Sunday, April 06, 2008

New Mexico and Colorado ancient indian ruins

Chaco, in Northwestern New Mexico, is the more pristine, deliberately kept difficult to reach by the decision to leave the entrance road mostly unpaved — which also leaves it sometimes impassable after rain. (At one point we ended up in the middle of a storm-created gully and the rental car nearly got stuck. Yes, the ranger we'd called ahead had advised an SUV would be "more comfortable," but she'd also said "most of the time" the road is navigable, and with the cost of gas, well ... )

You can view most of the ruins by walking the trails off a nine-mile loop road through the canyon. In late August, we saw a few small groups of tourists but much of the time we had the place nearly to ourselves.

Mesa Verde, in Southwest Colorado, has the more dramatic setting, atop a mesa reached by a winding mountain road 15 miles from the park entrance, with spectacular views of mountains beyond and valleys below. Its archaeological sites are tucked into canyons throughout the park, with one main area, Wetherill Mesa, a steep, 45-minute drive from the visitors' center and lodge, and the other, Chapin Mesa, about 15 minutes in a different direction.

The archaeological sites: Great houses vs. cliff dwellings

Chaco's main draw is Pueblo Bonito, one of the most extensively excavated and studied sites in North America. Center of the Chacoan world and occupied from the mid-800s to 1200s, it was a four-story masonry "great house" with more than 600 rooms and 40 kivas.

Cliff Palace is Mesa Verde's largest and best-known site, and North America's largest cliff dwelling, with 150 rooms (you climb five 8-10-foot ladders and can descend into one of its kivas).

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