde National Park protects the rich cultural heritage of 26 tribes and offers visitors a mind-perplexing glimpse into the lives of those who once lived here. Here, you will also find guided and self-guided tours, hiking trails, camping, an evening program, stargazing, bird watching, and seasonal events.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii / Monument Valley

Diné Nation, Arizona/Utah

One of the most majestic and most photographed points on earth this great valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower at heights of 400 to 1,000 feet framed by scenic clouds casting shadows that graciously roam the desert floor. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

Related: Valley of the Gods Is a Mini-Monument Valley…and Totally Free

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs and trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley. All of this harmoniously combines to make Monument Valley a truly wondrous experience.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most known for its appearance in films such as Forrest Gump (when Forrest decides he’s tired and stops running in the center of the road) and the old John Wayne cowboy flicks, the breath-taking Tse Bii’ Ndzisgaii remains much as it did back in the 1930s. The site holds the story of monsters who once plagued the people before the Hero Twins and female deities worked together to turn the monsters to stone. It is those monsters who remain as monuments of this gorgeous desert valley.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tseyi’ / Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Diné Nation, Arizona

Related to the Athabaskan people of Northern Canada and Alaska, the Navajo settled the Southwest between the four sacred mountains. For nearly 5,000 years, people have lived in these canyons—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. In the place called Tsegi, their homes and images tell us their stories.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Navajo, or Dine’ as they call themselves, continue to make their homes, raise livestock, and farm the lands in the canyons just as the “Ancient Ones” had. The farms, livestock, and hogans of the Dine’ are visible from the canyon rims. “A place like no other”, the National Park Service and Navajo Nation work together to manage the land’s resources.

Related: Travel Experience like None Other: Monument Valley and Northeastern Arizona

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cottonwood Campground is located near the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. Administered by Tseyi’ Dine’ Heritage Area, it offers camping for anyone desiring to pitch a tent or park your RV to enjoy a quiet night or two under the stars. A picnic table and barbeque grill is available at each campsite.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take in the breathtaking views and relish in the paths of the ancient ones who once flourished in the canyons by booking a guided tour from one of the local tour operators; they will take you in by horse, vehicle, or on foot. Or, you could take a self-guided tour of the South and North Rim Drives and view the canyon from the overlooks.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Montezuma Castle National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument is dedicated to preserving Native American culture. This 20 room high-rise apartment, nestled into a towering limestone cliff, tells a story of ingenuity, survival, and ultimately, prosperity in an unforgiving desert landscape. Although people were living in the area much earlier, the Sinagua began building permanent living structures—the dwellings you see at the monument—around 1050.

Beaver Creek at Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are many possible reasons the Sinagua chose to build their homes on the cliffs. At Montezuma Castle, the cliff faces south, so the dwellings are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The high location also protected them from damage caused by the annual flooding of Beaver Creek. The dwellings may also have been built high up for protection or to help the Sinagua view approaching travelers. More than likely, the cliff dwellings served all these functions and more, much like our houses today

Montezuma Well © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although the Sinagua left about 600 years ago, the Verde Valley has been continually occupied by other groups of people. Some Hopi clans believe that the Sinagua were their ancestors. Some Yavapai-Apache say that not all Sinagua left but instead integrated with the Yavapai and Apache. Today, the monument is affiliated with many tribes including the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona: Yavapai, Apache, Hopi, and Zuni.

Casa Grande Ruins National Nonument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Arizona

Explore the mystery and complexity of an extended network of communities and irrigation canals. An Ancestral Sonoran Desert People’s farming community and “Great House” are preserved at Casa Grande Ruins. Archeologists have discovered evidence that the ancestral Sonoran Desert people who built the Casa Grande also developed wide-scale irrigation farming and extensive trade connections which lasted over a thousand years until about 1450.

Casa Grande Ruins National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Whether the Casa Grande was a gathering place for the Desert People or simply a waypoint marker in an extensive system of canals and trading partners is but part of the mystique of the Ruins.

