This week’s travel dream: The secret backcountry of southwest Colorado

Colorado’s Ute Mountain Tribal Park contains magnificent Anasazi cliff dwellings and rock art. 

But for the occasional croak of a lone raven, the silence engulfing us was absolute, said David Roberts in National Geographic Traveler. High above us, on a ledge “defended by 60 feet of relentlessly overhanging cliff,” beckoned Eagle Nest House, a small Anasazi pueblo that no one had lived in for seven centuries. Because we were exploring Colorado’s Ute Mountain Tribal Park, not the adjacent and far more heavily trafficked Mesa Verde National Park, the choice to climb was ours. We were wandering in a region that holds “the densest and richest aggregation of 13th-century cliff dwellings in the country” but seeing them as 19th-century discoverers did. Except that those pioneers would have had to build a ladder, whereas we eventually found a rough-hewn 40-footer of recent vintage. It had been built by the Ute and left propped against the cliff.

To explore Ute Mountain, you have to make a reservation, pay a fee, and be accompanied by a guide. Though the park doesn’t keep an annual tally of visitors, “I doubt that it reaches 3,000.” If you go, you have 125,000 acres almost to yourself and can “spend a whole day examining magnificent ruins without distraction.” At the top of that ladder, we stepped into ancient abodes that looked as if they had been abandoned yesterday. On the floors, we found “scores of potsherds” and “corncobs everywhere,” lying where the Anasazi had tossed them after harvesting the kernels for corn flour.

The discoveries came fast and furious during our drive along a gravel road through Mancos Valley. “Here, as early as 3,000 years ago,” the Anasazi decorated the canyon’s walls by scraping into the sandstone “petroglyph panels of humanoids, bighorn sheep, and abstract grids.” We stopped the car again and again to jump out and study “one stunning frieze after another,” including a “chief with a bona fide warbonnet” and a sun weeping tears. Because such rock art is rare in nearby Mesa Verde, I was glad once more that the tribal park is relatively unknown, a little secret between the Anasazi and me.

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