The following are a list of ancient Native American archaeological sites, many of them of the ancient Anasazi (known more recently as Ancestral Puebloan). I have organized the list by the most visually stunning and well preserved, rather than by their cultural and historical significance. The dominance of the Ancestral Puebloans is as much attributable I believe to the preserving nature of deserts as it is to their characterstic of building monumental buildings. Many of these sites have been protected as state and national parks and are located primarily in the Western United States around the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. If you only had one opportunity to visit these ancient American sites, a trip that covered this area of the Southwest would be well worth it. And they are within a 4-5 hour drive of three international airports – Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Phoenix.
Located in the Southwest corner of Colorado, just outside Cortez, Mesa Verde is without a doubt the largest and best preserved ancient Native American ruins in North America, north of the Mexican border. A major settlement area for the Anasazi Indians (also known as Ancestral Puebloans) between 650 A.D. and 1285 A.D., much of the monumental architecture from the latest period of occupation can be found in a series of desert sandstone canyons with giant south facing alcoves turned into cliff dwellings. Cliff Palace, the largest of the dwellings contained at its height 150 rooms and 23 kivas, and housed an estimated 100 people.
At least 6 other major ruins are located in the park, with dozens of other sites within the canyons as well as the mesa top. These include Balcony, Long, Mug, Oak Tree, Spruce Tree and Square Tower Houses.
Mesa Verde NP: Website
Google Maps: Find
Flickr: Photo Gallery
Book: The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest – David Roberts
Radio West: Author discussion of The Lost World of the Old Ones.
Like Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon’s 15 major archaeological sites are a product of the Ancestral Puebloeans. Located south of Mesa Verde in northern New Mexico, it contained the largest buildings in the United States until the 19th century. The largest of these, Pueblo Bonito, covers 3 acres and contains close to 800 rooms. However archaeological, and climatic research suggests that Chaco may have been intended more as a gathering place for religious ceremonies, than an attempt to build a large permanent settlement. The design and alignment of many of the buildings suggest that solar and lunar cycles played a significant role in their construction. This importance is mirrored in the petroglyphs found in the area, including famously those on Fajada Butte.
Another notable feature of the Chaco Canyon site is the network of roads that radiate from it across the San Juan Basin. The longest of these are the Great North and South Roads. Debate continues about other significant road segments in the area that are shorter and disconnected, that absent weathering over time, may have been connected in the past. Whatever the case, they hint both at the importance of Chaco Canyon, but also the significant effort that was required to bring materials from other area, like timber, to build the canyon’s monumental architecture.
Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch
Unlike Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the Anasazi ruins in the Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch cover a much larger area. The ruins are smaller and more dispersed, but finding them offers an intimate wilderness experience, with the real potential to see ancient relics that few others have. However the experience comes at a prices. Much of Cedar Mesa is a remote desert environment, with much of it accessible only by dirt roads that can change significantly with bad weather, and hiking trails that can prove challenging at times for the inexperienced and unprepared.
Some of the most famous ruins in the area include: Tower House, Fallen Roof, House on Fire, River House, Moon House and Jailhouse.
Horseshoe Canyon Pictographs
Originally named Barrier Canyon, Horseshoe Canyon
was designated as an offshoot of Canyonlands National Park (Utah) in 1971. It was included in the management of the park to help protect what is arguably the best preserved example of ancient Native American rock art. It is also some of the oldest known rock art, with most scientists agreeing the pictographs are at least 700 to 2000 years old. Some believe they are far older. The canyon’s rock art is considered the archetype, and best example of a rock art style known as the Barrier Canyon Style (BCS) seen in different spots across much of the Colorado plateau.
The main pictograph panel in the canyon, known as the Great Gallery is 200 feet long and 15 feet high, with over 20 life-sized anthropomorphic images. The tallest is over 7 feet high. Other notable panels in the canyon, include Horseshoe, Alcove, and High Gallery. All are found along the same hiking trail, and relatively easy to find.
The access point for Horseshoe Canyon is opposite the entrance to Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park, and requires a well maintained 2-wheel drive vehicle with reasonable clearance for the 30+ mile drive to the canyon’s edge. Once at the trailhead the hike is 7 miles round trip with the hardest part being the hike out. Keep this in mind, especially during the hot summer months.
Montezuma Castle is a well-preserved cliff dwelling of the Ancestral Puebloeans located near Camp Verde, Arizona. The dwellings were constructed and used by the Sinagua, a tribe closely related to the Hohokam. Montezuma is believed to have been constructed after 1100 A.D. following the resettlement of the Verde Valley by the Sinagua. The structure contains 20 different rooms and may have housed as many as 50 people. The last known occupation of the site was around 1425 A.D. And like the Anasazi its believed that drought, and possibly warfare forced the Sinagua to migrate to other locations.
While the ruin is named after the Aztec King Montezuma, there are no known direct links to the Aztec’s themselves, although possible trading links have been suggested by some historians.
Canyon de Chelly
Canyon de Chelly is a National Park wholly owned by and located within the Navajo Reservation. It is named after a particular canyon within the park but consists of three – de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument. The canyon system is considered one the longest continuously inhabited locations in North America , mostly recently by the Navajo and Anasazi. Within the canyon are a number of visible Anasazi ruins, including White House, Antelope House and Sliding House. Of these three, park visitors can visit White House in the company of a Navajo guide. In addition, over 2500 archaeological sites have been identified in the area, including dozens of Anasazi village sites.
Located in the Northeast corner of Arizona, it makes a good stop on a tour of other nearby archaeological sites, including Mesa Verde, Cedar Mesa and Chaco Canyon.
National Park Service – Canyon De Chelly
Google Maps – Find
Flickr: Photo Gallery
Wupatki National Monument is located in North Central Arizona near the town of Flagstaff. The park encloses archaeological sites from at least 3 distinct cultures, including the Cohonina, Kayenta Anasazi, and Sinagua. Wupatki Pueblo the ruin after which the monument is named is the oldest in the park and contained over 100 rooms. It also includes a ball court, a structure similar to those found in Mesoamerica, and suggestive of a link to tribes further south.
National Park Service – Wupatki National Monument
Google Maps – Find
Flickr: Photo Gallery
The Great Serpent Mound is a 1,348-foot long, three-foot-high prehistoric effigy mound located in Adams County Ohio. Managed as a park by the Ohio Historical society, the mound is believed to have been constructed by the Fort Ancient culture around 1070 A.D. The name of the culture is derived from the Fort Ancient archaeological site, located with Washington Township, Ohio. The Fort Ancient peoples are believed to have lived along the Ohio river from West Virginia to Kentucky between 1000-1750 A.D.
The Blythe Intaglios (Geoglyphs) are a grouping of large figures, similar to the Nazca Lines of South America, near Blythe California. The largest figure is over 171 feet long. Similar figures albeit of a smaller nature can be found throughout the desert of Southeastern California. The glyphs were created by scraping away the top layer of soil which is darker color than the soil beneath. The Blythe figures are believed to range in age from 900 BCE to 1200 CE, based on radiocarbon dating. The tribe of people responsible for their creation has yet to be identified. Their meaning is more than likely spiritual in nature.
Bureau of Land Management – Blythe Intaglios
Google Maps – Find
James Jacob’s: Photo Gallery
Further Reading Suggestions:
- House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest – Craig Childs
- The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest – David Roberts
- Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau – Mike Kelsey
- Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa Plateau Maps – National Geographic Trails Illustrated Maps