Related: 10 Under-The-Radar National Monuments to Visit

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Archeologists call a site where there are earthen buildings, red on buff pottery, and extensive canals, “Hohokam”, but this is not the name of a tribe or a people. Years of misunderstanding have confused the ancestors of the O’Odham, Hopi, and Zuni people with the name Hohokam which is not a word in any of their languages nor the name of a separate people.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tuzigoot National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, Arizona

Around the year 650, 1400 years ago, people began settling in the Verde Valley. Among the oldest structures found in the valley are the pithouses, partially buried dwellings that were the most common form of housing across the southwest between about 4,000 years ago and 600 years ago.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Construction of multi-room pueblos began by the year 1000. The pueblo at Tuzigoot is architecturally similar to pueblos that can be seen around the region, like, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and many sites along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona including Montezuma Castle.

Tuzigoot National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This village was built high on a limestone ridge over a hundred feet above the floodplains of the Verde River. It has clear lines of sight in every direction and can easily be seen from many of the other hills and pueblos in the area. Tuzigoot was a prime spot to build with excellent views, easy access to reliable, year-round water, and floodplains where cultivation of water-intensive crops like cotton was relatively easy.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

Ancestral Ruins, Utah/Colorado

Human habitation at Hovenweep dates to over 10,000 years ago when nomadic Paleoindians visited the Cajon Mesa to gather food and hunt game. These people used the area for centuries, following the seasonal weather patterns. By about 900, people started to settle at Hovenweep year-round, planting and harvesting crops in the rich soil of the mesa top. By the late 1200s, the Hovenweep area was home to over 2,500 people.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The towers of Hovenweep were built by ancestral Puebloans, a sedentary farming culture that occupied the Four Corners area from about 500 to 1300. Similarities in architecture, masonry, and pottery styles indicate that the inhabitants of Hovenweep were closely associated with groups living at Mesa Verde and other nearby sites.

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Most of the structures at Hovenweep were built between A.D. 1200 and 1300. There is quite a variety of shapes and sizes including square and circular towers, D-shaped dwellings, and many kivas (Puebloan ceremonial structures, usually circular). The masonry at Hovenweep is as skillful as it is beautiful. Even the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde rarely exhibit such careful construction and attention to detail. Some structures built on irregular boulders remain standing after more than 700 years.

Today’s Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people are descendants of this culture.

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Aztec Ruins National Monument

Ancestral Pueblo, New Mexico

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof.

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Aztec Ruins, built and used over a 200-year period, is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River valley. Concentrated on and below a terrace overlooking the Animas River, the people at Aztec built several multi-story buildings called “great houses” and many smaller structures. Associated with each great house was a “great kiva”—a large circular chamber used for ceremonies.

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Nearby are three unusual “tri-wall” structures—above ground kivas encircled by three concentric walls. In addition, they modified the landscape with dozens of linear swales called “roads,” earthen berms, and platforms.

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An interesting 700 yard trail leads visitors through the West Ruin, an excavated great house that had at least 400 interconnected rooms built around an open plaza. Its massive sandstone walls tower over 30 feet. Many rooms contain the original pine, spruce, and aspen beams hauled from distant mountains.

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In about 1300 the Ancestral Pueblo people left the region, migrating southeast to join existing communities along the Rio Grande, south to the Zuni area, or west to join the Hopi villages in Arizona.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

The Ultimate Guide to Aztec Ruins National Monument

Step back in time and discover a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House community

Pueblo people describe this site as part of their migration journey. Today you can follow their ancient passageways to a distant time. Explore a 900-year old ancestral Pueblo Great House of over 400 masonry rooms. Look up and see original timbers holding up the roof. Search for the fingerprints of ancient workers in the mortar. Listen for an echo of ritual drums in the reconstructed Great Kiva.

Aztec Ruins National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aztec Ruins National Monument is the largest Ancestral Pueblo community in the Animas River Valley. In use for over 200 years, the site contains several multi-story buildings called “great houses,” each with a “great kiva”—a circular ceremonial chamber—as well as many smaller structures. Excavation of the West Ruin in the 1900s uncovered thousands of well-preserved artifacts that provide a glimpse into the life of Ancestral Pueblo people connecting people of the past with people and traditions of today. 

