Exploring Ancient Pueblo Culture, Off the Beaten Path

Lesser-known National Monuments & Historical Parks worth visiting in the four corners region.

Morey & Ruth Edelman Morey & Ruth Edelman  |  02.27.2019

Some of our favorite places to tour and camp are in the four corners area, where the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico all come together. Having spent months in this area, we have gained a special interest in the ancient Pueblo Native Americans that inhabited this desert area 800-1,000 years ago. The remains of their homes and ceremonial structures are still evident over a large swath of these lands, each remarkable for their similarities and differences. We have seen ruins in many canyons, even during our raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Many years ago, we saw the well-preserved ruins at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, but now with our Winnebago as our traveling discovery vehicle, we’ve gotten to many more sites … most in less-developed tourist locations.

Pueblo ruins map route

Here are our recommendations for some of these off-the-beaten-path explorations:

Navajo National Monument

Located in the northeast corner of Arizona, just west of Kayenta and nine miles north on Route 564, off US Highway 160 (we did say these were out of the way). This National Monument protects two very intact and fascinating cliff dwellings, Betatakin and Keet Seel.

There is a sign as you turn on 564 that says “28-foot RV limit.” But we called and spoke to a park ranger who told us there would be no issue with our size. And, indeed, there was no issue.  The nine-mile drive was easy to handle with our 31-foot Winnebago. So, we are glad we didn’t let the road nor the knowledge that there are no hookups or dump station scare us away.

(Note: Always check with the local park regarding size warnings like this before moving on, since they are often more strict than this situation and conditions may change due to weather, etc.)

An Up-Close Look at Betatakin

Our first stop was at the visitor center where there is an excellent video portraying the culture of these ancient Pueblo people along with some beautiful artifacts. Then we took the Sandal Trail, a one-mile walk, to a viewpoint of the cliff dwelling, Betatakin. Having now seen this incredibly well-preserved dwelling from a distance, we decided to sign up for a closer look with the ranger-led tour that takes you to the entrance of this ruin. You do need to check in at the visitor center regarding tour days and times, as they change greatly based on the time of the year.

After a 75-minute, relatively easy hike, we stopped at the entrance to the ruin. We can only say, wow! Even better up close. The wooden ladders left behind when Betatakin was vacated 800 years ago are still in place. The park ranger spent time discussing the ancient culture and pointed out many of the structures and their functions.

Pueblo ruins navajo national monument

Backpacking to Keet Seel

Visiting Keet Seel takes more effort, but is worth it. A 17-mile round trip hike takes you to this world-renowned site. An overnight backpack trip is required on a very well-marked trail. There is a well-situated backpack campground near the ruin to spend the overnight. Permits are also required at the visitor center, but not difficult to obtain.

Camping

There are two campgrounds here at Navajo, NM. Sunset View, where we camped at a primo stargazing site (#14), has 31 paved sites. There is a modern bathroom, with water, but no showers. Canyon View campground is down an unpaved road and has 14 more rustic sites with incredible views of the canyon. Both campgrounds have incredible night skies and no campsite fees.

Hovenweep National Monument

Straddling the southern Colorado and Utah borders near Cortez, CO, Hovenweep National Monument protects 20 miles of Cajun Mesa top ancestral ruins which look down on the deep canyons of the San Juan River. These structures share many of the same design elements as the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde. But unique to this area, are the multi-story towers, both round and square.

Wandering Through Ancient Villages

A stop at the visitor center is strongly suggested to obtain trail maps and learn more about these ruins. The five ancient villages, that at one time were home to 2,500 people, can be explored via the many maintained trails. We took the two-mile, self-guided loop trail from the visitor center that includes up-close viewing of a number of these unique towers and structures. Quite awesome to see these ancient buildings and the deep canyons below.

Pueblo ruins hovenweep

Camping

The campground at Hovenweep allows up to 36-foot RVs, so no concerns for us here. Again, a nice campground with modern bathrooms, but no hookups, showers, nor a dump station. Once again, an incredible night sky! After all, we were so off the beaten track, we’d never even heard of this fascinating monument.

Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Chaco Canyon has the highest concentration of Pueblo ruins in the Southwest. We had visited many years ago in our pop-up camper, but this time we planned to motorhome to this incredible place. Taking US Highway 550 south from Bloomfield NM, you then turn off for 21 miles.

Before our trip, we did some checking and learned that there are still 13 miles of rough screw-loosening dirt roads. We decided (and glad we did), to park our Winnebago at a nearby private campground, and drive a car with our tenting equipment to Chaco Canyon. Some of our RV friends did take their Winnebago View on the drive and survived. But we’re glad we went the car-tent route. A car was helpful when navigating the many sites of the ruins and participating in ranger narrations.

Driving Tour of the Area

Once at the park, the road is paved, and the first turn off is at the visitor center. Here we learned that by AD 1050 Chaco was the administrative, ceremonial, and economic center of the four corners region. There are 150 “great houses” in this area. We drove the loop road stopping at many of the ruins with the stunning, Pueblo Bonito being the most impressive.

Pueblo ruins chaco canyon

Many of these large structures were assembled from local stone without mortar and aligned for celestial orientation for solar and lunar events. All are scattered throughout the valley. We could imagine the many Native Americans coming to visit, to trade, and to celebrate religious events. Trading has been documented with artifacts even found from the Aztec civilization.

However you get to Chaco, this Historical Park can’t be missed! Definitely, plan on a few days though.

Camping

The Gallo Campground in this park is well laid out and will handle a large RV. The campground host braved the drive into the park and was camping in a large Airstream trailer. There are modern bathrooms, but again no hookups. If you do plan to drive your Winnebago, check road conditions first by calling the visitor center. And make sure you have a screwdriver to re-tighten all of the loosened screws.

Pueblo ruins chaco campground

These top three choices to delve deeper into this Southwestern native culture are only the beginning for us. And our Winnebago makes the perfect exploratory vehicle!


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1 Comment

  1. Steve Stephenson Posted on 02.27.2019

    Morie & Ruth,

    We love your posts! Please keep them coming. Your interests are much the same as ours. The detailed information provided is appreciated. We recently moved to California and this would be a great spot to visit.

    Steve & Muriel