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Many Southwestern American Indians today maintain deep spiritual ties with this ancestral site.  Visitors today can learn about these remarkable people and their descendants and connect with the monument’s timeless landscape and stories. A short trail winds through this massive site offering an intimate experience. Along the way, visitors will discover original roofs, plaster walls, a reed mat left by the inhabitants, intriguing T-shaped doorways, and north-facing corner doors. The trail culminates with the reconstructed great kiva, a building that inherently inspires contemplation, wonder, and an ancient sense of sacredness. 

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A summer visit to the ruins is sure to be a hot one with temperatures ranging from 80 degrees to 100 degrees—and on some days reaching over 100. Fall brings pleasant days and crisp nights, while winter temperatures range between 20 degrees and 50 degrees with cold nights reaching 0. The most unpredictable season is spring with windy, cold, wet, or warm and dry weather.  

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Visitor Center

See Earl’s house! The visitor center started as the home of pioneering archeologist Earl Morris. Here you receive an orientation to the archeological site and pick up a trail guide. See beautiful 900-year old artifacts in the museum. Watch the 15-minute video, Aztec Ruins: Footprints of the Past to hear diverse perspectives from Pueblo people, Navajo tribal members, and archeologists. The Visitor Center is open whenever the park is open except during after-hours outdoors programs (example: moon tours and solstice observations).

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Tours

Explore the Aztec Ruins with a self-guided visitor trail. The half-mile trail winds through an ancestral Pueblo Great House, a reconstructed great kiva, and through original rooms with intact timber roofs. Help preserve the ruins—and stay safe—by remaining on the trail. Ranger-guided East Ruin Tours and Full Moon Walks are offered monthly from June through August and are weather-dependent. 

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Once you’ve visited the ruins, meander to the Animas River via a segment of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail or peruse museum exhibits and 900-year old artifacts. The Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk are both located inside the historic picnic area. Park staff and volunteers grow traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds. If you’re planning a summer visit, take a tour and see the wild plants that sustained folks in the Southwest for thousands of years. 

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Wildlife in the Park

Surprisingly, the park supports a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. The riparian and pinon-juniper woodland areas, patches of abandoned farmlands, orchards, and desert scrubs all provide a habitat for 28 documented mammal species, at least 70 bird species, three amphibians, and 10 reptiles. 

As surrounding residential developments expand, the ruins have become an increasingly important haven for species of concern despite the park’s relatively small size. 

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Aztec West Self-Guided Trail

Explore the ancestral Pueblo “Great House” that was the social, economic, and political center of the region after Chaco. A self-guided half-mile walk winds through original rooms. Along the way discover skillful stone masonry, remarkably well-preserved wood roofing, and original mortar in some walls. The interpretive trail guide combines modern archeological findings with traditional Native American perspectives. Enter the ceremonial Great Kiva. This awesome semi-subterranean structure over 40 feet in diameter is the oldest and largest reconstructed building of its kind.

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Heritage Garden and Native Plants Walk

The Heritage Garden and the Native Plants Walk are both inside the shady and historic picnic area. Traditional crops like corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and gourds are grown by park staff and volunteers. Tours are offered in the summer. The Native Plants Walk is located on the west side of the picnic area near the parking lot. Take a quick stroll and see the wild plants that people in the Southwest have relied on for thousands of years.

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Old Spanish National Historic Trail to Downtown Aztec

The Old Spanish Trail was the first recorded trade caravan from Santa Fe west to Los Angeles. The first journey was led by Antonio Armijo in 1829 and it was so difficult the traders never took that exact same route again. Since it is difficult to find the trail on the ground today no one can say with certainty how close the caravan actually came to Aztec Ruins. Today you can follow the nationally designated trail from the picnic area over the bridge across the Animas River (0.5 miles) and into historic downtown Aztec (1.5 miles) for shopping and dining.

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Fact Box

Size: 318 acres

Date Established: January 24, 1923

Location: Northwestern New Mexico, 14 miles northeast of Farmington

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Park Elevation: 5,600 feet

Park Entrance Fee: As of May 1, 2018, this is a fee-free park

Park Operating Hours: Daily 9:00 am-5:00 pm Mountain Time; closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day.

Parking: RV and bus parking available

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Weather Conditions: Summer high temperatures range from 80-100 degrees; Fall usually pleasant with mild days and crisp nights; Winter daytime temperatures range from 20-50 degrees with cold nights that can reach 0 degrees, snow is periodic but accumulations are typically only 1-2 inches; Spring is can be windy, cold, and wet, or still, warm, and dry.

Recreational visits in 2020: 30,223

Worth Pondering…

What’s old collapses, times change, and new life blossoms in the ruins.

— Friedrich Schiller 

Mesa Verde National Park: Look Back In Time 1,000 Years

Step into the past and experience the lives of one of America’s oldest cultures, the Pueblo people

Most of the national parks in the Southwest are about the landscapes, but Mesa Verde in southern Colorado is more cultural than natural. There’s still plenty of rugged scenery, but there are also more than 5,000 archaeological sites contained within Mesa Verde’s boundaries.

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Mesa Verde, Spanish for “green table”, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from AD 600 to 1300. Today the park protects these sites, some of the most notable and best preserved in the U.S.

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These master builders constructed elaborate complexes tucked into sandstone cliffs. Some held just a few people, while others, such as the Cliff Palace and Long House, have 150 rooms and could have housed up to 100 people.

Unique in the park system, Mesa Verde is the first and only park created for the protection and preservation of archaeological resources and is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Colorado. Conde Nast Traveler chose it as the top historic monument in the world, and National Geographic Traveler chose it as one of the “50 places of a Lifetime— the World’s 50 Greatest Destinations”, in a class with the Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China.

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Mesa Verde does not lend itself to a hurry-up visit. It takes time to savor the magic of its eight centuries of prehistoric Indian culture. As a vintage slogan at the park advises: “It’s a place where you can see for 100 miles and look back in time 1,000 years.”

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The intricate architecture is as awesome to behold today as it was when cowboys and ranchers first saw it. Two men looking for lost cattle, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, came upon the most spectacular site, the 150-room Cliff Palace, in 1888. Mesa Verde National Park was established 18 years later, in 1906.

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The best way of acquiring a feeling for Mesa Verde is to follow the 6-mile Mesa Top Auto Loop Road which traces Pueblo history at 10 overlooks and archeological sites.

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But for an intimate look at the kivas and actual living accommodations take the short hike from the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum to Spruce Tree House, the only major Mesa Verde site available for self-guided tours. The paved trail leads to the 114-room, eight-kiva structure—the one initially discovered by Wetherill. One popular feature is a reconstructed and roofed kiva visitors can access by ladder.

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Tickets to tour other popular larger structures—Cliff Palace, Long House, and Balcony House—must be obtained in advance at the Far View Visitor Center (15 miles south of the park entrance). Tour groups are limited in size.

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Immediately south of the Visitor Center, a farming complex dates to about 1050. Two large surface pueblos—Far View House and Pipe Shrine House— and smaller settlements make up the complex.

From Mesa Verde’s entrance a two-lane paved road winds upward 2,000 feet through piñon-juniper forests and canyons. At Park Point, on the northern edge of the mesa at 8,600 feet, the visitor is treated to a panoramic view of the Montezuma Valley to the west, and the Mancos Valley, framed by the 14,000-foot San Juan and La Plata mountains to the east.

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At Far View, the road divides. The west fork leads to Wetherill Mesa and a number of major cliff dwellings, including Long House, second largest at Mesa Verde. The south fork leads to Park Headquarters on lower Chapin Mesa and the major cliff dwellings of Cliff Palace, largest in the park, Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, Square Tower House, and others.

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Near Park Headquarters is the outstanding Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum. With scores of exhibits and five unique dioramas, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the area’s ancient people.

Mesa Verde offers great camping just 4 miles inside the park at Morefield Campground. Because there are 267 sites, there’s always plenty of space. The campground rarely fills. But if you want one of the 15 full-hookup sites, reservations are a must.

Our brief visit whetted our appetite for more. In the words of another time traveler from the future…I’ll be back.

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Worth Pondering…

(The cowboys’ discovery of Cliff Palace) was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery. Who were these people, where did they go, and why?

—Diana Kappel-Smith, Desert Time

Circle of Ancients: Ancestral Puebloans

Ancestral Puebloans and their world

The sites of the Ancestral Puebloans are many and include Chaco Culture National Historic Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Aztec Ruins National Monument. All combine to form The Circle of Ancients—a theme some have spent a lifetime exploring.

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About 1,400 years ago, long before Europeans explored North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home. For more than 700 years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late A.D. 1200s, in the span of a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away. Mesa Verde National Park preserves a spectacular reminder of this ancient culture. Archeologists have called these people Anasazi, from a Navajo word sometimes translated as “the ancient ones” or “ancient enemies.” We now call them Ancestral Puebloans, reflecting their modern descendants.

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The first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) about A.D. 550. They are known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops.

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About A.D. 750 they began building houses above ground with upright walls made of poles and mud often with a pithouse or two in front. (Pithouses would later evolve into kivas.) From here on, these people are known as Puebloans, a Spanish word meaning “village dwellers.”

By A.D. 1000 the people of Mesa Verde had advanced from pole-and-adobe construction to skillful stone masonry.

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Between A.D. 1100 and A.D. 1300, the population may have reached several thousand. It was mostly concentrated in compact villages of many rooms, often with the kivas built inside the enclosing walls. These stone walls are regarded as the finest ever built in Mesa Verde.

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About A.D. 1200, another major population shift saw people begin to move back into the cliff alcoves that sheltered their ancestors centuries before giving rise to the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is most famous. Using nature to advantage, Ancestral Puebloans built their dwellings beneath the overhanging cliffs.

Most of the cliff dwellings were built from the late A.D. 1190s to late A.D. 1270s. They range in size from one-room structures to villages of more than 150 rooms such as Cliff Palace and Long House. Ancestral Puebloans lived in the cliff dwellings for less than 100 years. By about A.D. 1300, Mesa Verde was deserted. When the cliff dwellers of Mesa Verde left, they traveled south into New Mexico and Arizona, settling among their kin who were already there.

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In about 1110, a wandering band of Anasazi, a skilled farming people looking for a new home selected a high ridge along the west bank of the Animas River, opposite the present town of Aztec, New Mexico. They constructed a large dwelling of sculptured and fitted stones. Built over a four-year period, it was an E-shaped structure of about 400 rooms and 24 kivas that reached three stories high in places. About 85 years later, the residents of Aztec abandoned the region, and Aztec lay deserted.

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About 1225, a group of Mesa Verde people left their high mesa and deep canyons in southern Colorado to move into the abandoned Aztec complex. Despite their considerable efforts in refurbishing Aztec, the Mesa Verdeans didn’t stay long. By about 1275, they also began to drift away and by 1300, the stone dwellings on the Animas had been abandoned.

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Around A.D. 900 a group of Anasazi Indians left Mesa Verde and settled 100 miles west at what is now called Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado state line. A Ute word meaning “deserted valley”, Hovenweep is the site of six separate pueblo settlements and probably more considering that most of the 784 acres at Hovenweep have yet to be excavated. The pueblos tell of a sophisticated knowledge of a sun-Earth relationship.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1300 the site was deserted and the Anasazis had probably gone to other sites in northwestern New Mexico or northeastern Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While Chaco’s heyday had come and gone by the end of the 12th century, many other communities continued to thrive until the late 13th century, such as those found in the canyon walls of Navajo National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Mesa Verde National Park.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes